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SOS Rhino : In the News : Time running out on rare beast

Time running out on rare beast

  The northern white rhino could be poached to extinction in months
Tuesday, June 15, 2004


LONDON -- The northern white rhino, one of the world's rarest and most endangered animals, could be extinct in the wild within months unless poaching by Sudanese rebels stops, conservationists said as they launched an appeal for funds last month.

The world's 25 or so remaining wild white rhinos all live in the Garamba National Park, a United Nations World Heritage Site on the northern border of the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire, with Sudan.

The Garamba National Park, an area of immense savanna grassland and woodland, has long been a magnet for poachers who prey on its rich wildlife, which also includes elephants, hippos, buffalo and chimpanzees.

The U.N. cultural heritage body UNESCO runs a project to protect wildlife from the effects of violence in Congo, which is struggling to emerge from a devastating five-year regional conflict that killed at least 3 million people, mostly from starvation and disease.

Around half of the hippos and elephants in Garamba were poached for their ivory during the "liberation war" of 1997 and the struggle for control that followed it, according to the Daily Telegraph (London). Now, as civil war from Sudan spills into the area, the rhinos join both the species as a cause for concern for conservationists.

The northern white rhino is one of the world's 12 most endangered species. The great beast is genetically distinct from the population of white rhinos in southern Africa.

In the 1940s, there were at least 6,000 northern whites in Africa, but that number has steadily dwindled. There were 30 northern white rhinos in Garamba in April last year.

Since then, six have been killed and four born. Two of the remaining rhinos and 12 elephants were found dead in April. A thousand elephants out of a population of around 7,000 have been poached in Garamba, Kes Hillman-Smith, a coordinator of the Garamba National Park Project, told a meeting at London Zoo last month.

Hillman-Smith said poaching had increased as Sudanese rebels said to be from the area of conflict around Darfur hunt down the rhinos for their valuable horns and tusks.

"It is the first time they (poachers) have come into Garamba," said Hillman-Smith, in London for the meeting organized by the UK Save The Rhino group. "It's a worrying situation if the poaching continues at such an alarming rate," she told Reuters.

"Unless there is a major level of support, we are going to lose the last population of northern white rhinos," Hillman-Smith said. "We urgently need more funds to bring in better equipment."

Hillman-Smith worked in Garamba for 20 years but now lives in Nairobi, Kenya, because of fears for her security, according to the Western Daily Press.

Once out of the park, the poachers are thought to head to the southern Sudanese town of Yambio, where traders buy ivory and rhino horn from the Congo and Central African Republic.

The rhino horn has a ready market in Yemen, where rhino-horn dagger handles are a status symbol. The horns sell for more than $7,400 a pair, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

Park rangers in Congo say that they are unable to protect the animals against the heavily armed rebels. In May, two forest guards and three rebels were believed killed in a bloody exchange of bullets.

In what U.N. officials call one of the world's worst crises, a million Sudanese have been affected by fighting in Darfur since rebels took up arms last year seeking a share of power and the country's oil revenue; 10,000 people have died. Pro-government Arab militias are fighting the rebels, but their attacks target mainly tribal African civilians.

The rebels, allied to those active in the unsettled south, have accused the Sudanese government of neglecting the impoverished area and arming the Arab militias. An April cease-fire in Darfur failed to hold.

The conflict has also displaced about 900,000 refugees in Darfur's three states, and another 100,000 have fled into neighboring Chad.

The United Nations is racing to vaccinate more than 2 million children against measles in the violence-torn region of Darfur in an immunization campaign that could save 50,000 lives, it said in Geneva last week.

Aid agencies warn that hundreds of thousands of people face death from hunger and disease in the vast territory of Darfur.

The United Nations' World Food Program has appealed for $230.5 million to feed displaced people who have fled the fighting in Darfur.

"Unless the international community responds swiftly and generously, the response to the Darfur crisis will not be enough to prevent a major humanitarian disaster," Ramiro Lopes da Silva, WFP's Sudan country director, said in a statement in Geneva last week.

Associated Press contributed to this report.

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