By Keith Somerville

In recent weeks three announcements have highlighted the continuing danger to South Africa’s black and white rhinos from poaching, and the search for means to fund rhino conservation.  South Africa’s environment minister gave the annual poaching figures, which showed that 451 rhinos were poached in 2021, while the annual quotas for trophy hunting were revealed. The third was the unveiling of a World Bank scheme to issue a Conservation Bond to attract investment into the conservation sector, specifically targeting protection of black rhinos.

Poaching on the rise again post-COVID

The February announcement by South Africa’s Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, Barbara Creecy, of the rhino poaching figures for 2021 was the traditional game of smoke and mirrors, trying to portray a positive image when the news was bad. Creecy disclosed that 451 rhinos had been poached the previous year, lauding the figure as below the pre-COVID poaching level.

The Minister said of 451 rhino killed,  327 died on government reserves, and 124 were poached on private property; 209 were killed in the world famous Kruger National Park run by South African national parks (SANParks). She added, “South Africa remains committed to safeguarding the country’s rhino populations, and will continue to work tirelessly, alongside the private sector, committed non-governmental organisations (NGOs), as well as authorities in transit and destination countries, to combat wildlife crime.”

The 209 rhino poached for their horns in Kruger,  “was in fact a decrease in comparison to 2020, when 247 rhino were poached within the national parks. It is important to note that none of SANParks’ smaller rhino parks experienced any rhino losses from poaching in 2021, in comparison to the two rhino that were poached in 2020,” the Minister said.  But the 2021 figure overall shows a rise from the number of rhino poached in 2020, which was 394.  Creecy made the hollow boast that killing was below the 2019, pre-COVID level of 594.

In Kwa-Zulu Natal province, which houses the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve, “renowned worldwide for being the historical home of the Southern white rhino, following the successful ‘Operation Rhino’ efforts in the 1950s to bring back white rhino from the brink of extinction”, according to the conservation NGO Save the Rhino, the number of rhino poached in 2021 rose to 102 from 93 the year before.

Figure 1 White rhino at Hluhluwe-iMfolozi reserve. Copyright Keith Somerville

The number killed on private reserves or game ranches was 124, which was a rise in numbers and of the percentage killed on private versus state land from 23 to 27% – 91 were killed on private reserves/ranches in 2020.  Poachers appeared to have started to vary their targets away from national parks and state or provincial-run reserves and are targeting private rhino owners in a variety of provinces. In 2021, poaching rose 111% in Limpopo province, 200% in Mpumalanga and a staggering 2,300% in Eastern Cape (which saw one rhino poached in 2020m, but 24 in 2021.

COVID restrictions on travel, the consequent fall in visitors to national parks and reserves, and the checks set up on roads to discourage unnecessary travel had all played a role in reducing poaching. Travel to and from state or private land with rhino populations was reduced and COVID checks increased the likelihood that poachers or smugglers carrying horn would be stopped and arrested.

The attempt at optimism was rather hollow.  Behind the self-congratulatory tone is the terrible statistic that poaching may decrease at times simply because there are fewer and fewer rhinos to kill for their valuable horns (still fetching between $40k and $60k per kg in Vietnam, China and the Far East). In 2009, there were 21,087 rhinos in South Africa and 122 were poached – 0.57% of the population. This means that reproduction would have outweighed poaching and so there was annual increase in the rhino population. In 2021, in Kruger alone, which has 3,549 white rhino and 268 black, a poaching level of 209 is 5.46%. Rhinos don’t breed until about 5 years of age, and females can produce calves every 2.5-3 years. This means a high poaching rate allows no time for recovery of numbers.

How have private rhino owners fared?

The rise in killing of rhinos for their horns on private reserves and ranches is bad news for  private rhino owners.  About half of South Africa’s 12,300 white rhino are privately-owned, according to wildlife journalist Ed Stoddard, with about 2,000 of them on John Hume’s huge Buffalo Dreams Ranch. Hume has about 13% of the entire global population of white rhino and pays out a massive $2 million a year in security costs.  This outlay has enabled him to prevent poaching of his rhino, with none killed in the last five years.

