On the trail of the last black rhino

The tale of how Rwanda’s last black rhinoceros was tracked down after having survived civil war and poachers was told at the Zoological Society in London on Thursday.

A conference organised by Save the Rhino International was told that the world population had fallen from an estimated 70 000 in 1974 to 18 000, and four of the five species were critically endangered.

About 3 100 black rhinos survive, and the story of one of them, given the name Patricia, was told by Claudia Schoene, a veterinary surgeon who led the search for her.

Patricia is the last survivor of a 45-year-old colony. Rhinoceros were extinct in Rwanda until 1958 when four females and one male from Tanzania were let loose in Akagera national park; by the end of the 1980s, there were between 60 to 80.

Civil war came in 1990, and in 1994 genocide of Tutsis and moderate Hutus by Hutus. Later the park was reduced by two-thirds to accommodate refugees.
Herdsmen poisoned the big predators; poachers moved in to kill elephants for their tusks, and rhinos for their horns.

But Schoene was convinced some rhinos might have clung to life. “There are all sorts of species. We supposedly even have two lions left,” she said on Thursday. “There is enough brilliant black rhino habitat.”

Two horns were confiscated in Kigali market; trackers came in from Zimbabwe; rangers reported having seen a rhino, limping; and droppings and footprints were found.

In September, the hunters finally caught up with Patricia, almost entirely hidden in long grass.

She was tranquilised with a dart, and a radio-tracking device fitted in her horn. The conservationists have applied for permission to ship in a male black rhino to serve as a mate for the eight- or nine-year-old female, the last of her line. “If not, the future for Patricia might look rather bleak,” Schoene said.

The southern white rhino is a conservation success. A century ago a handful remained; now there are more than 11 000.

But the future for some of the last surviving northern white rhinoceros in the Congo could be desperate. Garamba national park, in the north-east corner of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is one of the continent’s oldest. In 1976 it had 22 000 elephants and 490 rhinos.

After years of civil war, rhino numbers fell to 15, but in response to concerted conservation effort, began to rise again. Then an invasion from Uganda and incursions from Sudan put on more pressure.

An estimated 80 000 refugees moved in to camps on the park; armed poachers started to move in; and for years the park’s guards have had to depend on cash from Unesco, or conservation charities.

Conservationists are alerted to the arrival of poachers by either the sound of gunfire, smoke, dead animals, or wheeling vultures.

“By which time, the act has already happened,” said Kes Hillman Smith, chair of the IUCN African rhino specialist group, who has worked in the park since 1984.

“Training is needed to try and get one step ahead of the poachers, and find out where they are coming in, to stop them before they kill the animals.

“I have to say that, right now, I am despairing a bit,” she said. “We have talked with people about the possibility of an international ranger force.

“You know, green berets who can come in under these circumstances. We have followed this up with the Game Rangers Association, and with the UN, but this concept seems to have a lot of problems.

But in theory, it should happen. Like a UN peacekeeping force, you’d have a UN environmental peacekeeping force.”

Why white is really grey

  • There are five rhino species

  • In Asia, 2,400 Indian rhinos, 300 Sumatran rhinos, and 60 Javan rhinos survive

  • In Africa, 3 100 black rhinos and 11 670 white rhinos survive. Confusingly, both are grey—white is corruption of “weit”, Afrikaans for wide

  • White rhinos have a wide mouth, adapted for grass

  • Black rhinos have a prehensile upper lip adapted for chewing acacia thorns and for browsing on shrubs

  • Rhino horn is not sold as an aphrodisiac. In the far east it is used to bring down fever, and in Yemen fetches up to £300 a pound to make prized dagger handles

  • At full pelt, a rhino can reach 48kph. A white rhino could weigh in at three tons

  • Britain was once home to the rhino. Woolly rhinoceros bones from the ice age have been found in London clay - Guardian Unlimited Â
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