The Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS) has halted the relocation of black rhinos to a new sanctuary after eight of the animals died soon after arriving at the site. Investigators are trying to determine what went wrong at the sanctuary, located in Kenya's Tsavo East National Park.
According to the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife, a preliminary investigation attributes the deaths to salt poisoning. They say the rhinos apparently drank water of high salinity in the new environment.
KWS had recently transferred the rhinos from two other national parks, in an effort to create a safe breeding ground for the country's blackrhinopopulation.
KWS spokesman Paul Gathitu told VOA earlier this week that all measures were in place to ensure the rhinos were comfortable in the new habitat.
"There has to be sufficient food, it has to be correct in terms of weather, in terms of water that is available, so all those factors had to be put in place including even the issue of security of the rhinos themselves. All that put together, we felt that the conditions were about right," said Gathitu.
The eight dead rhinos were among 11 that had been moved to the new sanctuary.
Paula Kahumbu, the CEO of Wildlife Direct, said the deaths equal one percent of Kenya's black rhino population.
"It is an unprecedented disaster," said Kahumbu. "We have never seen anything like it before and so we are very anxious and very worried and many citizens and concerned persons in this country has been calling for an investigation."
Kenyans on social media expressed outrage and suspicion at the deaths. One Twitter user wrote, "Can photos of the dead rhinos be shared to ascertain the horns are intact?"
Poachers have killed hundreds of the animals in recent years to satisfy black market demand for rhino horn.
KWS has moved rhinos from one park to another in the past without incident, and successfully immobilized many rhinos for medical treatment.
Tourism and wildlife officials are waiting for a full postmortem report on the deceased rhinos.
In the meantime, the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife says the remaining rhinos are being closely monitored by veterinary and park management teams and are being provided with fresh water in temporary pans.