by Bonnie Allen
Obama, all two thousand pounds of him, stands next to his mother. He's grey, with stumpy legs, a wide mouth, and two horns on his snout.
Obama is a two-year-old rhinoceros. He lives at the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary in central Uganda, where he gets secret-service style protection.
Robert Ayiko, a ranger, leads the way through tall grass and dense bush.
Ayiko, who's dressed in a green camouflage army uniform, has a machine gun slung across his shoulder.
"This is AK-47. The magazine carries 30 rounds," he said. "Poachers also carry guns. They are our enemies now. If we are lucky to see them first, we can catch them or shoot them."
Ayiko, a retired soldier in charge of security here, has orders to shoot if he finds an armed poacher inside the rhino sanctuary.
Suddenly, he cups his fingers over his mouth and whistles to alert Obama's babysitters that we're approaching. "It's better than radios," Ayiko said.
"Poachers also carry guns. They are our enemies now" (Photo: Bonnie Allen)Obama was the first rhino born in Uganda in 27 years. He got his name because, like the U.S. president, his father is from Kenya, and his mother from America. She was donated by the Disney Animal Kingdom.
"The mother is too aggressive," Ayiko said. "Obama is just taking the character of the mother. Because the mother is too aggressive, Obama is really protected."
This 30-square-mile rhino sanctuary has armed guards, perimeter foot patrols, an electric fence, and constant monitoring.
All this security is to stop a repeat of history. All of Uganda's rhinos — hundreds of them — were killed by poachers in the early 1980s. Rhino horn, which is made of thickly matted hair and keratin, is a precious commodity. One pound of ground rhino horn can fetch $40,000. In Asia, it's used in traditional medicines to treat headaches and fever.
"It's ridiculous," says Angie Genade, executive director of Rhinofund Uganda, who dismisses the idea that rhino horn has any medicinal qualities.
Genade said there's market for rhino horn in China, Vietnam, and also the Middle East. "Yemen uses rhino horn as dagger handles. It's a status symbol," she said. "The price of rhino horn is worth more per ounce than gold right now."
Genade said that rhino poaching has reached an all-time high.
"South Africa lost 333 rhinos last year to poaching. This year — up to end of April — 140 rhinos," she said. She added that poachers now are using helicopters. "It's just become so professional. It's become a very lucrative business."
Six years ago, Rhinofund Uganda flew in six southern white rhinos to start a breeding program. Since then, four babies have been born, and two adult females are pregnant again. The latest rhino born there was Obama's younger sister. She's the first female rhino born in Uganda in 30 years.
The rhino sanctuary — with all its security — costs more than $400,000 a year. Tourists, who arrive daily to see the rhinos, now cover two thirds of that.
But Genade is worried about the rhinos' future. In a few years, Obama and some of the other rhinos will be moved out of the sanctuary into a national park. Uganda's parks have little security. Elephants and lions are frequently poached. And rhinos outside of protected areas rarely survive.
by Bonnie Allen