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SOS Rhino : In the News : Poachers Threaten Last Wild Northern White Rhinos

Poachers Threaten Last Wild Northern White Rhinos

  Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
May 7, 2004

A dramatic rise in poaching in the Democratic Republic of Congo's Garamba National Park is threatening to destroy the last wild population of northern white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum cottoni), conservationists warn.

Warring factions from neighboring Sudan have reached the heart of the park and are killing both rhinos and elephants for their valuable horns and tusks. Six rhino carcasses have been found in the last two months, and more rhinos could have been slaughtered.

Before the recent killings, the northern white rhino population was estimated at only 33. If urgent action is not taken to combat the upsurge in poaching, conservationists say, the rhino population could be wiped out in six months.

"If this situation continues, it will be a disaster for the park," Paulin Tshikaya, the head warden of Garamba National Park, said in a telephone interview from Kinshasa, Congo. "At the moment we cannot protect the park from this poaching."

Wildlife Jewel

Established in 1938, Garamba is one of the oldest national parks in Africa. Located in the northeastern corner of Congo, it is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The park is mainly undulating grassland. It is home to over 7,000 elephants, 3,000 buffaloes and 150 giraffes. But its real calling card is the endangered northern white rhino, which has been exterminated in all of its former habitats in central Africa.

"From a conservation standpoint, it is one of the most important places in Africa," said Richard Ruggiero, the Africa program officer for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. "It's a jewel about to be plucked out of the crown."

Poaching has long been a problem in Garamba National Park. Only 15 rhinos remained in 1984. A vigilant anti-poaching campaign led to the doubling of the population by 1995. But more recently, the war that has crippled Sudan for much of the last 40 years has taken an increasing toll on the park's wildlife.

A few years ago, rebels from the Sudanese People Liberation Army (SPLA) moved into the park and began poaching for bushmeat. Most of the larger wildlife has been eliminated in the northern two thirds of the park.


Since June 2003, there has been a massive upsurge in poaching in the southern section of the park, and a switch from primarily meat poaching to ivory and rhino horn.

One South African conservationist, Frasier Smith, who has worked in Garamba for more than 20 years, recently flew over the park and saw many carcasses of dead female elephants and rhinos with their bewildered babies standing next to them.

In recent months, hundreds of elephants have been killed. Park guards have encountered organized northern Sudanese militia fighters„perhaps allied with the Sudanese government in Khartoum„who are using trains and horses to transport ivory and rhino horn into Sudan.

Conservationists say they have seen the same type of systematic elimination of wildlife in other countries in the region, such as the Central African Republic and Chad.

These Sudanese horsemen are "professional destroyers of nature," Ruggiero said. "Since they have poached out just about every other area, they are now focusing on one of the last vestiges of wildlife and that is Garamba."

Ruggiero says there may be as few as 12 northern white rhinos left in Garamba.

Military Solution

There are currently 150 park guards in Garamba, which is run by the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature and funded by a consortium of international donor organizations.

In the absence of any Congolese military presence, says park warden Tshikaya, the Sudanese factions are firmly entrenched in the park. His park guards lack the resources to combat the poachers.

Conservationists are urging international governments to confront both the Sudanese government and the rebels about the rampant poaching. While there is no evidence of direct involvement by the Sudanese government, experts believe there are individuals in the regime who may be buying rhino horns.

In the long run, conservationists say, a political solution is needed. In the short run, however, logistical and military support is needed to prevent an environmental disaster.

"We could very well see the extinction of the northern white rhino in the next six months," said Mike Fay, a Wildlife Conservation Society biologist and National Geographic Society conservation fellow. "This isn't an extremist alarm call. This is what's happening in Garamba."

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