Rhino slaughter abates, but their troubles are far from over
In less than a decade, the population of the world’s largest rhino sanctuary has been slashed by nearly 50%
SA is home to the overwhelming majority of the world’s besieged rhinos – so the recent 25% drop in the annual slaughter rate of rhinos has been hailed as a rare piece of good news for conservation.
But behind this seemingly dramatic poaching decline lies a more troubling statistic: In less than a decade, the population of the world’s largest rhino sanctuary has been slashed by nearly 50%, mainly by horn poachers and to a lesser extent by the recent drought.
SA is the cradle of white rhino conservation and was, until recently, custodian to roughly 93% of the remaining white rhinos of Africa and 82% of the continent’s combined black and white rhino population.
So while the latest drop in rhino poaching is good news, it also suggests that horn poaching syndicates have wiped out most of the “easy pickings” and their foot soldiers now have to work that much harder to find enough rhinos to poach.
The sharp decline in rhino numbers in Kruger National Park – home to the world’s single-largest rhino population in the world – has also heightened concerns that this population has passed the critical “tipping point”, where the number of deaths outstrips the number of rhino calves born each year, and is therefore in steady decline.
At a national level, SA was home to an estimated 25,000 rhinos (white and black species) in 2015. The exact number remaining has not been disclosed by the government, nor have updated statistics been published by the African Rhino Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
However, analysis of the available official statistics suggests that the Kruger National Park rhino population has dropped by an estimated 49.2% in just seven years.
SA National Parks estimated there were between 8,700 and 12,200 white rhinos in the park in 2010 (a middle range of about 10,450 animals).
Yet more recent statistics from the department of environmental affairs suggest there were only between 4,759 and 5,532 of these animals left in Kruger during 2017 (a middle range of just 5,145 survivors).
Former Kruger Park director Dr Salomon Joubert believes the park’s population could be even lower than this and that the tipping point was reached in 2013.
“We are talking about the biggest rhino reserve in the world,” Joubert said.
“When you reach that tipping point – where the number of deaths exceeds the natural growth rate – then this gap is likely to widen more rapidly unless poaching can be brought under control.”
Earlier this month, environmental affairs minister Nomvula Mokonyane announced that 769 rhinos had been poached nationwide during 2018 (a 25% decline compared with 1,028 animals in 2017).
In the Kruger Park, however, the poaching rate decline was closer to 16%.
“This is the third consecutive year that we have seen a decline in rhino poaching, particularly in our national parks, and it is the first time in five years that the annual figure is under 1,000,” said Mokonyane.
She suggested the decline was an indication of successful implementation of a new integrated strategic management approach and also “a confirmation of the commitment and dedication of the men and women working at the coalface to save the species”.
During 2018, she said, 229 alleged poachers were arrested inside and adjacent to the Kruger Park, 40 more than in 2017. Nationwide, 365 alleged rhino poachers and 36 alleged rhino horn traffickers were arrested nationally – one poacher each day.
The global conservation group WWF has welcomed the news, but warned that “the crisis for rhinos is far from over”.
“It is important to consider the number of live rhinos remaining as well as the number of poaching losses. Also of concern are reports from other rhino range states that levels of poaching pressure remain high across the region,” WWF said.
The group said that while there had been some major arrests and convictions in 2018, the frequent granting of bail – especially to those in the crime syndicates co-ordinating rhino horn trafficking – was a serious concern.
One alleged poacher, Muntugokwakhe Khoza, was arrested just short of 10 years ago but his trial has yet to be finalised. While still out on bail he was arrested and convicted of rhino horn possession and sentenced to six years in jail. After serving part of this sentence he was released, still on bail, and then arrested for a third time in August 2018 for another case of alleged horn poaching.
Dr Jo Shaw, African Rhino Lead for WWF International, said: “The fact that fewer rhinos have been lost in South Africa in 2018 is good news and merits credit for the hard work and commitment of all those involved.
“However, the overall status of our rhino populations remains a concern and we need continued commitment to address the systemic challenges for rhinos across the region.”
Wildlife rangers and law enforcement officers at the sharp end of the increasingly militarised conservation crisis also remain at high risk. Earlier this month, for example, a SANParks pilot was injured during a crash-landing accident while in pursuit of poachers.
SANParks spokesperson Ike Phaahla said pilot Steven Whitfield suffered cuts and bruises, apparently after his engine failed while chasing poachers in the Kingfisherspruit section of the Kruger Park.
Phaahla said he was not able to disclose the latest rhino population estimates for the park. He confirmed that an aerial census was completed in the park in November 2018, but said these results had not been released yet by the department of environmental affairs.