Poaching is hardly a new problem in Garamba National Park. Only 15 rhinos remained in 1984, when the Smiths started their Garamba Project, which is currently supported by the International Rhino Foundation in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania. That was down from as many as 500 in 1976. A vigilant anti-poaching campaign led to the doubling of the population by 1995. But more recently, the war that has crippled Sudan for much of the last 40 years has taken an increasing toll on the park's wildlife.
A few years ago, rebels from the Sudanese People Liberation Army (SPLA) moved into the park and began poaching commercially for bushmeat. Most of the larger wildlife has been eliminated in the northern two thirds of the park.
Since June, 2003, there has been a massive upsurge in poaching in the southern section of the park, and a switch from primarily meat poaching to ivory and rhino horn.
In flights over the park, Fraser and Kes Smith have found huge numbers of elephants killed for their tusks, at times with wounded and bewildered babies standing next to their slaughtered mothers. They say more than 1,000 elephants have been killed in the last year.
Some observers believe the confusion surrounding current peace talks in Sudan may be fueling the poaching trade.
"Things are getting far worse, possibly [because] everyone is trying to grab as much as they can before peace falls," said Kes Smith in an e-mail interview.
In April, park guards for the first time encountered northern Sudanese militia fightersperhaps allied with the Sudanese government in Khartoumwho are using their trains and horses to transport ivory and rhino horn back to Sudan.
These Sudanese horsemen are "professional destroyers of nature," said Ruggiero. "Since they have poached out just about every other area, they are now focusing on of the last vestiges of wildlife and that is Garamba."
Exactly how many northern white rhinos have been killed is impossible to ascertain, but conservationists warn there may be as few as 20 left.
There are currently 150 park guards in Garamba, which is run by the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature and funded by a consortium of international donor organizations.
In the absence of any Congolese military presence, says Warden Tshikaya, the Sudanese factions are firmly entrenched in the park. His park guards lack the resources to combat the poachers.
Conservationists are urging international governments to confront both the Sudanese government and the rebels about the rampant poaching. While there is no evidence of direct involvement by the Sudanese government, experts believe there are individuals in the regime who may be buying rhino horns.
In the long run, conservationists say, a political solution is needed. In the short run, however, logistical and military support is needed to prevent an environmental disaster.
"We could very well see the extinction of the nothern white rhino in the next six months," said Mike Fay, a conservation fellow at the National Geographic Society. "This isn't an extremist alarm call. This is what's happening in Garamba."
SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES