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My life protecting Sudan’s cousins in the wild

An extract from Garamba, Conservation in Peace and War by Kes Hillman-Smith

Sudan, the dear old northern white rhino living at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, and the subject of Rowan Deacon and Liz Kempton’s moving documentary, “Sudan: The Last of the Rhinos”, is the last confirmed male of his sub-species. But he may not be the last in the world.

there is still a chance that a few of these rhinos remain in the wooded reserves around Garamba and in the bush of South Sudan

Having spent most of my working life dedicated to the conservation of northern white rhinos and living in their wild habitat, the Garamba National Park, I believe and others agree that . However this being said northern white rhinos are certainly very close to extinction in the wild, if not completely.

It is shocking that such a charismatic and large mammal could be lost in our lifetime, despite all our efforts, and why? Greed, corruption, organised syndicates and the warlike nature of humankind. At least now humankind is also developing techniques of assisted reproduction in Europe and stem cell development in the States. This alongside the on-going conservation of live rhinos and their habitats is an urgent race to prevent their total loss.

The Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo was the last wild stronghold of the northern white rhinos. For over 22 years my husband Fraser and I lived in Gramaba, we married and raised our children there whilst working with the conservators and rangers of the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN). Throughout peace and war, we worked to conserve the whole awesome wild ecosystem of the park and surrounding reserves, a total area half the size of Wales. For most of that time the conservation was extremely successful, with rhino and elephant populations doubling in eight years. The northern white rhinos were the flagship, but also benefitting were thousands of elephants, buffaloes and many other species including the unique Congo giraffes. Here in one of the oldest National Parks in Africa, a World Heritage Site and home to Africa’s first Elephant Domestication Centre, I monitored and studied the rhinos. I learned to know them all as individuals, their mothers, their offspring, their friends and their territories.

Throughout peace and war, we worked to conserve the whole awesome wild ecosystem of the park and surrounding reserves

M2 Eleti was one of the first rhinos we identified individually.

It was during my Africa-wide survey of the status of African rhinos, who were being decimated by poaching in the late 1970s. In 1983, we did systematic aerial and ground surveys of the park. On the ground count we walked north to the meandering Garamba River, camped there overnight and then began to walk back the next day. There Eleti was, standing in the shade of a sausage tree rubbing his horn on a conical termite mound to sharpen it to a useful point. At that time he was in possession of the best, most central territory in the park, along the Eleti River, his name sake. Like other rhino species the northern white males take possession of a territory when they are old enough, usually over 10 years of age, and defend it from other males giving them access to the females for mating. However I found the northern white territories were 10 times larger than those of southern whites. This was a practical adaptation to the lower density of animals after heavy poaching. The females had bigger home ranges and moved through the male territories. Sub-adults had the largest ranges, peripheral to the male territories and seeking new areas.

M9 Notch was a sub-adult when we first came to Garamba, but a few years later, early one morning I was out radio tracking and through the morning mist I saw two rhinos fighting. It was Eleti and Notch. After tussling like this several times Notch won and drove out Eleti, who was by then quite old. Eleti had a gentle retirement, he joined up with a big motherly rhino I called Pacque (Easter), who had produced several sons, unusually they stayed with her and she had even adopted another male of a year old after he lost his young mother. By watching the lives of male northern whites, like Eleti and Notch, I got a glimpse of what life would have been like for Sudan had he not been taken from the wild as a baby.

early one morning I was out radio tracking and through the morning mist I saw two rhinos fighting

The Guinea savannah habitat in Gramba consisted of long grass, scatted bush, trees and many rivers this was ideal for rhinos and elephants, giving them short grass for grazing and long grass to hide and rest in. There had been over 1000 northern white rhinos in Garamba in 1960 however the park bordered with tumultuous South Sudan and during the Simba Rebellion that followed Independence at least 80% of the rhinos were killed. With armed conflict came easier access to weapons. The wars and conflicts that followed had massive impacts on the population of rhinos and elephants in the park. Protection of these animals was crucial. With this protection, northern white rhino numbers were able to increase to 490 by 1976 and the elephants to 22,000, until the wave of poaching in Africa between 1978 and 1984 reduced them to 15 and around 5,000 respectively.

By 1995 with our Gramba Project in full force rhino numbers had increased to 32 and elephants to 11,000. During the Liberation war of 1997 half the elephant population was lost but five northern white rhino calves were born with only two known adult fatalities.

The next, longer term war that divided the country began in August 1998, but this time we developed the first major programme to maintain conservation throughout armed conflict, supporting the five World Heritage Sites of the Democratic Republic of Congo in partnership with The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), ICCN and the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) at each site. It was very successful in minimising damage, developing a collaboration that still exists to this day and, with the United Nations umbrella, uniting aspects of the divided country. I was its coordinator. The programme enabled us to keep rhino and elephant populations stable, but although the rhinos continued to reproduce at a rate of nearly 10% per annum, an insidious off-take from the well-armed Sudanese advancing south curbed the previous rate of increase. Rocket launchers and hand grenades were added to our rangers’ arsenal to keep up with the Sudanese armament. Strategies, training and fund raising fought to keep us steps ahead; however it was not unusual for rangers to be wounded or even killed and for us to receive bullet holes in our survey planes.

Rocket launchers and hand grenades were added to our rangers’ arsenal to keep up with the Sudanese armament

In 2003, with the cease fire in Sudan, the fierce northern mbororo or janjaweed horsemen got into the park, massacring the elephants and rhinos. So by mid-2004 all the NGO supporters and ICCN had agreed to the temporary rescue of up to five rhinos, they were to be held at Ol Pejeta in Kenya until Garamba was safe enough for them to return…however this was not to happen. Internal problems in ICCN and political issues prevented the rescue and in 2005 the NGO support to Garamba was temporarily suspended. Later the International Rhino Foundation ceded support for Garamba to the African Parks Foundation, where they are there to this day with major financial support and excellent wardens and elephants are increasing again.

For several years the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) terrorised the people and killed many animals, while the mbororo are still a fearsome enemy. Due to the accumulation of these events not a single northern white rhino has been seen since 2012.

After all the conflict, loss and turmoil there might still be a chance this sub species could survive

A glimmer of hope remains however; while I was in Gramaba filming for the BBC Natural World documentary our previous top rhino ranger told me that he is sure some northern whites still exist in the wooded reserves around the park and that we should raise support to gather intelligence information from local people.

After all the conflict, loss and turmoil there might still be a chance this sub species could survive.