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SOS Rhino : In the News : Rescue mission starts for DRC's white rhinos
 

Rescue mission starts for DRC's white rhinos

  Mail&Guardian online

Nairobi, Kenya

17 January 2005 17:24

Five of the last remaining highly endangered northern white rhinos in the wild are to be airlifted from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to Kenya in coming weeks to protect them from extinction at the hands of poachers.

The rhinos, from the DRC's Garamba National Park where their population has been decimated in recent years by poachers and civil war, are to be moved to a wildlife reserve in Kenya, a lead conservationist on the project said.

"We shall be flying the rhinos as soon they can be safely captured," said Kes Hillman Smith, the Nairobi-based coordinator of the Rhino Project at the International Rhino Foundation (IRF), also an adviser at the Garamba park.

"This is the safest means of securing the sub-species from extinction," she said, adding that the DRC government approved the step last week after being informed of the rhinos' precarious continued existence.

Kinshasa has approved the rescue and removal of five adult and juvenile northern white rhinos -- two males and three females -- from Garamba, which has been a prime target for poachers particularly since mid-2003.

The plan calls for the rhinos to be tranquillised before the start of the rainy season in February and flown by military transport plane or helicopter to a private reserve near Mount Kenya in central Kenya.

In April 2004, Garamba was home to about 30 northern white rhinos but conservationists believe there are now fewer than 10, only four of which have actually been spotted, Hillman Smith said.

Last year, officials reported finding nine rhino carcasses with their horns cut off in the park and discovered a group of armed horsemen from Sudan leading a pack of donkeys laden with rhino horn and ivory out of the preserve.

"Massive poaching, mainly from Sudan, has increased uncontrollably in the last two years, despite huge efforts to counteract it," the IRF said. "The rhinos are threatened with extinction within the next few months unless action is taken to avoid it."

Poachers are motivated by the lucrative illegal market for rhino horn, used in traditional Chinese medicine and for ceremonial daggers in the Middle East. Trade in rhino horn has been banned internationally since 1977, but the substance sells for upwards of $1 200 (R7 200) per kilogram, according to the IRF.

Some conservationists have expressed concern that the lucrative trade may be fuelling the conflict in neighbouring Sudan's western region of Darfur.

Aside from Garamba's rapidly diminishing population of northern white rhinos, there are only 10 of the sub-species -- four males and six females -- now in captivity, seven in the Czech Republic and three in San Diego in California.

Only four of those have been born in captivity, leading scientists to believe that without breeding in the wild, the northern white rhino will cease to exist



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