for National Geographic News
It was Easter Sunday, and Kes Smith was in the radio room when she received the call: poachers had been spotted in a remote corner of Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, home to the world's last remaining northern white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum cottoni).
Smith and her husband Frasier, who have worked as conservationists in the park for over 20 years, immediately leapt into a small airplane and took off.
But they were too late. Flying along a river, they soon discovered two freshly killed rhinos and 12 dead elephants. No meat had been taken, only the rhino horns and elephant tusks.
Farther north, the South African couple spotted a caravan of 25 heavily-laden pack donkeys moving toward neighboring Sudan. It was the first time they had witnessed such a supply train of poached ivory and rhino horns.
The Smiths knew it was an ominous sign. Sudanese poachers have already eliminated most of the wildlife in Central African Republic and Chad, using donkeys and horses to transport the loot back to Sudan. Rhino horns, which are treasured for medicinal purposes in some parts of the world, can fetch thousands of dollars on the black market.
Now, the Smiths and other conservationists worry that a similarly systematic poaching campaign could be underway in Garamba. Six rhino carcasses have been found in the last two months, and more rhinos could have been slaughtered.
Before the recent killings, the northern white rhino population was estimated to be only 30, despite four baby rhinos having been born in the last year. Unless urgent action is taken to combat the upsurge in poaching, conservationists say, the last wild population of northern white rhinos could be wiped out in six months.
"If this situation continues, it will be a disaster for the park," Paulin Tshikaya, the head warden of Garamba National Park, said in a telephone interview from Kinshasa, Congo. "At the moment we cannot protect the park from this poaching."
Established in 1938, Garamba is one of the oldest national parks in Africa. Located in the northeastern corner of Congo, it is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The park is mainly undulating grassland. It is home to 6,000 elephants and less than 100 Congo giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis congoensis), also the last remaining in the world. But its real calling card is the endangered northern white rhino, which has been exterminated in all of its former habitats in central Africa.
"From a conservation standpoint, it is one of the most important places in Africa," said Richard Ruggiero, the Africa Program Officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "It's a jewel about to be plucked out of the crown."
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