Solio Game Reserve

History

  • Solio Ranch is a privately owned game reserve in Kenya’s Rift Valley Province.
  • The ranch is home to many species, including buffalo, zebra, gazelles, and leopards, but it is geared predominantly towards rhino conservation.
  • The first five black rhinos moved into Solio in 1970.
  • In 1980, the ranch established a founder herd of 16 white rhinos.
  • Due to the success of the black rhino breeding program, the ranch had to expand from 55 to 68 square kilometers in 1991.
  • Solio’s success has attracted the unwanted attention of professional poachers; unfortunately, some of the protected animals have fallen victim. Over a period of five years, nine black rhinos were shot or caught in snares.
  • Solio is now the prime founder source for populations in national parks and private ranches across Kenya.

(Location of Solio within Kenya. Image recreated from an original on Wikipedia.)

Differences between the two rhino species

  • White rhinos (Ceratotherium simum) can be classified into two different subspecies; they weigh 1,440-3,600 kg and possess a wide, square lip that helps them graze grass. They are classified as near threatened, with only 20,170 animals left in the wild. As of 2009, Solio was home to 155 white rhinos.
  • Black rhinos (Diceros bicornis) can be classified into four different subspecies; they weigh 800-1,400 kg and possess a relatively small, hook-shaped lip that helps them browse leaves from trees and bushes. They are classified as critically endangered, with only 4,800 individuals left in the wild; as of 2009, Solio was home to 73 black rhinos.
  • Poachers are the greatest threat to both species of rhino.

(A group of rhinos lounging under an acacia tree in the company of warthogs. Image courtesy of Caitlin Kight.)

Management

  • In the early days of the ranch, rhinos roamed freely, with minimal human interference; however, due to significant increases in poaching, security at Solio had to be enhanced.
  • Significant man hours and vigilance are required to protect the rhinos from poachers.
  • In 2005, all the rhinos in the reserve were photographed and catalogued to make it possible for the park patrol group to recognize each individual in the field.
  • Rhinos and other animals in the park are protected by a 2 m fence that runs around the border of their habitat.
  • Habitat degradation has occurred because of the large size of the rhino population.
  • A survey of the rhinos’ food sources found that a major component of their diets is Acacia drepanolobium; other species have been almost completely depleted. Thus, biological management of the high-density rhino population was required to mitigate habitat degradation.
  • Translocations are an essential part of management.

(A lion lounges in a tree at Solio Game Reserve. According to Solio biologist Felix Patton, lions are a management issue because they sometimes kill and eat baby rhinos. Image courtesy of Caitlin Kight.)

Successes

  • Solio’s rhino breeding program has been highly successful.
  • By 2010, Solio had translocated 93 black and 52 white rhinos to other reserves, all the while maintaining its own healthy population.
  • A major part of Solio’s success simply comes from the high level of security and monitoring of the rhino population.

Funding

  • Solio is run on a commercial basis, with income from many parts of the ranch, such as high-quality beef and milk production, as well as exclusive tourist lodges.
  • This creates a consistent income, and does not leave the reserve exposed to uncertain donor incomes. Although important, donor incomes can run out at any time.
  • By having many commercial arms, the ranch can be sure that if one area does not bring in sufficient income, there are other areas that can compensate.

Future of Solio and the challenges it faces

  • The major breeding success of Solio ranch has created some management challenges for the park–namely, overpopulation and habitat degradation.
  • Habitat degradation has been addressed, though it is not yet clear whether management changes have yielded progress/improvements.
  • Originally, ecological models indicated that Solio had a carrying capacity of 42 rhinos. However, due to the complex combination of wetland areas and the low densities of competing browsers, it has been suggested that the park could hold 45-55 individuals.
  • High densities of resident rhinos have decreased breeding performance. When at the highest density (1.2 per square kilometer), rhinos had 3.8% breeding performance, which is well below the target of 5% set by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).
  • Solio responded by translocating rhinos to other reserves, with 24 Solio rhinos successfully moved to the nearby Ol Pejeta Conservancy in 2007.
  • The future looks bright for Solio and similar privately funded sanctuaries, but such sanctuaries cannot be considered a true success until rhinos have been restocked to their former distributions.
  • While demand for rhino horns remains high, restocking former habitats will always prove difficult. The draw of unmanned rhinos will be too much for the poachers to resist.

(Rhinos are not the only animals living at Solio; the ranch also has an impressive array of birds–including grey-crowned cranes such as this one. Image courtesy of Caitlin Kight.)

Content by: Rosemary Atuhaire, Adwait Mahesh Deshpande, Laura Higgs, Tristan Pett, Catriona Regnier-McKellar, Hannah Cole (MSc students)

References and further reading:

Emslie R (2006) Rhino Population sizes and trends. Pachyderm No.41
Martin, E.B.; Vigne, L (2003). Trade in rhino horn from eastern Africa to Yemen. Pachyderm 34: 75-­‐87, pls. 1-­‐7, tables 1-­‐4

Brett, R. A. (1990) The Black Rhino Sanctuaries of Kenya. Pachyderm, 13, 31-­‐34.

Patton, F (2010) Solio 1970-2010: 40 years of rhino conservation.Newsletter of the Laikipia Wildlife Forum. January 2010: 1.

Patton, F., Mulama, M.S., Mutisya, S., and Campbell, P.E. (2010) The colonization of a new area in the first six months following “same-day” free release translocation of black rhinos in Kenya. Pachyderm 47:66-80.

Patton, F., Campbell, P., and Parfet, E. (2008) Biological management of the high density black rhino population in Solio Game Reserve, central Kenya. Pachyderm 44:72-79.

Patton, F (2010) Solio: the heartbeat of rhino conservation for 40 years. Swara, Nairobi 2010 (3): 34-­‐37

Kenya Wildlife Service (2003) “Conservation and management strategy for the black rhino (Diceros bicornis michaeli) in Kenya (2001–2005) revised March 2003”, Kenya Wildlife Service, Nairobi.