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Rhinos threatened by fighting in Congo

Only 25 white rhinos were counted in Garamba during the last aerial survey of the population last May.
Only 25 white rhinos were counted in Garamba during the last aerial survey of the population last May.

December 18, 1998
Web posted at: 3:55 PM EST

By Environmental News Network staff

(ENN) -- Increased violence and ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo is threatening the last few Northern White Rhinos, according World Wildlife Fund. The group believes the animals are precariously close to extinction, and may be wiped out because of the fighting.

A Nov. 27 attack on a park ranger patrol in the rhino sector of Garamba National Park in northeastern DRC left three park guards injured and scared WWF, who is trying to send assistance to the area.

According to information provided by park staff in the area, the attackers seemed to be part of a group linked to the Sudanese People's Liberation Army.

"The situation is critical. We are trying to deliver food and medicine to park staff who are courageously trying to continue monitoring the situation of the rhinos in spite of the difficulties imposed by the war," said Dr. Claude Martin, director general of WWF. "However, this attack and the fact that it happened in the heart of the rhino territory lead us to believe that the world may have to prepare itself for the loss of a unique rhino subspecies."

Only 25 rhinos were counted in Garamba during the last aerial survey of the population last May. Since Aug. 2, when the current hostilities broke out, the entire Oriental Province was subsequently occupied by the Ugandan army and no other reconnaissance flights have been possible. With park vehicles put out of circulation by the war, all conservation work in the 5,000-hectare rhino area must be carried out on foot.

"We are calling on the forces of the SPLA and the Ugandan Army to do everything in their power to reduce the risk of this extinction taking place at the hands of people profiting from the disruption in patrolling activities," said Dr. Martin.

Like all other rhinos, the Northern White Rhino is a potential target for poachers attracted by the high prices rhino horn commands on the international black market. WWF fears that the combination of high quantities of firearms with a severe reduction in patrolling and conservation activities in Garamba could mean the end for the Northern White Rhino in the wild.

"At this stage it is impossible to tell what the real situation of the rhinos is. We have received indirect reports of some rhino deaths, but the current state of affairs makes verification impossible," Martin said. In addition to helping provide supplies to the beleaguered Garamba park staff, WWF is continuing to support two rear bases outside the park, to allow for a quick resumption of patrolling and conservation activities as soon as the current situation improves.

Overall, there are two species of rhino in Africa, the Black Rhino -- found mostly in southern Africa, Kenya and Cameroon -- and the White Rhino. While the DRC's Northern White Rhino is the most endangered of the two subspecies of White Rhino, the Southern White Rhino is much more numerous and is found mostly in southern Africa.

Garamba National Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981 and placed on the 'Heritage in Danger' list in 1996.

Copyright 1998, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved

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