By Keith Somerville

The newly-released annual report by South African National Parks (SANParks) paints a sobering picture of the losses of white rhino in Kruger National Park (KNP), that sadly mirrors a report compiled by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) and Traffic (who monitor wildlife crime) for the CITES 19th Conference of Parties (19th CoP) held in November in Panama.

The SANParks survey of its parks for 2021-2022 pointedly did not provide exact population statistics for white and black rhino in the park but cited Dr Sam Ferreira, Large Mammal Ecologist for SANParks and Scientific Officer for the IUCN’s African Rhino Specialist Group, on the long-term reduction in white rhino numbers and a drop but then slow recovery in black rhino in KNP.

The annual report tried to put a brave face on things by recording that in 2021-2022 KNP lost 195 rhinos and nine elephant to poaching compared with 247 rhino and 15 elephant in the previous year.   They ascribed this supposed success to the Integrated Wildlife Strategy developed by the South African Government. During Disaster Management Regulations.  The report lauded that SANParks “witnessed a significant drop in wildlife crime, particularly rhino poaching in KNP”, while the Skukuza Court presided over most rhino poaching cases and achieved a 97% conviction rate. This included the jailing of one rhino poacher, Sipho Titus Khosa for 34 years – though it took from his arrest in September 2016 to November 2022 to achieve a conviction.  In the meantime, his co-accused skipped bail and avoided trial and conviction – an all-too-common occurrence with South Africa’s inefficient and corruption-ridden justice system that enables poachers to evade justice and their crime syndicate bosses to continue running poaching and smuggling.

The figures for KNP’s rhino population up to 2021, provided by Africa Geographic are chilling, though.  The publication’s website reported in December that there were an estimated 2,250 (in a calculated range of 1,986-2,513) white rhinos in Kruger in September 2021, compared to the 2,607 (in a range of 2,475-2,752), counted in September 2020.  The number of the highly endangered black rhino was put by the 2021 survey at an estimated 208 (160-255) in Kruger, compared with the 2020 estimate of 202 (172-237).

But over the last decade KNP’s rhino numbers have fallen catastrophically – in 2011 there were an estimated 10,621. Now down at 2250; black rhino numbers were 415 in 2013 and stood at 208 in 2021, up from 202 in 2020.

The South African Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment will release the statistics for overall rhino poaching in SANParks, other reserves such as the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) reserves, especially Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, in March or April 2023.  While this will show the slight decline in poaching in Kruger and no poaching in other national parks, it will undoubtedly reveal that there has been a shift in poaching effort away from SANParks to KZN, where it is thought nearly 200 rhinos have been poached this year and to privately-owned reserves.

As highlighted at the top of this report,  the IUCN/Traffic rhino survey for the CITES 19th CoP gave a grim picture of rhino conservation in Africa as a whole, recording that at the end of 2021, Africa had an estimated 22,137 rhinoceroses, with 6,195 black and 15,942 white rhinoceroses. It highlighted that, “The estimated overall number of rhinoceroses in Africa is lower than that reported at CoP18 (23,562 by the end of 2017). In this regard, the estimated number of black rhino numbers (6,195 at the end of 2021) was 12.2% higher than the estimate of 5,495 individuals at the end of 2017. In contrast, the estimated number of white rhinoceroses (15,942 at the end of 2021) was 11.8 % lower than the estimated 18,067 individuals at the end of 2017. The report concludes that African rhinoceros continental numbers declined by 1.6% per annum from 2017 to 2021, and that black rhinoceros increased at 3.0% per annum, while white rhinoceros decreased at 3.1% per annum.”

The same IUCN/Traffic report said that from 2018 to 2021, 2,707 rhino poaching incidents were recorded in Africa, 90% of them in South Africa. It noted that, “During 2020, when governments globally implemented measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, three range States recorded lower poaching rates”, including South Africa, where an estimated 79.4% reduction in the illegal killing of rhinos occurred in the KNP. But poaching rose again in 2021 in South Africa and also in Kenya and Botswana. Figures for 2022 are expected to show poachers shifting attention from areas in South Africa with better protection to the country’s private reserves to KZN and to other countries such as Kenya and Namibia with substantial rhino populations, though the latter has a strong record in protection and anti-poaching operations.

On the plus side

There were some slightly positive signs that efforts to gain support for rhino conservation and strengthen anti-poaching measures could bear fruit in the future. A boost for SANParks amid the concerns over white rhino numbers was the finalisation of a deal with the World Bank (aka International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) under which the Bank will attract investors in Wildlife Conservation Bonds, the funds raised being used in South Africa to promote rhino reintroductions, conservation and protection in national parks outside Kruger. These have been dubbed ‘rhino bonds’ and are five-year sustainable development bonds, valued at Rand150 million.  SANParks will use them to protect and expand black rhino populations in the Addo Elephant National Park, and the Great Fish River Nature Reserve (managed by the Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency).  On 23 March 2022, the World Bank secured investor orders for the rhino bonds.

At the same time, tourist numbers visiting national parks have picked up appreciably since the drastic fall during COVID restrictions and the consequent fall in domestic and international visitor numbers. SANParks’ report said that numbers have “started to recover from the record low of 1 996 667 in 2020/21 to 3 482 514 in this financial year”.   This will bring in much-needed income and should increase ranger and anti-poaching operations.

SANParks are also carrying out dehorning to bolster other preventative anti-poaching measures in KNP. In 2021-2, 753 white and 52 black rhinos were dehorned. “Dehorning involves removal of both horns from immobilised rhinos, leaving a stump to protect the sensitive epidermal layer required for regrowth. Rhinos are also ear-notched and microchipped subcutaneously for individual identification.”  The aim is to deter poaching – as little horn is left on the stump and so the incentive to poach dehorned rhinos is low, despite the continuing high price of rhino horn in the main markets in China and Vietnam – the current price is fluctuating having fallen from $65,000 per kg to somewhere between $25-40,000 per kg according to rhino trade specialists to whom the author spoke.

For SANParks, a slightly optimistic sign is that Kruger poaching has dropped (though this is linked to falling rhino numbers there as well as protection measures)  and no rhino were poached in six national parks which now have rhino – Addo Elephant, Karoo, Mountain Zebra, Mokala, Mapungubwe and Marakele National Parks. These parks have white rhino and two subspecies of black rhinos, namely south-central and southwest.  SANParks recorded that population growth for the rhino species in these parks had been good, with 6.2% growth achieved.

This is encouraging, but there is still a long way to go before we can say that South Africa’s rhino, and Africa’s as a whole, are on the road to recovery and safety.

Professor Keith Somerville is a Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, a Member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, University of Kent,and  a Fellow of the Zoological Society of London. His most recent book is Jackals, Golden Wolves, and Honey Badgers
Cunning, Courage, and Conflict with Humans
(Routledge, 2022) and he is now writing a history of the exploitation and conservation of African rhino for Pelagic Publishing.