Monday, December 21, 2009

White Rhino Rescue


In the book Last Chance To See written by the late Douglas Adams (he of the five books in the trilogy The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy) and co-authored by Mark Cawardine, Adams described his visit in 1980 to the last refuge of the Northern White Rhino in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. At that time there may have been two dozen of the creatures left after a century of relentless slaughter, aka poaching. So relentless in fact that early in the 20th century the French organized and armed gangs of poachers for the express purpose of collecting rhino horn for sale. Then came the terrible times of Idi Amin in Uganda, and the end of all rhinos in that country.

This picture was taken in Kenya in the 1971 and shows Southern White Rhinos with their guard, but if I had not told you that this was the Southern, as opposed to the Northern, there is no way that you would have known - any more than I would if I had not been told. They look the same.

Four years ago, when I was in Kenya on a visit to my old stamping grounds around the town of Nanyuki, nestled on the western slopes of Mount Kenya, there was serious discussion of the possibility of bringing the last remnants (now only three or four animals) of the DRC group of rhinos to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, where this picture was taken. That effort foundered on the rocks of local politics in the DRC’s Garamba National Park where the rhino hung on under some measure of protection.

There was one glimmer, a faint one, in that seven individuals of this now critically endangered rhino had been taken to the Czech Republic and kept at the Dvür Krålové zoo. In ten years only one calf, a female, was born. There were three more in San Diego, but they were not breeding at all. In 2009 there are now only eight northern white rhino in existence.

Now comes the latest, and probably last attempt to save the remnants. As reported on the BBC web siteof 20th Nov under the banner headline
Czech zoo sends rare Northern White rhinos to Kenya

The translocation is not without is detractors, but Rob Brett, who is a member of the IUCN rhino specialist group is quoted as saying
"Moving them now is a last-bid effort to save them and their gene pool from total extinction."

More details emerge in another posting and it is here where one learns about the team of folks who have been involved in this exercise, and perhaps why some folks are concerned. These concerns stem mainly from the fact that the Northerns are likely to breed with the Southerns that are already at the conservancy (if they breed at all). Of course their gene pool would immediately be diluted, but the prevailing view seems to be that the genes would be lost completely if no efforts were made.

Of course the hope is that the return of the two males and two females to a more natural habitat, and relative freedom of thousands of hectares of bush, will turn on their reproductive juices. It seems a faint hope until one remembers that the thousands of Southern White Rhinos scattered in parks and zoos around the world are all descendants of about ten animals left alive in South Africa in 1904.This animal was one of my patients in one of those refuges, Meru National Park in Kenya.

You can find more about this remarkable recovery, and about the long and ugly history of rhino slaughter and why people do it, inThe Trouble With Lions.

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