17 January 2005

Endangered white rhinos to be moved to Kenya

Kinshasa - Five of the few northern white rhinos left in the wild will be flown from Democratic Republic of Congo to prevent poachers wiping them out, conservationists said on Saturday.

Fewer than 10 of the rhinos are believed to remain and with heavily armed poachers carrying out frequent raids in the wilds of northeastern Congo, moving the beasts to sanctuary in Kenya is deemed the only option to guarantee their survival.

"Although we've all been against the idea of the rhinos going elsewhere it is now necessary," said Kes Hillman Smith, head of monitoring at Congo's Garamba National Park after the government approved the move this week.

"Although huge efforts are being put into conservation, it is not working fast enough," she said. "The poachers are still winning and there are not enough rhinos to last out at this rate."

The minimum number of rhinos spotted in park surveys has plummeted from 30 in April 2003 to just four at the end of last year. Nine, including a pregnant female and a young calf, were found dead in 2004.

Poachers usually hack off rhino horns, which are valued in East Asia for medical purposes, and leave the carcasses to rot.

There are reports of other rhinos outside the park, but the total left in the wild is thought to be under 10, making the northern white rhinos the most endangered large mammal on earth. Another 10 live in captivity but are not reproducing.

"The idea is to hold, safeguard and increase the population so we can eventually return more than we took out when the park is secure again," Hillman Smith said, adding that three females and two males would be darted and moved within a month.

Despite decades of war-related poaching by gunmen from Sudan and Congo, local and international conservationists have long managed to protect rhinos and elephants in the park.

Rangers have fought off southern Sudanese rebels who had poached bushmeat from the former Zaire to fund their 21-year insurgency in the mainly Christian and animist south.

But the crisis has been exacerbated by northern Sudanese poachers who hail from the same ethnic group as the Janjaweed Arab militia accused of raping and killing in Darfur.

Last year, they began crossing into Congo on horseback, slaughtering rhinos and taking their horns back to Sudan.

"Sending (the rhinos) elsewhere is a win-win situation. We protect the remaining rhinos, which are part of Congo's heritage, and we improve the security of the park so they can be returned home and it remains a world heritage site," Hillman Smith said.


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