(IUCN Red List)
South African Population
+/- 90% of Total Population.
South African Population
+/- 44% of Total Population.
(IUCN Red List)
South Africa has reason for both pride and shame in the story of the rhino.
Despite a recent drop in poaching numbers, two rhinos are killed illegally in South Africa each day and our country remains at the epicentre of the crisis.
In the 1950s and 1960s a proudly South African wildlife initiative was launched that has come to be recognised as one of the greatest conservation success stories of all time. ‘Project Rhino’ saved the southern white rhino from extinction, taking a population on the brink of disappearing (less than two hundred rhinos) to reach over 17,000 by 2010.
Similarly, in 1933 numbers of black rhino in Africa had dwindled to about 110 animals and conservation efforts saw a remarkable recovery with population growth reaching around 70,000 black rhinos by the 1970s.
In contrast to state-owned animals, black and white rhino numbers on private land in South Africa have increased over the same period.
Whilst some smaller private owners have sold their rhinos over recent years, (largely due to the increasing costs and risks of rhino ownership), in general there has been a sector wide consolidation of privately owned populations.
Unlike in state parks and game reserves, private owners have also invested heavily in supplementary feeding of their animals during the recent and continuing drought, which has reduced mortalities and improved birth rates.
Whilst slowly rising black rhino numbers and the modest downward trend in poaching statistics in recent years gives us a tentatively positive story to tell, the battle to save these magnificent beasts is far from over.
Tragically, these achievements have since been reversed dramatically.
Between the 1970s and 1990s, 96% of Africa’s black rhinos had been killed.
From a low point of around 2,500 in the mid-1990s, the black rhino species has once again made a strong recovery to a current population of around 5,500 individuals although increased poaching has slowed population growth in recent years and the species remains critically endangered.
White rhino numbers increased rapidly until 2010 and then slowed as the poaching crisis took hold, with numbers declining from 2012 onwards. In South Africa, white rhino numbers dropped dramatically in the five-year period to 2017 – by a staggering 51% in Kruger National Park and 26% in other state-run parks and game reserves.
Demand for rhino horn exploded in the mid-2000s and the level of poaching sky-rocketed.
Poaching syndicates have become increasingly organised and sophisticated, well-armed, aggressive and connected to other forms of international organised crime.
All this means that protecting rhinos has become increasingly costly and risky.
From 13 rhinos killed illegally in South Africa in 2007, the number increased by over 9000% in just seven years. The crisis reached a gruesome peak in 2015 with almost 3.7 rhinos being killed per day in 2015.
Driving the poaching crisis is the market for rhino horn in Asian countries, most notably Vietnam and China. Despite the international ban on trade and conclusive evidence demonstrating that there is no medicinal value in using rhino horn, it continues to fetch huge prices on the black market.
A decline has been recorded in recent years and the number of rhinos poached dropped below 1,000 in 2018 for the first time since 2012.
However, levels of poaching remain very high and reported numbers are likely to be an underestimation given that significant numbers of illegal rhino killings go undetected in very large areas due to low field ranger densities.
The latest statistics released by the South African government Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF) show total numbers of rhinos poached in the country as 769 in 2018 and 594 in 2019.
However, it is increasingly difficult to tell what these official numbers mean for the rhino population as a whole because of the lack of census data from the Kruger National Park since 2017. The figures that are available show a massive, more than 50% decline in the white rhino population in Kruger over the last six years, which seriously calls into question any congratulatory rhetoric about ‘winning the war on poaching’.