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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.

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