JOHANNESBURG — The news from Congo's Garamba National Park was grim for decades: rangers killed, an elephant population decimated by poachers, marauding armed groups and the disappearance of the last northern white rhinos living in the wild. African Parks, the non-profit group that took over management in 2005, had doubts about whether it could turn things around.
With international support, the Johannesburg-based outfit stuck it out in a place that resembled a combat zone at times, and it is reporting some good news. Garamba's ranger force of 200 has not suffered a casualty on the job in the last 12 months and just two elephants have been killed this year, compared to 50 in 2017 and 99 in 2016.
The progress highlights a public-private conservation model honed by African Parks, whose expanding operations across the continent are likely to get more attention with Britain's Prince Harry as the group's president. Appointed in December, the royal had worked in the field with African Parks, which has boards in South Africa, Europe and the United States and counts the European Union and USAID among major donors.
African Parks assumes day-to-day management of countries' wildlife areas, seeking more efficiency and accountability in the campaign to protect flora and fauna from poaching and habitat depletion. Many partner nations struggle to run parks on their own, challenged by poverty, corruption and conflict.
Founded in 2000, African Parks established a hard-nosed reputation by going into seriously degraded places armed with the right to hire and fire from governments, which retained broad authority but respected a clear separation of roles. African Parks aims for 25-year commitments; some are 10 years with a right to renew, while others are 50-year deals.
"It was literally, 'Here's a park, we've written it off, there's no wildlife left, there's no value, there's no tourism, there's no income for the park ... so you take it.' And that was fine. We needed to prove that we were able to achieve what we were saying, what we believed was possible," said Peter Fearnhead, African Parks' CEO.
"Our challenges in the past have been trying to convince governments that this was worth doing," Fearnhead said in an interview with The Associated Press. "Our challenge now is almost one of not going too fast and not taking on too much, too quickly."
The group now has more than 1,000 rangers and manages an ecologically diverse portfolio of 15 areas in nine countries, totaling about 105,000 square kilometers (40,500 square miles). It spent $44 million in 2017 and seeks by 2020 to manage 20 parks, a relatively small bulwark amid the hundreds of vulnerable reserves across the continent. It hopes other organizations will take the same approach.
In the past, non-governmental groups provided "bolt-on support" — technical, financial and so on — to state-run parks, but some now look to emulate the public-private management model, Fearnhead said.
Based at New York's Bronx Zoo, the Wildlife Conservation Society helps to protect wild places in 51 countries, 16 of them in Africa.
The WCS management role at Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park in the Republic of Congo is similar to the African Parks model, while it shares management with the Mozambican government in the Niassa National Reserve, whose elephant population has been hit hard by poachers, said Joseph Walston, senior vice president of field conservation programs.
"I would not say that one model is better than the other," Walston said. "It's very context-specific."
African Parks' model is a welcome addition to the "toolbox" as conservation challenges become more urgent, said Bas Huijbregts, African species manager for the WWF conservation group.
The WWF pilots "co-management approaches in some cases," signing a 2015 deal to provide technical leadership in Congo's Salonga, the world's second-largest tropical forest park, Huijbregts said.
African Parks' successes include big inroads against poaching in Chad's Zakouma National Park and the transport of six critically endangered black rhinos there, returning the species decades after it was wiped out in the country. It also restored lions and rhinos to Rwanda's Akagera National Park and relocated hundreds of elephants within Malawi to reduce pressure on natural resources and build up a depleted park elsewhere.
There have been setbacks, some fatal. Last year a rhino at Akagera killed a conservationist, and three people died when a helicopter chartered by African Parks crashed in Chinko park in Central African Republic.
Congo's Virunga National Park, run by a public-private partnership involving the Virunga Foundation, a Britain-based charity, has been closed to tourists after a May attack in which a ranger was killed and three people, including two British tourists, were briefly abducted.
African Parks believes the improved training and equipment of rangers in Garamba has helped to reduce illegal activity there. Dozens of new rangers with automatic rifles paraded on June 13, the 80th anniversary of the park's founding.
The park employs almost 500 full-time staffers and provides employment, health and education to thousands of people. Conservationists increasingly recognize that residents in and around wildlife areas are critical to their work. Poor villages can become recruiting grounds for poachers but can be a park's most effective protectors if provided with jobs and development.
At the June ceremony in Garamba, rangers from the local community stood in formation as a stockpile of confiscated ivory was burned. They pledged to fight poaching "until the ultimate sacrifice."