Thu, Sep 14, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Wildlife expert persuades LRA to protect white rhino

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

A wildlife expert has told how he convinced an African rebel army, which has fought a bloody struggle with the Ugandan government for nearly two decades, to sign up to a conservation project to save one of the world's rarest animals.

Lawrence Anthony, founder of the South African environmental group the Earth Organisation, persuaded the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) -- the leaders of which are wanted for war crimes by the international criminal court -- to join with scientists to protect the northern white rhino, of which only four are thought to remain in the wild. As part of an ongoing peace process, the rebels have pledged not to harm the animals and to tell wildlife experts if they see one.

Environmentalists feared the worst last year when the LRA took up residence in the Garamba national park, a sprawling and densely forested reserve close to the Ugandan border in the far north-east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The park is home to the last of the northern white rhino, as well as other rare species including the highly endangered okapi and the pygmy Congo giraffe.

The LRA is notorious for its use of child soldiers and has been accused of numerous atrocities including rapes, mutilations and the mass murder of civilians. Its 19-year fight has left tens of thousands of people dead and an estimated 2 million displaced. Conservation seemed far from its priorities -- particularly after its members shot dead 12 of the park's game rangers and then eight Guatemalan UN soldiers sent to the region to keep order this year.

"It was a desperate, impossible situation," Anthony said. "The UN then withdrew entirely from the area and the LRA de facto controlled the park. From that point on the fate of the rhino lay entirely in the hands of this rebel army. That was a conservation disaster. If this species goes extinct they will be the largest land mammal to die out since the woolly mammoth."

Experts feared the LRA, living off meat from the park's animals, would shoot its last rhinos and sell the horns, worth about ?20,000 (US$37,410) each on the black market, or that with the game rangers too scared to work in the park, the animals would be killed by poachers.

With no visa and no invitation, Anthony headed for Juba, southern Sudan, last month where the rebels and the government were to hold talks.

"The talks were taking place at a tented camp in the town. The LRA chairman for the talks, Martin Ojul, was pointed out to me and, during a break in the talks, I simply walked up to him, introduced myself and explained the reason for my visit. His initial response was distrust, covert hostility and no interest," he said.

The breakthrough with the LRA came the next day when, with the help of an official, Anthony was invited to talk to the rebels about the rhinos.

When LRA officials subsequently signed a ceasefire with the government, it included pledges to protect the endangered rhino.

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