Returning Rhinos are Uganda's White Hope

Nearly 20 years after being wiped out in Uganda, the rhinocerous has been reintroduced - the first phase of a project financed by the World Bank to restock the country's national parks. Two Southern White rhinos have just arrived at the Entebbe wildlife education centre, a small reserve on the shore of Lake Victoria.

"Sherino, a three-year-old male, and Kabira, a two-year-old female, are the first rhinos to return to Uganda after both white and black rhinos became extinct in the early 80s," said Yvonne Verkaik of Rhino Fund Uganda, the organisation managing the project.

The rhinoceros's return to Uganda continues the steady recovery of the species in Africa, where it was hunted almost to extinction in the 70s and 80s by poachers who sold the valuable horn, used for Chinese remedies and the hilts of traditional Yemeni daggers.

Wilhelm Moeller of the Entebbe centre said Ugandans were welcoming the rhinos as a symbol of the recent stability and reconstruction of their country after almost 30 years of conflict.

"I've heard all over Uganda: 'We lost the rhino and now it's time it was back'," he said. "This is not just a political thing, it comes from local people everywhere."

Uganda was once the only place in east Africa with both white and black rhinos. Early travellers down the White Nile saw herds of white rhinos grazing on the river's eastern bank while black rhinos browsed singly to the west.

Both species were hunted intensively during the British colonial period. Idi Amin's chaotic reign finished the job. When he came to power in 1971 there were around 100 white and 300 black rhinos in northern Uganda; by the time he was overthrown eight years later Uganda was starving, awash with guns, and devoid of all but a handful of rhino. Three years later there were none.

Uganda's original white rhinos were of the Northern subspecies, now thought to have been reduced to about 30 animals in the violent Democratic Republic of Congo. With so few of the Northern variety available, the new arrivals are from the alternative subspecies, successfully introduced to Kenya from southern Africa.

While a small hope of the Northern White recovering and being reintroduced to Uganda remains, the newcomers will be kept captive. "Because the two types of white can interbreed, it would be unwise to talk about releasing Southern Whites at the moment," Mr Moeller said.

Last chance

The two new arrivals are expected to generate enough publicity and money for phase two: establishing a breeding stock of black rhinos on private ranchland.

"This is probably the last hope for the rhino in Uganda," Mr Moeller said. "If we don't get this right I can't see it getting another chance here for 50 years; probably never."

The world's black rhino population, 2,800 in Africa and Asia, is tiny compared to a 1970 figure of 65,000. But the present number represents the first increase over a seven-year period in almost a century. There are a slightly healthier 10,600 white rhinos in Africa.

The world's leading rhino conservationist, Esmond Martin, says there are two reasons for hope: private game management is increasing and the global campaign to stamp out the illegal trade in rhino horn has had much success.

Private ways of management were much better than having the state in charge, Dr Martin said. "You've got to be able to hire efficient people and fire corrupt people. And of course you need to spend a lot of money."

Most African rhinos are now managed by wealthy individuals in the continent's wealthier countries: South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Kenya and Tanzania. Sixty-five per cent of Zimbabwe's rhinos are in private hands, compared with 10% in 1990.

With this shift has come a new emphasis on wildlife intelligence, which conservationists say is the best protection. Informants help the park authorities to try to arrest poachers before they set out.

"There's no trick to managing rhino," Dr Martin said. "You fence in an area and bring in enough honest people. You have an intelligence system that works, and you are able to make people work on weekends. Nothing to it."

Dagger-makers in Yemen and Chinese medicine-makers are meanwhile finding alternatives to rhino horn. The hilts of the daggers worn by most Yemeni men are more likely to be of antelope horn or wood. Chinese fever medicines are more likely to contain the horn of water buffalo or antelope.

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