But security is much harder on smaller reserves with smaller financial resources.  This accounts for the switch from poaching in national parks and reserves to private rhino owners.  The rhino on smaller reserves may be less closely protected and easier targets.  The incentive to invest more in protecting rhino is just not there for private owners.  In December 2020, a government-commissioned study recommended the phasing out of breeding and keeping of rhino on private land and the return of the rhino to what was termed “wilder land” and warned of the dangers of in-breeding by private owners.

Figure 2 Rhino being dehorned after sedation on John Hume’s ranch. Copyright: Keith Somerville

This setback for private owners followed the failure of John Hume’s domestic rhino horn auction in 2017, which took place after the government ban on domestic horn trading was lifted after a high profile series of court cases, which the government lost. Hume put up for sale 264 rhinos horns – all from the non-lethal dehorning of his rhino. But the auction was a failure with Hume admitting he was disappointed and blaming the government for its attempts to block the sale and delays in issuing the legal permits for the horn.

The move to end private ownership will be opposed by the Private Rhino Owners’ Association (PROA), who argue that the thousands of rhino they own and protect are vital to the future of rhino conservation in South Africa.  Pelham Jones, chair of PROA, has lamented the rise in poaching on private reserves, the ever greater strain on owners’ resources and the hostile attitude of the government. It is likely that PROA will legally challenge any attempt to close down private ownership of rhinos and that at a time when cooperation between the state and rhino owners is ever more necessary, the government approach will generate conflict.

Trophy hunting income or investment as a source of conservation funding?

With the domestic horn sales unlikely to take off any time soon, and provide income for rhino conservation, and the international wildlife trade body CITES dominated by western countries and other opponents of a legal horn or ivory trade, trade is clearly not going to provide income for rhino conservation and anti-poaching measures.

One traditional source of income has been trophy hunting. In March,  the South African government announced the granting of the annual hunting and export permits for big game, including 10 critically endangered black rhinoceros and a similar number of leopards. It also gave permission for 150 elephants to be killed.  Black rhino are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as critically endangered. But their numbers in the wild have doubled to more than 5,000 from the low point 30 years ago. The Ministry of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment said its allocated quota for rhino was based on population estimates, “which show an increasing trend at present”. Hunting is big business in South Africa, bringing in around 1.4bn rand ($92m) in 2019.  Some of the income from the government-approved annual hunting quotas goes towards conservation and some to the local rural communities where the hunts take place.  The quota announcement was condemned by South Africa animal rights groups and by international NGOs such as the Humane Society International.  Until the quotas and associated permits are sold, it is unclear quite how much income will be raised for rhino conservation.

The other, entirely new, initiative for helping fund rhinos is the proposed Wildlife Conservation Bond (WCB), or Rhino Bond. This aims to get investors to put money into conservation and then get a return on the investment, based on any increase in South African black rhino numbers. The scheme is backed by the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, an arm of the World Bank.  The World Bank said that R152 million would be the target and it would be used to increase black rhino populations in South Africa’s Addo Elephant National Park and the Great Fish River Nature Reserve. The growth rates in the populations would be checked by the Zoological Society of London. If population growth is achieved, investors would get their stake back plus about 9% profit.  Journalist Ed Stoddard struck a slightly sceptical note after the announcement, noting that the reserves were in the poorly-governed Eastern Cape, although the World Bank said that the reserves were chosen “based on their ecological, managerial and financial capacity to achieve rhino conservation outcomes”.

This scheme may or may not work, but overall the future for rhino conservation in South Africa remains deeply troubled with poaching rising, private owners suffering and a war on the cards between private owners and the government.

Professor Keith Somerville is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, a Member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, University of Kent and a Fellow of the Zoological Society of London