There was a narrow window of opportunity to save Africa’s northern white rhinos from extinction, but bureaucratic ineptitude slammed it shut and the species has now almost certainly vanished from the wild.
The last-ditch effort to save the animal in its final Congolese refuge is detailed in a new book, The Last Rhinos, by South African conservationist Lawrence Anthony, who died of a heart attack in early March just weeks before it was published.
Anthony, who famously rescued the animals of Baghdad zoo in the aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion, even traveled into the bush to meet leaders of the infamous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) to get their promise to protect the rhinos.
With elephant and rhino poaching surging across Africa, Anthony’s failed bid to save the northern whites — a sub-species of the horned pachyderm — is a poignant reminder how high the stakes are in the region’s brutal wildlife wars.
The last known population of the animals was holed up in Garamba National Park in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) — a remote, wild region teeming with armed groups.
The late Douglas Adams, better known for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy science fiction comedies, visited the reserve two decades ago for a book on vanishing wildlife he wrote entitled Last Chance to See.
The country was then called Zaire and Adams wrote that the park was “scantily visited” because of the “insane bureaucratic nightmares that assail any visitor.”
Anthony could certainly relate.
If any man could save the last of the northern white rhinos, it was him, but Congolese government inanities smothered his plans.
Anthony managed to secure the experts needed, the funding and the equipment, which would have included helicopters to dart the critters and marksmen to do the job.
TIME RUNNING OUT
The DRC’s ambassador to South Africa was behind the project and time was running out as the end of the wet season would make the animals accessible to determined poachers.
The year was 2006 and surveys suggested there were fewer than 15 of the animals left in the wild, with a few in captivity in a Czech zoo — too small a gene pool to do much good.
The DRC environment minister also backed the project, but bizarrely, Anthony wrote that he met resistance from the ICCN, the Congolese government agency responsible for conservation.
Garamba was effectively run by a non-profit foundation called African Parks and it also finally came on board.
“We immediately contacted the ICCN and informed them of African Parks’ decision. A few days later, we received a response saying that they agreed to the rescue provided African Parks agreed,” Anthony wrote.
“But they have agreed, we replied, and with that the ridiculous merry-go-round started again and we were unable to make any more progress,” he wrote.
Anthony tried other routes, audaciously making contact with the feared LRA, as its gunmen and troops were based in and around the park.
From what is today South Sudan, he traveled to a jungle lair in DRC to meet the LRA’s Vincent Otti, who was the No. 2 to the group’s leader, Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, wanted by the International Criminal Court for atrocities, including the kidnapping of children for use as soldiers and sex slaves.
Anthony claims he got, among other things, the LRA to promise to protect the northern white rhinos, a sacred totem animal for some of the Acholi people of northern Uganda.