'I Dreamed of Africa' author accused over deaths of black rhinos

A glamorous Italian-born writer and land-owner, whose life story was turned into a movie starring Kim Basinger, is in the middle of an environmental storm after four rare black rhinos died on arrival at her Kenyan farm.

Kuki Gallman became well known after she wrote a syrupy autobiography, I Dreamed of Africa, which tells of how she came to Kenya and decided to stay even after her husband and son met violent deaths there.

After the book was turned into a film in 2000, visitors began to flock to her ranch Ol Ari Nyiro (Place of Dark Waters) to stay in luxurious cottages and gaze at the scenery she described. She now focuses on environmental work, and hosts operas with the Rift Valley as a backdrop.

The Kenya Wildlife Service agreed to send 10 rhinos from Nairobi National Park her 100,000-acre ranch after she promised to provide a safe environment in which they could roam. But four of the animals died of acute pneumonia shortly after arrival, and wildlife experts complained they had not been given suitable holding pens.

Many white farmers in Laikipia have cut back on unprofitable cattle-rearing and turned to eco-tourism. Western tourists pay up to £200 a night to stay in luxury accommodation and drive around in four-wheel-drives looking for animals. Ranches that offer the chance to spot endangered animals such as rhinos are especially popular, and most land-owners are keen to host rhinos, lions and hippos.

The deaths of these black rhinos have, however, raised questions about the whole system of giving private landowners rare wildlife.

Most experts say Ms Gallman should have made better preparations for the rhinos' arrival. "The air in Laikipia is much colder than in Nairobi, and rhinos are always weaker after they travel long distances," said a source at one wildlife support group. "In Ol Ari Nyiro, the rhinos were put into muddy pens when they should have been allowed to acclimatise somewhere warm and dry after their journey."

The Kenya Wildlife Service, meanwhile, was accused of putting the demands of wealthy white farmers ahead of the welfare of the animals. Its spokesman, Connie Maina, said all procedures were followed, and it was baffled by the deaths. "We have put together a team of five people to look into the deaths, and at our overall rhino management policy," he said. "Kuki has other rhino on her ranch and they have done very well."

The rhino population in Kenya has been reduced dramatically by poachers, who sell the horn to buyers in the Far East, and there are now estimated to be only 435 black rhinos in the country. They are highly susceptible to changes in their environment, and they often become agitated if transported in crates. Many rhinos die while being taken from one place to another, but conservationists are deeply concerned about the loss of so many animals in one move.

Earlier this year, the wildlife service came under fire for plans to send hundreds of animals, including rhinos, to a zoo in Thailand. It is going ahead with the plan.

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