Home | News    Tuesday 10 August 2004

Sudanese Arab horsemen poach rare Congo rhinos


By David Lewis

KINSHASA, Aug 10 (Reuters) - Sudanese Arab horsemen, whose kin are being recruited by the Janjaweed militias in Darfur, are poaching elephants and endangered white rhinos in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, conservationists say.

The head of a conservation programme at a remote national park in northeastern Congo said fighters from Sudan’s southern rebel group (SPLA) had long poached bush meat from the former Zaire to fund their 21-year insurgency in the mainly Christian and animist south.

But over the past year the park’s rangers have had to battle far better organised armed Arab militiamen known as Murahaleen.

The Murahaleen come from further north and hail from the same ethnic group as the Janjaweed Arab militia accused of raping and killing African villagers in Sudan’s western Darfur.

The militiamen cross into Congo on horseback and use donkeys to transport rhino horn and ivory back into Sudan, Fraser Smith, head of Garamba National Park Project, said on Tuesday.

"The northern horsemen are more of a threat as they are very mobile and far more organised than the SPLA," he told Reuters.

The poaching raids have halved the world’s remaining wild northern white rhino population, threatening it with extinction, Smith said.

An aerial survey of the Garamba National Park carried out in July found evidence of between 17 and 22 rhinos alive in the park and 25 freshly killed elephants, including a group of six that died together.

"This represents a loss of between 14-19 rhinos in just 14 months - over half of the world’s wild northern white rhinos has been lost in just over a year," the Swiss-based International Union for the Conservation of Nature said in a statement.

Since the July survey another rhino has been confirmed killed and in the past few days about 14 more poachers had been seen entering the park, Smith said.

Two militiamen with Arab features were killed in a shootout with park rangers in May, Smith said. Two rangers were also killed and two more wounded.

Congo is one of the most biologically diverse countries in Africa, but poaching during the 1970s and the 1980s decimated elephant and rhino populations in Garamba, which was designated a World Heritage Site in 1980.

Africa’s third largest country is struggling to emerge from years of war during which many parts of the country drifted beyond government control and have sometimes been occupied by foreign rebel groups.

Before the war, conservation efforts had been making progress and by the mid 1990s rhinos and elephants had doubled in numbers from their previous low point of 15 rhinos and 5,000 elephants, Smith said.

"But this latest turn of events threatens to wipe out the remaining rhinos," he said.

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