The northern white rhinoceros of Africa is one of the rarest mammals on earth. Hunted to the brink of extinction for its horn, it now faces a new and potentially lethal danger: civil war. Since its habitat in the north of Zaire has been occupied this winter, first by Zaire's Army and now by rebels trying to overthrow President Mobutu Sese Seko, conservationists have been unable to carry out work essential to its survival.
Garamba National Park, home to the world's few remaining northern white rhinos, is now part of a vast swath of territory held by rebels of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire. "It's not so much that the rebels themselves pose a danger to the rhinos," says Fraser Smith of the Washington-based World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). "But, because the patrolling and monitoring have been disrupted, we can't protect the animals from poachers.
"I must admit I'm really concerned for the rhinos' safety now," Mr. Smith says.
No more than 31 northern white rhinos exist in the wild, all of them in Garamba. There has been no effective management of the Zairean park, an area about the size of Delaware, since December.
Equipment looted by soldiers
According to one assessment, between two and four animals will be poached this year if the necessary support is not provided. "For a while we completely lost contact with what was going on in the park," says Smith, who got rebel approval to journey to Garamba this week to see if the region's de facto authorities will let him continue the conservation program. "It's still not clear what it will take to resume our activities there.
"Quite a lot of our equipment ... was looted by government soldiers as they left. We also believe the guards' weapons may have been confiscated by the rebels. From a logistical point of view, we might be starting almost from scratch," he says.
Among the conservation measures most affected will be an innovative program to implant radio transmitters in the rhinos' horns. Last year, five animals were fitted with transmitters so aerial trackers could monitor them more closely.
Work halted 'at a critical moment'
Plans to implant more transmitters this year will probably have to be shelved, but the aerial monitoring of the already tagged rhinos will be funded this year by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. "Our work has been interrupted at a critical moment," says Kes Hillman Smith, a rhino monitoring coordinator in Garamba. "Poaching has been getting more sophisticated in the last few years. The poachers are also becoming more daring and [are] ranging deeper into the park."
Last year, two rhinos were slaughtered by poachers. Rhino horn fetches a high price in Yemen, where it is made into dagger handles; and in China, where it is used in medicine.
Discovered early this century, the northern white rhino once roamed across much of central Africa. But by 1980, civil unrest and poaching had reduced the population to fewer than 400 animals. By 1984, when the WWF started the protection program at Garamba, the number was down to 15. Thanks to its efforts, the number doubled during the last decade. But the rhino is still extremely endangered.
Despite its status as a United Nations World Heritage Site, Garamba has received little help from Zaire's government. Were it not for the WWF and the International Rhino Foundation in Cumberland, Ohio, the 300 park staff would not have been paid for the past four years.
Despite the uncertainty of the situation, many conservationists say that Zaire's parks and animals stand a better chance in the hands of the rebels, who at least appear sympathetic to conservation issues.