- The government of Congo Kinshasa has approved of a bold plan to save the critically endangered northern white rhino from extinction in the wild. Fewer than 10 individuals of the sub-species remain alive in the wild; all of them in north-eastern Congo's Garamba National Park. Five of them are to be relocated to a wildlife sanctuary in Kenya to breed.
The Garamba National Park - located in the north-eastern corner of Congo Kinshasa (DRC) at the Sudanese border - is known to have a unique suite of wildlife. The remote park however has been ravaged by poaching during the last years, given the civil wars in northern and eastern Congo and in southern Sudan. No effective protection has been given to the world's last population of wild white rhinos living in the park.
According to Jean-Christophe Vié of the Species Programme of the environmentalist group IUCN, the situation in Garamba is grave. "The rhino is Garamba's flagship species yet poaching is affecting a much wider range of animals. The promise to increase in-park conservation efforts is therefore just as critical as the emergency translocation plans to save one species from extinction," Mr Vié said.
The only wild northern white rhino population in the world has been conserved for many years in Garamba but an escalation of commercial poaching over the past 18 months has seen numbers plummet from 30 to probably less than 10. This compares with a population of 490 animals 25 years ago. Increased trans-border transgressions from Sudan and the proliferation of arms have made it impossible to secure the area.
The grave situation only became known some months ago, as environmentalists made a new assessment of the wildlife population in the park. With this information, the Congolese government now has pledged to save the white rhinos and other species in Garamba by what environmentalists call "a bold plan." The Switzerland-based IUCN today expressed its warm support for the new Congolese efforts.
The Kinshasa government recently approved a plan for the translocation of five northern white rhino from the Garamba Park to a wildlife sanctuary in Kenya. The privately-owned Ol Pejeta Sanctuary close to Mount Kenya was chosen as the rhinos' temporary home. The five rhinos are to form a "breeding group" with the aim of relocating their ancestors back to Garamba.
This is one element of a two-part plan to save the sub-species from extinction and secure the national park and its remaining wildlife. The second part commits the Congolese government and its international partners to increased support for conservation activities in Garamba, so that the rhinos can be returned to the unique park once security and the long-term viability of the Garamba ecosystem has been assured.
This decision was made during a trip to Kinshasa by an emergency delegation headed by the IUCN's African Rhino Specialist Group. The meeting was set up by the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature - the Congo's protected area authority - and involved several environmentalist groups, UNESCO and the World Bank.
The groups met with Congo's Vice Presidents Z'hahidi N'Goma and Abdoulaye Iherodia, the Minister of Environment and other senior officials, and were told that the office of President Joseph Kabila had approved the plan.
While the IUCN says it believes that "conservation is primarily about conserving species in their natural habitats," the group in this particular case holds that "the risk of leaving the animals at home and exposed to continued poaching which could eliminate them within a matter of weeks far outweighs any disadvantages and risks related to their translocation."
- We are saddened to learn that more than a decade of talks and efforts have not been enough to secure this iconic species in its homeland, commented Mr Vié. "The fact that we have to move these rhinos to another country as a last resort is an unfortunate set-back, but considering the sharp increase in instability and conflict which has plagued the region for years, it is the only option left," the IUCN specialist added.
Martin Brooks, Chairman of the African Rhino Specialist Group, agrees that the Congolese plan is necessary. "We all regard the plan as a Win-Win outcome, as support for the World Heritage Site of Garamba National Park will be guaranteed for the future and the northern white rhino has been given its last reprieve from extinction," Mr Brooks said.
Congo's Garamba National Park was inscribed on UNESCO's prestigious World Heritage List in 1980. As well as the northern white rhino, the park's vast savannahs, grasslands and woodlands are home to many other charismatic species including the elephant, hippopotamus and the endemic Congo giraffe.
Due to civil unrest and increasing pressure from poaching, the park was placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger in 1996, following the poaching of rhinos for their horn and the loss of three park rangers killed on site. This is one of five internationally important natural World Heritage sites in Congo Kinshasa, all of which are on the List of World Heritage in Danger.
With the recent approval of the IUCN-drafted emergency plan, a formal accord with the Congolese government has been drafted and is "expected to be signed shortly," according to the environmentalists. Planning and recruitment of a team of experts for the operation is now underway in Congo and internationally.
In Kenya discussions are underway through the Kenya Wildlife Service to secure the necessary approval and support from the Kenyan authorities. The private owners of the Ol Pejeta Sanctuary - whose famous chimpanzee sanctuary attracts many tourists - have already approved of the scheme.
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