The eight rhinos were among 11 that were moved from the Nairobi and Nakuru national parks to Tsavo East National Park, in a process known as translocation, and designed to boost depleting rhino population in the country.
“This kind of mortality rate is unprecedented,” Mulie Muia, director of communications Kenya Tourism Ministry, said adding that postmortem examination and forensic investigations into the incident has begun.
Kenya’s WildlifeDirect has called the rhino’s death “a major conservation tragedy” calling on the government to be transparent and adopt the best practices when relocating animals.
“It’s a disaster, we’ve never had that many rhinos killed in such an operation, that’s nearly 80% of them killed in this operation.
“We have lost one percent of our rhinos in less than a week, that’s like decades of conservation effort gone,” Paula Kahumbu, Chief Executive Officer, WildLifeDirect told CNN.
A preliminary investigation into the incident showed that they died of salt poisoning in their new environment, according to Muia.
It is thought moving rhinos from a freshwater environment into a new one with saltwater is part of the challenges of relocating the animals.
“Moving rhinos is complicated, akin to moving gold bullion, it requires extremely careful planning and security due to the value of these rare animals,” conservationist Kahumbu of WildlifeDirect said in a statement.
“Rhino translocations also have major welfare considerations, and I dread to think of the suffering that these poor animals endured before they died.”
She added: “We’re all very anxious for the remaining three — that they may not survive either if eight have died and if it was the salt water then the remaining three are very much at risk.”
Kenya’s tourism minister, Najib Balala has now suspended the translocation of rhinos in the country.
“Disciplinary action will definitely be taken if the findings point towards negligence or unprofessional misconduct on the part of any KWS officers,” said Muia.
“We will make the investigation results public as soon as we receive them,” he added.
Kenya transported 149 rhinos between 2005 and 2017 with eight deaths, the wildlife ministry said.
The critically endangered species have been hit hard by poachers who supply their horns to Asia where they are used for medicinal purposes.
The western black rhino was declared extinct seven years ago as a result of poaching.