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Protecting wildlife in a war zone

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Mark Carwardine Mark Carwardine | 19:35 UK time, Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Twenty years ago, Douglas Adams and I visited Garamba National Park, in the north-eastern corner of Zaire, to search for the rarest rhino in the world. I say 'Zaire' because that's what the country was called while we were there, but it changes its name more often than The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.

It was originally called Congo Free State, then Belgian Congo, then Congo-Léopoldville, and then Zaire. Now it is called the Democratic Republic of Congo, or just the DRC for short.

Expatriates living in this humanitarian disaster zone say the acronym stands for 'Danger: Rebels Coming'. It's scarily apt, under the circumstances. The Country Formerly Known as Zaire lies in the heart of war-torn Africa. It has been fighting a series of complex, many-sided wars for umpteen years. Millions of people have died and many more have been displaced from their homes.

Garamba itself - where Douglas and I saw no fewer than eight of the 22 northern white rhinos that survived at the time - is now surrounded by armed refugees, guerrillas, rebels, Congolese army troops and horse-riding poachers. Stephen and I responded to a question about Zaire that was sent into the website.

The poor rhinos couldn't have picked a worse place to live, and I suppose the result was inevitable. So, unfortunately, Stephen and I were too late to see them - they are now believed to be extinct in the wild. Read more about the Northern White Rhino in the animals section.

Conservation is challenging at the best of times, but protecting wildlife in a war zone is another matter altogether. However, it's not impossible, as we discovered when we went to see mountain gorillas on the same shoot. They live in the border zone between Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC and, like the rhinos, have been caught up in a vortex of human conflict and misery on and off for years. Yet, despite some serious setbacks, the remnant population of about 700-750 clings on for dear life - and may even be increasing. The reason is simple: tourism.

Now, I realise that the business of gorilla tourism is a vexed one (some people worry that it might cause disturbance or expose the animals to deadly human diseases) but there's no denying that it makes gorillas worth a lot more alive than dead. By generating hundreds of millions of dollars a year, even in times of trouble, it's the one thing that has so far guaranteed their survival.

One species disappears, another hangs on for dear life - it's rather typical of the mixed bag of good and bad news we encountered during our five months of filming.


  • 1. At 5:10pm on 11 Sep 2009, Sian wrote:

    News just in from Tim Green series producer:

    "Since filming the episode about the Northern White Rhino, conservation groups have announced that this year is likely to turn out to be the worst year for rhino poaching for 15 years. A demand, largely driven by the need for rhino horn in Asian traditional medicine is undoing much of the conservation work of the last decade. It has been estimated that attacks on rhinos have increased four fold in recent years.

    In spite of this, a number of organisations continue to work hard to protect and conserve rhinos. In making the film, we took advice from Save The Rhino International, an organistation that works with rhinos all over the world to safeguard their future."

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  • 2. At 9:57pm on 13 Sep 2009, nickinic35 wrote:

    Just watched tonight's 'Last Chance To See' and was overwhelmed by what I saw, both the negatives- including the poaching of chimps for bushmeat and for the exotic pet trade- and the sensational positives, especially the rehabilitation and release of the young chimps. Have come away from the TV to see if there is some way in which I can contribute, but was surprised to see no links on the BBC site directing readers to the conservation organisations involved in the work featured. I can't be the only one who would like to do more than just switch off the TV and forget about it- is it not possible to include a link to the websites of the conservation groups involved?

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  • 3. At 08:40am on 14 Sep 2009, earthWildman wrote:

    When the book Last Chance to See… came out I was given a copy for my birthbay.

    Kes Hillman-Smith. 100% Failure to save the Northern White Rhino. Kes Hillman-Smith has been trying to save the Northern White Rhino for over 20 years and has failed. WWF has also totally failed on this issue.
    I blame her 50% & WWF 50%. I'M SO ANGRY at their combined incompetence. I support 3 Environmental charities at the moment. I gave up on WWF about 5 years ago after i considered that they were very poor when it came to conversation work.

    "Congo's rare rhinos to be flown to safety

    "Although we've all been against the idea of the rhinos going elsewhere it is now necessary," said Kes Hillman Smith, head of monitoring at Congo's Garamba National Park after the government...

    Basically she left it too late. And now we have lost a fantastic animal.

    Please read what Hillman Smith said on the web site below.


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  • 4. At 3:02pm on 14 Sep 2009, samilambipie wrote:

    Are there definitely, definitely, absolutely no Northern White Rhinos left? Any updates from Garamba?
    As for the previous post, it is very easy to blame whoever after the fact. Getting angry and blaming certain parties doesn't change the fact that the Northern White is gone, and serves no useful purpose. The best we can do, as Mark and Stephen point out, is to make sure it doesn't happen again to any other animal.

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  • 5. At 11:18am on 16 Sep 2009, incrediblesnickets wrote:

    I agree Samilambipie! What a great series, I am hooked! Thank you guys, you are an inspiration. :-D

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  • 6. At 3:13pm on 17 Sep 2009, Sian wrote:

    Hi, nickinic35 - as a response to your comment, we'll soon be adding links so you can see the work of various conservation groups. We'll keep you posted.
    It seems that you're all enjoying the series so far. You can hear Stephen Fry talking about Last Chance to See on Steve Wright's Show presented by Graham Norton. He was also on Radio 4's Excess Baggage on Saturday. Only a couple more days to listen again!

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  • 7. At 6:06pm on 21 Sep 2009, Sian wrote:

    Hi Samilambipie - Mark's been out of the country this week but he's just sent us a response to your questions above.

    That's a tricky one! I suppose we should never say never - and there are plenty of examples from around the world of animals that were once believed to be extinct suddenly reappearing and surprising everyone. However, the latest news from Garamba is that no northern white rhinos have been sighted there since March 2006 (and, even then, there were only four left). All the experts I have spoken to believe that it is now extinct in the wild. The only light at the end of the tunnel is that there are 10 left in captivity (San Diego Wild Animal Park and Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic). They haven't had any calves for nearly a decade, but there is a possibility of moving them to a safe haven in East Africa, hoping against all hope that the wide expanse of the African sky, and a last chance to stand on African soil, might encourage them to breed. Thankfully, the southern white rhino is doing pretty well in comparison, with more than 17,480 currently in the wild in Africa.

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  • 8. At 7:57pm on 20 Dec 2009, lizziebee3 wrote:

    It is wonderful to hear the news today of the successful relocation of 4 northern white rhinos to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. These are some of the animals that Mark talks about in the post above which have now been moved from the zoo in the Czech Republic.


    Let us all hope that being on African soil under an African sky does indeed encourage them to breed. At least now they have that chance.

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  • 9. At 09:32am on 18 Jan 2010, w wrote:

    Living in New Zealand means that we seem to get BBC programs a little bit later than the UK (however, we've now caught up with most programming from the 1950's). So I have not had the opportunity to see 'Last chance to See'. I was looking forward to getting my first chance to see 'Last chance', but alas it seems that I am not able to do so, as it is "not available in this area".
    When will I be able to watch 'Last chance'? Please tell me that I don't have to wait for the DVD, as DVD technology will probably be obsolete by that time. :(

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  • 10. At 5:43pm on 20 Jan 2010, Sian wrote:

    Hi there w
    Thanks for your note. Don't despair, we can't be specific but a broadcaster in NZ has the rights to broadcast Last Chance to See so look out for it!

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