Review of WWF's role in the reintroduction of black rhinos to Tsavo East National Park

Posted on 23 September 2019


In June-July 2018, the Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS) attempted to translocate 11 Eastern black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis michaeli) to a new sanctuary established in Tsavo East National Park (TENP) in Kenya.  The operation resulted in the tragic loss of all the rhinos, with a statement issued by the Kenyan government on 26 July 2018 identifying the cause of death as multiple stress syndrome. Given that WWF provided financial support to the KWS - the state agency responsible for the management of Kenya’s wildlife - for both the translocation and the construction of the sanctuary, we contracted two independent consultants to undertake a review into WWF’s role in the operation.    

WWF is deeply saddened by the loss of these rhinos. There has also been concern in the conservation world that the unsuccessful outcome of this operation could have a negative impact on rhino translocation work more generally. The translocation of rhino has been a cornerstone of the species’ recovery to date, and is a critical tool used for many other species, so it is vital that lessons from this failed operation are used to inform future translocation work, both within and beyond the WWF network of offices. WWF has been involved for many years in successful rhino translocation and re-introduction programmes elsewhere across Africa and Asia and it is vital that this work continues.

The purpose of this review was to learn from the experience and identify best practice in terms of the preparation, due diligence and risk assessments to be carried out for future translocations. The key findings of the review and its recommendations on future best practice are outlined below,  with the latter forming the basis of our revised network-wide Translocation Taskforce and Guidelines on Wildlife Translocations and Animal Handling. 

The key findings of the review were as follows:


  • WWF needs to implement a more standardised process for future translocation work in which it is involved - whether it be as a partner or as an implementer - to mitigate risks.  While protocols were in place, they were not clear enough in terms of allocating roles and responsibilities, especially in a complex operation with many stakeholders.
  • Working relationships between different WWF offices and external partners relied heavily on previous experience, institutional memory and mutual trust. They would have benefitted from the implementation of clearly defined project agreements - including between WWF offices. While a general Memorandum of Understanding between WWF Kenya and KWS establishing the basis for collaboration was in place, a specific project agreement for the operation would have helped to ensure compliance with standards and further mitigated risk.
  • When working with implementing partners, WWF needs to play a more proactive role in ensuring that compliance with the highest standards of project management is met. Moreover, with the wealth of technical expertise it possesses, WWF should also play a more active role in overseeing translocation operations that are being carried out with partner organisations.

Best Practices 

WWF is committed to incorporating the following recommendations identified by the consultants  to strengthen its existing practices related to wildlife translocations and animal handling. These practices were employed during the most recent Black Rhino Range Expansion Project (BRREP) rhino translocation project that WWF was involved in, which saw 20 black rhinos successfully translocated in South Africa in August 2019, and will be used in all future translocation projects in which WWF is involved.Project Governance: 

a) Project Governance: 
For all projects that involve partnerships with government agencies and come with high risks, a Project Governance Framework that provides clarity on roles and responsibilities and accountability mechanisms within and between funding offices and implementing offices, should be part of the Programme Management Standards. Specific Project Agreements should build on existing protocols, by clearly stipulating the roles, responsibilities and accountability of each of the parties on the design, implementation and delivery of results.  

b) Project Planning, Design and Implementation:
Conservation Projects must be embedded in species action plans (e.g. IUCN SSC Groups), national planning processes (e.g. state biodiversity management plans) and be prioritised in relevant fora and committees. Project planning phases must include critical evaluation of previous projects undertaken to ensure all necessary lessons have been learned and should involve external review. 

Planning a major conservation project that has risks should involve WWF technical staff or external expertise as required during key stages of project development, even when WWF’s role is as the funder and not in direct project delivery. Clear risk assessments should be produced along with measures to address any threats, with reviews in place to determine that these threats have been adequately tackled. In instances where individual WWF offices may not have sufficient technical ability to carry out these complex exercises independently, project teams with necessary external expertise should be established.  

c) Partnership Agreements: 
WWF offices must collaborate based on standard principles of partnership (shared values, mutual trust, mutual accountability, power sharing and empowerment). The broader WWF network must be kept informed and given the opportunity to provide expert knowledge and to influence project design and implementation.  

d) Programme Management Standards Review:
WWF International will be using the lessons from the review to reassess programme management standards and develop systems in which adherence to standards is ensured for ‘high risk’ projects.

e) Translocation Taskforce and Guidelines:
In future, improved internal translocation guidelines and a proposed Translocation Taskforce must be used to ensure that projects are assessed against relevant procedures. The process must include approval of all activity-specific relevant documents such as habitat and water suitability, security assessments, and other evaluations as required. Decisions around site selection, forms of capture, transportation and release should be undertaken with the involvement of suitably qualified WWF staff and external experts using the translocation guidelines to ensure best practice. 

f) Project Oversight:
Certain WWF teams are highly skilled and experienced in rhino translocations in key locations in Africa and Asia, and best practice must include future consultations with these professionals and, where appropriate, their extended networks.

In addition, project leads for translocations and reintroductions must have oversight of all technical aspects of the project based on outputs from the proposed Translocation Taskforce with full support of Senior Management and external expertise, as well as a mandate to veto projects if conditions do not meet the necessary criteria . The workload of the project lead must be managed in order to enable them to fully undertake their responsibilities.

Next steps

The Translocation Taskforce and Guidelines have been made available as resources within the WWF network to support future projects.