Project Black Ghost - The Quest for The Last West African Black Rhino

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    Project Black Ghost - The Quest for The Last West African Black Rhino
    by Campbell Scott

    The Western Black rhino (D.b.longipes) was considered extinct by the late 80's when Dr Hubert Planton brought evidence that some 60 individuals still remained free ranging in Northern Cameroon. The international community was formally informed of the situation between 1989 and 1992 (San Diego rhino conference, 1991, and African Rhino Specialist Group (AfRSG), 1992). The subspecies was recognized at the 1996 Cincinnati rhino conservation meeting by the WWF, IUCN and its affiliate the African Rhino Specialist Group (AfRSG) and is presently on the IUCN's Red list as critically endangered. The population over the last two decades has been reduced, by poaching from a few hundred individuals to its present population estimates of less than 10 individuals scattered over a 25 000 sq. km area. There are four subspecies of black rhino in Africa, D.b.longipes, represents the most genetically distant and thus most important population of the species Diceros bicorni the black rhino. There are no known captive individuals in zoos or parks anywhere in the world today, and thus emphasizing the importance in conserving the last remaining population.

    After several detailed action plans in the last decade little progress has been made for the long-term protection of these animals. The last major effort was a location and identification project conducted by the WWF in collaboration with the IUCN/AfRSG and other NGO's in 2001, over 40 signs and tracks of these rhino wherelogged using a GPS in Northern Cameroon, but no sightings where confirmed although sightings where and are still being reported.

    Controversially past efforts have failed to establish the viability of a minimum founder population as a result the IUCN and the WWF can no longer support efforts in Cameroon as conservation funding is limited in general and there are only so many projects they can justify perusing. Operation Black Ghost is a private initiative that is recognized by all the major rhino conservation organizations including the Cameroon Wildlife department, and Conservation Force. We are mainly focused on raising funds through the international hunting community, as this is the only sustainable revenue generating activity in and around the know rhino areas in Northern Cameroon.

    Dr Hubert Planton, a wildlife veterinarian who has spent over 12 years in Northern Cameroon working with wildlife and the local communities heads up Operation Black Ghost. He is a member of the AfRSG and is recognized as the world authority on these rhino. The short-term objective of Operation Black Ghost is to scientifically verify the population, in other words to gain knowledge of the population in order to implement a sound conservation strategy that will ensure their long-term survival of this population. Some of the important questions needing answers are as follows: the actual size of the population, the numbers by age and sex classes, the home range for each individual found, and the relationship between these individuals.

    In recent years new scientific methods have been developed that allow us to now do this passively, through spoor recognition and DNA analysis of the mucus layer surrounding fresh dung it is now possible to extract information about these individuals in a similar fashion to how forensic detectives build a profile of a crime scene. Using these methods only fresh signs of these animals are needed rather than the actual animal themselves. Past expeditions have failed as these rhino are dispersed over such a large area and move up to 50 km a day so getting to within sight of these animals requires a large amount of time and effort, but now with these alternative methods it is possible to build a profile of this population by merely analysing where they have been.

    Operation Black Ghost was initiated in 2002 after the WWF's project was dropped. Early this year we travelled to Cameroon sponsored by Conservation Force, the Dallas Safari Club, and Houston Safari Club and with help and support from SCI. In this trip it was possible to meet with all the key players in this conservation effort as well as to direct our focus towards obtaining an affordable solution to take this project to the next level. The Western Black Rhino is arguably the most endangered large terrestrial animal on earth, the Chinese tiger although also highly endangered itself it is often reported as being the most endangered subspecies on earth but there population estimates are as high as 30 in the wild while as many as 60 survive in captivity. No captive Western Black Rhino survive in captivity while population estimates put the last remaining wild population at between 8 and 15 individuals.

    For further information and donations contact: Campbell Scott, email campbell@djuma.co.za or Hubert Planton, email Hubert.planton@wanadoo.fr

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