Gangs of poachers in Congo have been slaughtering the world’s minuscule population of northern white rhinos, reducing the population by about one-half in just more than a year, a key conservation organization said Friday.
Numbers of the white rhino in the Garamba National Park in war-torn northeastern Congo, the species’ only wild population, dropped to between 17 and 22 in an aerial survey conducted in July, the World Conservation Union said. That means 14 to 19 rhinos have been lost in just 14 months, it said.
“This is the only viable population left,” the group said in a statement. “The breeding success of the few animals found in captivity is very poor.”
Horns used in Asia
Northern white rhinoceroses formerly were widespread, with an estimated 2,250 living in five African states in 1960, but poachers killing the animal for their horns reduced the wild population to 15 by 1984, all of them in the park, the statement said.
Conservation efforts helped the animal to recover, and an April 2003 survey found a minimum of 30, the organization said.
Increasing numbers of heavily armed poaching gangs from the area and neighboring Sudan are believed responsible for the recent slaughter.
“It is devastating and deeply frustrating to see fresh rhino and elephant carcasses,” said Kes Hillman Smith of the Garamba National Park Project.
Poachers seek the rhinoceros horns because it is used as a fever-reducing ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine in East Asia and for making dagger handles in the Middle East.
Park guards being killed
The World Conservation Union said the park’s guards are struggling to stop the poachers.
“Several guards have lost their lives in anti-poaching operations,” it said.
The park’s losses contrast with the increasing populations of other species of African rhinos.
“Apart from a temporary recovery in the early 1970s, the northern white rhino has never managed to emulate the recovery of its southern relative,” the organization said. “The southern white rhino has increased from approximately 50 individuals in 1895, to over 11,000 today.”
In June, the conservation union and the World Wide Fund for Nature said Africa’s endangered black rhinoceros population has increased by 500 in the past two years to 3,600 in southern Africa.