October 18, 2005

Congo calls in foreign group to save rare rhinos

By David Lewis

KINSHASA (Reuters) - Congo has called in a group of private
conservationists to try to save its endangered northern white
rhinos from poachers, including Sudanese gunmen on horseback,
officials said on Tuesday.

The African Parks Foundation (APF), set up by South African
conservationists and a Dutch businessman, will take over the
management of Democratic Republic of Congo's Garamba National
Park to try to preserve the rare rhino.

"The government has decided to outsource the management and
financing of Garamba to APF for the next five years," Jose
Kalpers, APF's representative in French-speaking African
countries, told Reuters in Kinshasa.

The northern white rhino, believed to be the most
endangered large mammal on earth, is found in the wild only in
Congo's lawless northeast. It has survived decades of
war-related poaching as rangers fought off gunmen from Sudan
and Congo but less than 10 of the animals are believed to
remain in the wild.

Local politicians blocked a move to airlift five of them to
Kenya in February, where they were to be kept until their
natural habitat had been made safe. They said Congo was a
sovereign nation able to solve its own problems.

"We have found ourselves in real trouble. We have to get
someone in to help save this site (Garamba)," said Benoit
Kisuki, technical director at the Congolese Institute for the
Conservation of Nature (ICCN).

"We have had to explain that we are not selling the park to
foreigners but that they (APF) are just coming in to manage it
and protect the rhinos," he told Reuters.

Kalpers said that APF, set up to step in wherever
government budgets could not cover the cost of maintaining
national parks, would spend roughly 1 million euros a year
reorganizing and equipping anti-poaching teams.

"We have to start immediately as the next dry season is in
January, and this is when the poaching is at its peak," he
said, adding APF had its own funds but would also look to other
donors to help finance the Garamba operation.

Wildlife experts say poaching has intensified, exacerbated
by Sudanese gunmen who began last year crossing on horseback
into a part of Congo already awash with tribal militias, former
rebels and traditional warriors.

The trade in rhino horns mostly leads to Yemen, where they
are turned into handles for ornate daggers, and the Far East,
where they are ground up, bottled and sold as an aphrodisiac.

Garamba is a United Nations World Heritage Site in a remote
corner of the country where poorly equipped park rangers battle
with well-armed poachers using sophisticated radio equipment
who smuggle rhino horns out of the country in donkey trains.