Saturday, August 12, 2023

Guest post: The return of the rhinos


Antony Dunford is a crime writer from Yorkshire in England and he knows his stuff. He has an MA in creative writing and another in crime fiction, and he’s been writing stories since he can remember. Antony’s impressive debut novel, Hunted, set in Kenya and published in 2021, was shortlisted for the UEA Little, Brown award, and long listed for the CWA John Creasey New Blood dagger.

Born the Same was released this year and is a prequel to Hunted. Stanley's prerelease blurb for the new book was “One of the most atmospheric books I’ve read. Dark, frightening, exciting.” It's at least that good!

At the heart of the new novel is a search for the last northern white rhinos in the Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It's set at the time when that corner of the DRC was one of the most dangerous places in Africa. The powerful characters and great sense of place are driven by a steaming plot. In today's guest blog, Antony tells us the history of Garamba and how he became interested in the rhinos. - Michael

Antony in action
In Douglas Adams’ second novel, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, there is a character called Hotblack Desiato, a rock star who had once spent a year dead for tax reasons.The inspiration for this character’s name came from Hotblack Desiato, the name of a new estate agent / realtor that had opened the year before (1979) in Islington, London, close to where Douglas was living at the time. Douglas asked the owners if they minded him using their name for a character in a novel. They said no problem.

The inspiration for this character’s state was something Douglas’s accountant had said when reflecting on the amount of money Douglas had earned for his first novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: ‘You should take a year off for tax reasons.’ That sentence didn’t only inspire the joke about a rock star spending a year dead for tax reasons, it also led to Douglas taking a year off from writing novels. It didn’t happen until 1988.

In 1985 the Observer newspaper paid for Douglas and the biologist Mark Carwardine to travel to Madagascar in search of an endangered species of lemur, the aye aye. The result was an article about their trip, and, for Douglas, a desire to go see other endangered species. He and Mark came up with the idea of a radio programme in which they travelled to the habitat of an endangered species, caught a glimpse of it, and recorded some facts about the wildlife (courtesy of Mark), amidst humorous description of the state of the human beings in the environment (courtesy of Douglas), and pitched it to the BBC. The BBC agreed to buy a six part series.

Mark made a list of eight endangered species, and in 1988 off he and Douglas went. Their adventures are recorded in a book and radio programme both called Last Chance to See.

One of the species was the northern white rhino. Douglas and Mark were able, eventually, to visit Garamba National Park in the northeast corner of what was then Zaire. The northern white rhinos had been poached almost to extinction – there were just 22 animals left in the wild, with another 8 in a zoo in the Czech Republic, and 5 in San Diego zoo – due to the demand for their horn. Northern white rhino horn was not used in folk remedies in the far east, the market that drives the destruction of the other species of rhino. It was used as a fashion accessory – young men in the Yemen felt the need to express their virility by having a rhino-horn handled dagger in their possession.

Northern white rhino

Nonetheless, Douglas and Mark went at a time of hope for Garamba national park. Whilst there were only 22 rhinos, that was up from 15 a few years before. There were conservationists active in the park, including Kes Hillman-Smith who showed Mark & Douglas around, supported by rangers. By 1988 there had been no rhinos killed by poachers in the park in more than three years. In Last Chance to See Douglas speaks of his hope that this might lead to the restoration of the species to a sustainable population. 

In 2000 a female northern white rhino was born in Dvůr Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic. She was named Fatu. That same year the Garamba rhino population reached 36. Tragically, in 2001, Douglas died of a heart attack at the age of just 49. He would never know that the Sudanese civil war and several internal Congolese rebellions drove a spike in poaching from 2003. In that year alone half of the rhino population of Garamba was murdered. By 2006 only 4 were left. 

In 2009, for the 20th anniversary of the broadcast and publication of Last Chance to See, Mark Carwardine set out to revisit all the creatures they had visited in the first series. This time he travelled with Stephen Fry, who had been house-sitting for Douglas during the first trip. When it came to the northern white rhino, they were told they could not go to Garamba. Even if there had been rhino still there, and none had been seen in the park since 2006, the area was too dangerous – several armed groups from the DRC and Sudan were active in the area. The last (unconfirmed) sighting of rhino in the wild in central Africa was in February 2009 by a Russian helicopter pilot flying over southern Sudan. 

Of all the species Douglas and Mark visited for Last Chance to See, it was perhaps the plight of the northern white rhino that effected Douglas the most. In 1994 he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in a rhino costume to raise money for Save the Rhino. Since 2003 Save the Rhino have held an annual Douglas Adams Memorial Lecture to raise money and publicise the plight of the rhino still remaining. 

So it would perhaps have been particularly pleasing to him that in July 2023 rhinos came to live once more in Garamba National Park. They are not northern white rhinos, of which only two remain, both in captivity in Kenya, and both female – one of them is Fatu, the last northern white rhino to be born in captivity, and one of the last ones born at all. Garamba’s new inhabitants are southern white rhinos, the other sub-species of white rhino. 16 of them have been relocated to Garamba from South Africa, with more likely to follow. The region is more stable and the park better protected. Perhaps they will be allowed to flourish and fill the gap left in the ecosystem by the persecution of their cousins.

White rhinos reintroduced to Garamba

 Antony Dunford



  1. Thank you so much for inviting Antony, Michael, and thank you Antony for such a great and comprehensive article on this vital issue. I was lucky enough to read the Douglas Adams book when I was doing research for my series, and I do think he would be heartened to see the effort Garamba National Park has made. Thanks again for visiting!

  2. Like elephants, such magnificent animals