Above:Karanja the black rhino – his skeleton next to a model of a white rhino – copyright Rupi Mangat
Pubished 17 November 2018
In keeping with his celebrity status, Karanja the black rhino charmed important dignitaries that included the ambassadors to Kenya from Italy, Ethiopia and Algeria, researchers, curious guests and all to his opening day on 31 October 2018 at the Nairobi National Museum.
Karanja the black rhino passed away aged 43 years in the iconic Maasai Mara National Reserve on Christmas Eve 2014. He was the oldest in the reserve and a great favourite, easily recognizable by his long tightly-matted hair-horns.
Relaxed around tourists, he beat the poaching era that saw most of his ilk killed in the reserve. From 120 black rhinos in 1971, there were only 18 survivors by 1984 – the rest felled by poachers to fuel the insane trade in rhino horn to the Far East where the belief persists that rhino horn can cure so many illnesses.
At this point you want to tell the quacks to advise their patients to chew their nails or hair because the rhino horn is not a true horn but tightly bound hair that contains the same ingredients as human hair or nails – keratin.
I’m meeting Karanja now immortalized at the museum thanks to the two men who saw to it that he was carefully pieced together lest we forget the plight of the rhino.
“I was reading the newspaper at home,” told Paolo Torchio, “when l saw that Karanja had died.”
Torchio is an award-winning wildlife photographer and for the last thirty years Kenya has been his home. A passionate naturalist, he knew that an animal like Karanja, a survivor of a holocaust could be a ‘spokesperson’ even in death for his species. His wife Magali’ Manconi was just as excited and the couple approached Dr. Ogeto Mwebi, the senior research scientist and head of Osteology section at the National Museums of Kenya.
“At first l said it was not possible,” continued Dr Ogeto standing by Karanja. He already had quite a run-in with Karanja who arrived three days after his demise in Nairobi and it was Christmas time. “There was no staff and l was asked to ensure that Karanja was taken care of.”
This meant cleaning up his bones so that they could be stored in the osteology section that collects and preserves modern skeletons of all vertebrates from all over the world. The collection is used by researchers from various fields such as zoology, veterinary and human medicine, forensic science, paleontology and archaeology. The museum boasts a collection of 13,000 skeletons.
So as the Christmas carol goes, ‘on the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me…’, Ogeto was at the museum with an animal weighing more than a ton.
“I had to bury it, but l was all alone,” he narrated. Long story short, the scientist gathered casual labourers to cut open the rhino and de-skin it because it had rotted in the sun. The rhino let out powerful gases like sulphuric acid which saw the doctor fall sick. Nevertheless Karanja was buried at the museum and a year later exhumed with the bones now clean.
“Then Dr Ogeto suddenly called me to say that it was a good idea to have Karanja mounted,” recalled Torchio. “But the problem was that there was no money to do that.” Torchio who is Italian approached the Italian embassy in Nairobi who happily provided the funds for the project while he documented the process with his camera.
“How does one begin putting a rhino together?” l asked the men looking at Karanja.
“With a pile of bones on the floor,” replied Torchio.
It needed the expertise of someone like Ogeto with his team of four to assemble the bones. “It’s trial and error,” explains Ogeto.
And they burst out laughing. “If you don’t know what you are doing, you can create a completely new animal,” joked Torchio.
“It’s the second time that a rhino has been mounted in Kenya by an all-Kenyan team,” stated Ogeto.
In a gallery full of other skeletons of creatures including the gigantic sperm whale and dainty python, l asked about the whale skeleton that filled my eyes as a child. I was so awed by the giant.
“It was dismantled when the museum was re-modelled and the bones stored in a metal container,” told Ogeto.
Someone then emptied the container and threw the bones in a wooden crate where they rotted away and we lost an amazing creature of the great oceans. Ignorance kills.
Karanja is now a permanent resident at the Nairobi Museum, so visit him and be awed by priceless collection around you.
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China has postponed its decision to now open trade in rhino horn and tiger bones for medical use that could easily see the poaching days return unless governments step in to increase the rangers and all who guard the critically endangered animals.