June 18, 2008

Africa’s White Rhino On Verge Of Extinction

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reported Tuesday that Africa's northern white rhino is on the brink of extinction.

Although the continent's total number rhinos has reached record levels in recent years, the northern white sub-species is now confined only to the remote, lawless region of northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo's (DRC) Garamba National Park.  

The number of northern white rhinos has now dwindled from just 30 in April 2003 to merely four as of August 2006, according to the Swiss-based conservation organization.

"Worryingly, recent fieldwork has so far failed to find any presence of these four remaining rhinos," wrote Martin Brooks, who leads the IUCN's African Rhino Specialist Group, according to a Reuters report.

"Unless animals are found during the intensive surveys that are planned under the direction of the African Parks Foundation, the sub-species may be doomed to extinction."

Poachers target the white rhinos for their horns, for which they can sell for high prices in places like Yemen, where the horns are made into dagger handles, and in the Far East, where they are desired for medicinal purposes.

Militia violence has made protecting wildlife particularly challenging in the eastern DRC. The region is still troubled more than five years after a war that resulted in the deaths of some 4 million people, primarily from disease and hunger.

In March, DRC authorities arrested a senior game ranger suspected in the 2007 slaughter of several rare mountain gorillas in Virunga national park.

And last month, a conservation group reported that rebels, soldiers and local villagers in Virunga had recently slaughtered 14 elephants to keep up with rising demand for ivory by the Chinese. In Garamba's thick forests further to the north, the hunters include heavily armed guerrillas from Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army. 

However, the IUCN reported much better news for other parts of the continent. Efforts to stem poaching and translocation of the animals had increased the overall numbers of white rhinos to 17,480 last year from 14,540 in 2005, the IUCN said.

The smaller, more aggressive African black rhino also increased in number, from 3,730 to 4,180, however the animal remains listed as critically endangered by the IUCN.

The IUCN's estimates of wild animal populations are considered highly authoritative. 


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