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Kenya Using Lion Contraceptive to Protect Black Rhinos From Predator

FILE - A group of lionesses walk the plain in the Masai Mara game reserve in Kenya.
FILE - A group of lionesses walk the plain in the Masai Mara game reserve in Kenya.

Kenya's Wildlife Service (KWS) is coming under fire after it began implanting contraceptives in lionesses to protect endangered species. KWS says fewer lion births means fewer predators hunting wildlife at risk of extinction. But conservationists point out that lions themselves are dwindling in number and say there are better ways to protect endangered animals.

Kenya’s wildlife managing authority KWS is defending the use of contraceptives on six lionesses in Lewa Conservancy in northwest Laikipia County.

The service’s director of biodiversity research and planning, Patrick Omondi, says they had to use an implant to curb the breeding of lions to save the rhinos.

“We have less than 1,000 black rhinos in Kenya, and if you lose in a year four of them because of lions, again is a delicate balance and all this we do we take the interest of the species at heart as wildlife management authority,” said Omondi.

The hormone contraceptive will work for one year for the six lionesses aged five. Kenya has at least 2,000 lions in the country.

Philip Muruthi is the vice president of species conservation and science at the Africa Wildlife Foundation. He says any measures taken to limit the population of animals should be used with caution.

“I think what we are coming to is that it can be done, it can be a tool, but it has to be done very carefully, it's not your first choice tool.... You don’t just give a contraceptive to the animal without tracking whether it's working,” said Muruthi. "There are some dangers in it, remember the animal has to be tranquilized and so every capture has got its misgiving.”

Kenya’s wildlife is also threatened by attacks from poachers and the communities living around the animal parks.

Muruthi says one option is to move the animals to new habitats further away from endangered species.

But Omondi of KWS says that isn’t always a good idea.

“Movement of predators is not really recommended because they take time to settle in new areas, they end straying outside the protected area and they end being killed in new areas where they range,” said Omondi.

In 2018, eight black rhinos out of 14 transferred to the Tsvo East national park died after drinking salty water.

Omondi says if the contraceptives work, it will be an option that KWS considers when trying to manage lion populations.

The Africa Wildlife Foundation estimates that in the last two decades, the continent’s lion population has decreased 43 percent, down to just 23,000.