My review of The Last Rhinos: My Battle to Save One of the World’s Greatest Creations by Lawrence Anthony with Graham Spence, Thomas Dunne Books, 2012.
I got this book thinking that it was a conservation oriented memoir about saving the white rhinos from poaching in Northern Congo’s Garamba National Park. It was, in fact, a conservation oriented memoir but more about South Africa than the Congo. About the Congo it was an indictment of third world bureaucracy and political infighting; surprisingly the book was also a first person account of Anthony’s interaction with the Lord’s Resistance Army. Bottom line up front: the battle to save the rhinos failed, but the effort was noble and notable.
The basic plot was that Anthony, a South African conservationist, who lived on and owned his own private game reserve became seized with the idea that the dozen or so northern white rhinos that lived in Garamba Park, the last of their species alive in the wild, could be tranquilized and transported to safety outside of the Congo, probably to Kenya. There they could live and breed until safe for them to be returned to their native range. Problems to be overcome in the effort were: the necessary permissions from the government of the Congo, the extreme isolation of Garamba and the fact that in 2005 the park was infested with elements of the Lord’s Résistance Army, the notorious mystic-led guerilla force that had fled west from Uganda to wreak havoc among villages in the most out-of-the-way corner of the continent.
Anthony easily organized a team of experts and logistics that could handle the finding, tranquilizing and, transport of the rhinos. This would involve helicopters, heavy aircraft, veterinarians, vehicles and the logistics necessary to keep the operation in the field for the time required. Besides calling on friends and conservation organizations for funding, key to these arrangements would be the participation of the United Nations peacekeeping operation in Congo (MONUC). A more thorny problem proved to be permissions from the government of the Congo. Intially, it looked easy as senior officials readily endorsed the plan, but when it came down to the two organizations that actually had responsibility for the park, impasse after impasse was encountered. Apparently both turf and internal politics caused hurdles that could not be resolved. In despair, because the rainy season would soon come to an end and poachers would be able to move freely, Anthony decided to try to contact the Lord’s Resistance Army to seek its support for safeguarding the rhinos.
Anthony learned that peace negotiations were underway between the government of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army in Juba, South Sudan. Although leery of the LRA on account of its horrendous record of human rights abuses including rape, murder, and forcible recruitment of child soldiers, he decided to take the chance. Ultimately he contacted the LRA and because he was an animal man, i.e. specifically interested in rhinos, and not someone with a political agenda, he won their confidence and their agreement to interdict poaching of rhinos, an animal that the Acholi people considered sacred. Anthony finalized the agreement during a visit to LRA camps in Garamba. Yet, the LRA wanted more, they wanted Anthony to help make their case to the world. The case was that grievances against Museveni’s government were legitimate, that his abuses of the Acholi people had to stop, and that justice should come through traditional mechanisms of palaver rather than the International Criminal Court. In turn Anthony advised that attacks against Ugandan internally displaced persons camps must halt and also the recruitment of children. Anthony reported that in addition to protecting rhinos General Vincent Otti and the “high altar” command agreed to those terms. Despite being planned, Anthony did not meet with LRA chief Joseph Kony during his bush sojourn.
Embolden by this success, operation rhino was closer to go, but it never happened. Congo permissions never came through, Otti was executed on Kony’s orders days after Anthony left, the agreement voided, the rainy season ended and rhinos were poached.
What a saga! Interspersed with it all were anecdotes about wildlife, including southern white rhinos, on Anthony’s home preserve. Sadly, Lawrence Anthony died before the publication of this book.