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SOS Rhino : In the News : Uganda struggles to restock its rhinos

Uganda struggles to restock its rhinos

  By Henry Wasswa
Deutsche Presse Agentur
Published: Sunday August 27, 2006

Kampala- When a chartered Martinair cargo plane arrived at Uganda's Entebbe International airport, its two young adult white rhino passengers showed no signs of fatigue as they were disembarked. They had flown thousands of miles from the United States, via Amsterdam. Gigantic fork lifts loaded them, still in crates, onto the waiting trucks.

They were immediately driven to a rhino sanctuary in the remote Nakitoma village, 180 kilometres north-west of Kampala, where they began their new life last Wednesday.

"They were brought in nice wooden crates which were reinforced with metallic bar frames and with a good ventilation system," said Patrick Atimnedi, a vet with the state-owned Uganda Wildlife Authority UWA.

"They were okay, and were even standing. All the way there was water and hay and bedding in form of cushions because, as it was a four-day journey, they would go down a bit. I did not even use sedatives on them on the way to the sanctuary."

The rhinos - Nande, a seven-year-old female and Hasani, a five- year-old male - were donated by Disney's Animal Kingdom Park in Florida.

The aim is to help Ugandan authorities restock the country's rhino population which was depleted during and shortly after the chaotic regime of former military dictator Idi Amin.

The two animals, together weighing slightly over 7 tons, are now nipping away the grass in Zziwa Ranchers where they joined four other rhinos brought in from neighbouring Kenya early this year.

In 1960, Uganda had a population of 300 white rhinos. Stocks began scaling down during Amin's bloody eight-year rule during which state operatives along with poachers pounced on the animals in the game parks, killing the animals for for their horns.

There is no single rhino in Uganda's wild today. The last was seen in 1983, four years after Amin's fall. Three years ago authorities began a donor-supported programme to reintroduce the animals.

There are only eight of them in two of the sanctuaries operating under a project in which the rhinos are bred and will be let out into the wild in the future.

"We used to have rhinos here but the country's political past contributed to their depletion. We get offers like that from Disney and in other circumstances, we buy them," Atimnedi said.

"We have to breed them and the ultimate goal is to increase their numbers. It takes 16 months' pregnancy for the female rhino and in this case you need many females," he added.

Conservationists are reluctant to release the existing rhinos into the wild as they are worried that the people who helped deplete their cousins are still alive. They have come up with a solution: Educating the masses around the parks on conservation.

"Before we act, we have to do a lot of things," said Andrew Seguya, executive director of another state-owned body, Uganda Wildlife Education Centre, UWEC. "We have to make sure that there is conservation awareness in place."

UWEC, 42 kilometres south of Kampala, is home to the two other white rhinos which were brought into the country from Kenya three years ago.

"Next year, we are starting an environment education programme among the communities around river Kafu," Seguya said.

"We will teach them how to conserve the rhinos and tell them how difficult it is to reintroduce them after their depletion. After that, we will be confident enough to reintroduce them into the wild."

One thing wildlife officials are quietly sure of is that once humans leave them alone, these giants can fend themselves against other potential predators, They are good fighters.

"Man has been their greatest enemy. Being stout and big with defensive horns, they can withstand predators. However, there are some incidents when lions can grab their young," Atimnedi said.

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