White rhinos radio back from edge of extinction

Wildlife rangers in Zaire are using a new weapon in their war on poachers,

The rhino's horn - for which it has been hunted close to extinction - may yet help to save the beast from being wiped out. In Africa's remote interior a scheme has been launched to implant radio transmitters in the horns of the critically endangered northern white rhino.

By monitoring the animals, from the air rangers can help protect them from ruthless poachers who have reduced their number to fewer than 30. So far five rhinos have been immobilised by dart guns and fitted with transmitters, and there are plans to implant 10 more over the next 12 months.

It is a delicate and dangerous task for the scientists - rhinos are not only notorious for their short tempers, but can also prove surprisingly fleet of foot - but the operation poses risks for the animal itself, which can die of stress while under the anaesthetic. The operation to insert the transmitter into the horn must be performed with skill and speed. Once a hole has been drilled and the apparatus has been implanted, the cavity is filled with dental acrylic, and the animal can be revived.

Without such ingenious conservation methods, a bleak future awaits the northern white rhino, probably the rarest large mammal on earth. It is genetically different from its more prolific southern cousin, but both sub-species are in fact grey: the "white" in its name is a corruption of the Dutch weit, meaning "wide". White rhinos have broad, square lower lips, adapted for grazing short grass, while black rhinos (which are also grey) have pointed upper lips for foraging in trees. Only 29 northern white rhinos, of which four are breeding females, are known to survive in the wild. They live in Garamaba national park, an area the size of Northumberland in Zaire's north-eastern corner. "Ideally, they would all be fitted with transmitters," said Jean-Pierre d'Huart of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) which runs the rhino protection programme in Garamba. "But, even though the risk of the animal dying under sedation is small, each case has to be seriously considered. To lose even one rhino is a catastrophe."

Not discovered until the early part of this century, the northern white rhino once roamed across a considerable area of central Africa. But by 1980, poaching for horn had reduced the population to fewer than 1,000 animals. By 1984, when the WWF started its protection programme at Garamba, the number was down to 15.

Until recently it seemed that things were improving for the northern white rhino. Then, earlier this year, a male called Bawensi and a pregnant female named Juillet were slaughtered by poachers. "Their horns were cut," said Mr d'Huart, "but we can't say for sure the poachers were specifically looking for rhinos. Buffalos are the main target for food and elephants are being poached for ivory. Both the rhinos were killed with automatic weapons."

The prime suspects are the Sudan People's Liberation Army which since 1983 has been fighting the Khartoum government to prevent the imposition of Islam on southern Sudan. Park staff blame the recent upsurge in poaching on rebels who can cross the border without hindrance. A rhino provides both food for fighters and horn for sale to Yemen, where it is turned into highly-prized dagger handles. However, the Zairean army is not above suspicion: its soldiers, often unpaid, are notorious for their looting and alternative money-making schemes.

"Two Zairean guards have been killed over the last couple of years," said Mr d'Huart, "and a number of poachers are also reported to have been killed. This is an open war fought in the bush - victory belongs to the ones who shoot first. Unfortunately, the poachers are far more numerous than the guards."

The Zairean government is doing little or nothing to ensure the survival of Garamba, or of any other national institution for that matter. "Nature conservation in a country in a shambles comes very low down the list of government priorities," said the WWF official. "Our aim is to provide increased protection and monitor individual animals more closely. More trained park guards are badly needed."

WWF is spending pounds 115,000 a year on its Garamba rhino project, but estimates that double this amount is needed. More income might be generated through tourism, but as long as Zaire remains so politically insecure, only the most intrepid are likely to visit Garamba.

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