JOHANNESBURG There was a narrow window of opportunity to save Africa's northern white rhinos from extinction but bureaucratic ineptitude slammed it shut and the species has now almost certainly vanished from the wild.
The last-ditch effort to save the animal in its final Congolese refuge is detailed in a new book, "The Last Rhinos," by South African conservationist Lawrence Anthony, who died of a heart attack in early March just weeks before it was published.
Anthony, who famously rescued the animals of the Baghdad zoo in the aftermath of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, even travelled into the bush to meet leaders of the infamous Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) to get their promise to protect the rhinos.
With elephant and rhino poaching surging across Africa, Anthony's failed bid to save the northern whites - a sub-species of the horned pachyderm - is a poignant reminder how high the stakes are in the region's brutal wildlife wars.
The last known population of the animals was holed up in Garamba National Park in the northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) - a remote, wild region teeming with armed groups.
The late Douglas Adams, better known for "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" science fiction comedies, visited the reserve two decades ago for a book on vanishing wildlife he wrote entitled "Last Chance to See."
The country was then called Zaire and Adams wrote that the park was "scantily visited" because of the "insane bureaucratic nightmares that assail any visitor."
Anthony could certainly relate. If any man could save the last of the northern white rhinos, it was him. But Congolese government inanities smothered his plans.
Anthony managed to secure the experts needed, the funding and the equipment which would have included helicopters to dart the critters and marksmen to do the job.
The DRC's ambassador to South Africa was behind the project and time was running out as the end of the wet season would make the animals accessible to determined poachers.
The year was 2006 and surveys suggested there were fewer than 15 of the animals left in the wild, with a few in captivity in a Czech zoo - too small a gene pool to do much good.
The Environment Minister in DRC also backed the project but bizarrely, Anthony wrote that he met resistance from ICCN, the Congolese government agency responsible for conservation.
Garamba was effectively run by a non-profit foundation called African Parks and it also finally came on board.
"We immediately contacted the ICCN and informed them of African Parks' decision. A few days later we received a response saying that they agreed to the rescue provided African Parks agreed," Anthony wrote.
"But they have agreed, we replied. And with that the ridiculous merry-go-round started again and we were unable to make any more progress."
SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL
Anthony tried other routes, audaciously making contact with the feared Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), as its gunmen and troops were based in and around the park.
From what is today South Sudan, he travelled to a jungle lair in DRC to meet the LRA's Vincent Otti, who was the number two to the group's leader, Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, wanted by the International Criminal Court for atrocities including the kidnapping of children for use as soldiers and sex slaves.
Anthony claims he got, among other things, the LRA pledge to protect the rhinos, a sacred totem animal for some of the Acholi people of northern Uganda.
But things subsequently came apart. Otti was executed in the bush and subsequent surveys could not find any more of the northern whites. The chance to save the species evaporated.
Elsewhere the rhino situation is brighter, if precarious. The black rhino has gone extinct in west Africa but there are a few thousand left elsewhere, mostly in South Africa and Namibia.
Confusingly, both African species are in fact greyish.
There are around 20,000 southern white rhinos, the vast majority of them in South Africa, where 448 black and white rhinos were poached last year for their horns to meet surging demand from newly affluent Asia, where it is coveted for use in traditional medicines.
Over 600 will be killed this year in South Africa if current trends continue.
Still, there may be one last ray of hope for the northern white rhinos.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature - the authority on issues of extinction - still classifies the species as critically endangered though it admits the last confirmed wild population in Garamba has "probably gone extinct."
But it says there are unsubstantiated reports of a small population hanging on in a remote area of South Sudan.
If that proves true and Anthony was still alive, he would have viewed it "as the best news he ever had in his life," his co-author and brother-in-law Graham Spence told Reuters.
Perhaps the last chance to see them has not vanished.
(Editing by Paul Casciato)