The Remarkable Effort to Reintroduce Rhinos to the Democratic Republic of the Congo

In a remarkable conservation effort, a cargo plane originating from South Africa descended onto a dusty airstrip in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), carrying a precious cargo of eight white rhinoceros weighing a ton apiece. These magnificent creatures were bound for Garamba National Park, a sanctuary nestled in the remote northeast of the DRC. Once a volatile region marred by conflict and poaching, this park is now on a mission to bring back these megafauna, a species thought to have vanished from the DRC in 2006.

Garamba National Park, located in the province of Haut-Uélé, is a pristine and fragile ecosystem, isolated from the tumultuous events that have plagued other parts of the DRC. This sanctuary, established in 1938, is operated by the African Parks network in collaboration with the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN). African Parks, led by its president, the Duke of Sussex, manages protected areas across 12 African countries, striving to restore and conserve wildlife in diverse ecoregions. In regions where governance is weak, African Parks steps in with its expertise and resources.

Garamba National Park has endured a turbulent history. Situated on the border with South Sudan, it was once a hotspot for armed group incursions. The Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) also found refuge here after being expelled from Uganda, committing heinous acts against civilians. The DRC has been embroiled in these brutal conflicts since the 1994 Rwandan genocide, destabilizing the entire region. Even the park headquarters was briefly occupied by dissident forces in 1997.

However, amid the chaos and displacement experienced in other provinces, Haut-Uélé seems to have found respite from these tragedies. Aggressive poaching has declined, signaling a ray of hope after years of devastation that saw Garamba’s rhinos wiped out, and the populations of Kordofan giraffes and elephants plummet. The last northern white rhino was sighted in Garamba in 2005, and the species quietly slipped into oblivion by 2006. In these tumultuous years, authorities discovered 1,000 rhino horns, prepared for illegal trade, in the nearby town of Faradje.

Currently, the world’s last two surviving northern white rhinos, both female, are housed in a private reserve in Kenya. Scientists are conducting experiments to ensure the species’ survival using embryos created from their oocytes and previously collected male sperm. However, the northern white rhino teeters on the brink of extinction.

To reintroduce these magnificent creatures to Garamba, the park has opted for a different approach, importing southern white rhinoceros from South Africa. Although they exhibit slight differences from their northern counterparts, with southern white rhinos being larger and hairier, this translocation represents one of the most massive rhino relocation efforts in history. The plan is to introduce at least 50 rhinos to the DRC in the coming years, aiming to restore ecological balance to the region.

“The rhinos will become natural lawnmowers,” explains John Vogel, the Director of Research and Development at the park. “They could be considered ecological engineers,” he adds. These grazing animals enrich the soil with nutrients and help maintain short grasses in their habitat, forming natural firebreaks.

The relocation of 16 rhinos to Garamba is taking place in two phases. Initially, they will stay within the enclosure where their crates were delivered for a couple of days before venturing further into the park. Rigorous preparations have been ongoing for months. Teams have set traps for tsetse flies, which carry trypanosomiasis, a disease that could affect the new rhinos. Even the staff who will interact with these animals have been screened for tuberculosis. The South African rhinos, not accustomed to the high mosquito density in the DRC, will be closely monitored for health issues.

Modern conservation is far from the days when naturalists patrolled the land on tamed elephants. Today, it relies heavily on technology. The arriving rhinos have their DNA profiles recorded, and microchips are implanted in their horns. In the unfortunate event of poaching, these measures will aid in tracking down the culprits. Most of the rhinos have also had their horns trimmed down before arriving in the DRC.

The park’s safety assessment deems the area secure enough for the relocation. Ambushes and firefights with poachers, which led to the deaths of rangers in previous years, including a tragic engagement in 2016 where three rangers lost their lives, have diminished. The rampant poaching of elephants for their ivory has also significantly declined.

The backbone of this newfound tranquility is the ranger force. These dedicated individuals maintain checkpoints with sniffer dogs, acting as a formidable law enforcement presence. They receive training and resources that are often unavailable to the Congolese army, who frequently face the hardships of unpaid wages and food shortages.

Surveillance flights constantly patrol the area, searching for signs of intruders, while rangers conduct thorough checks during their extended patrols, often camping in the towering elephant grass. In the wet seasons, this grass can grow taller than a person and leaves painful cuts on exposed skin. The adage “If you want peace, prepare for war” holds true in this demanding conservation landscape.

Accompanying a helicopter crew on a flight over the flourishing grasslands and dense forests of the park reveals glimpses of giraffes and buffalo grazing peacefully. Today, the mission is to locate a troop of rangers returning from their patrol. A solitary figure emerges, waving an orange fabric for visibility. The helicopter descends into a narrow clearing in the trees, with rotor tips almost brushing the branches. Upon landing, camouflaged rangers emerge from the undergrowth and board the aircraft.

Back at their outpost, as water boils for instant coffee, one of the rangers, Christian, shares their recent experience. They spent eight grueling days trekking through the Azande hunting reserve, just outside Garamba. With a spark in his eye, Christian describes carrying 20-kilogram backpacks, wading through waist-high forest streams, and subsisting on a modest diet of beans. The Azande reserve was once a stronghold of the LRA, but for now, it enjoys a semblance of peace.

This uncompromising approach to conservation has safeguarded the region but also raises issues. While the park’s strict and armed protection is essential for the survival of rare mammals, it comes with downsides. Philemon Atanas Waluma, a local chief from the nearby village of Kpodo, voices concerns: “We are indigenous people, and since our childhood, we have lived off agriculture. But in recent years, the park’s managers have prohibited us from starting our farming projects for coffee and palms.” The park itself is off-limits, and the surrounding land is designated as hunting reserves with restrictions on usage.

To alleviate local tensions and build rapport with communities reliant on subsistence farming, the park runs initiatives for economic development in the area. However, in the DRC, security remains paramount. In other regions, overzealous park guards have exceeded their authority, leading to reports of violence against indigenous communities. This issue highlights the delicate balance between conservation and the needs of local populations.

The return of peace to Haut-Uélé offers hope that Garamba’s ambitious mission can become a reality. John Vogel optimistically states, “We are returning rhinos to Congo when the population is declining elsewhere. This attempt will contribute to saving the species.”

As the second batch of rhinos arrives and shakes off the dust from their arduous journey, the first group has already been released into the park. They roam nearby, concealed amidst the tall grass, a beacon of hope for the resurgence of wildlife in this once-troubled corner of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

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