A species threatened by avarice of man

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It has been coming for a long time – the first extinction of what zoologists refer to, ironically, as the Charismatic Megafauna, the group of big wild animals that have always captured our imagination, from lions and tigers to elephants and giraffes.

And if it cannot be stopped by the revolutionary technique that we report on today, the disappearance of the northern white rhino will mark a milestone in man's unhappy impact on the natural world.

It will show that, despite the most tremendous conservation efforts, some of the great beasts of the Earth simply cannot be saved.

The moment may nearly be here. The northern white rhino is a creature that is now as close to the brink of extinction as it is possible to get without toppling over, with perhaps as few as three animals left in the wild, and a tiny population of less than a dozen held in zoos across the US and Eastern Europe, which is probably non-viable from a breeding point of view.

The wild animals have the misfortune to exist in a single site, the Garamba National Park, which lies in one of the most war-torn countries in the world, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), near the border of another such ravaged land, Sudan.

The collapse of civil order in so much of Africa in recent decades has been the bane of this species, which, besides the DRC, once ranged over north-west Uganda, southern Chad, south-western Sudan and the eastern side of the Central African Republic.

As late as the early Sixties, there were thought to be about 2,000 northern white rhinos left but, during the next 20 years, poaching started to take a toll and eventually devastated the population until, by 1984, the numbers were down to 15. The poaching was driven by a specific demand – for rhino horn, which was used to make dagger handles in Yemen.

International efforts were then focused on saving the animal and, under a strictly monitored protection regime, the numbers climbed back to about 30 by 1993. But then the Rwandan genocide spilled over into civil war in the DRC, and preserving wildlife became both a much lower priority for the Congolese government and a much more dangerous affair for park wardens.

Several of the guards at Garamba have been killed in clashes with poachers, and the enforcement regime in this desperately poor country has simply not been able to prevent the rhino's slide towards extinction.

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