Expert Comment: Important step to combat rhino poaching – but corruption still a problem

New statistics for rhino conservation from the South African environment ministry point to significant progress in combating rhino poaching. However, Professor Keith Somerville, a conservation expert at the University, said: ‘There is still a mountain to climb in overcoming corruption and institutional failings.’

‘Those concerned with rhino conservation and horrified by the continuing toll of black and white rhinos in Africa breathed a huge sigh of relief  yesterday (13 February 2019) when South Africa’s Environmental Affairs Minister, Ms Nomvula Mokonyane, reported “significant progress” in implementing the national strategy to combat rhino poaching.

‘She said that from 1 January to 31 December 2018 there was a 25% decrease in the number of rhinos poached, with the recorded deaths down to 769 from 1028 in 2017.

‘The announcement drew praise from the NGO Save the Rhinowho tweeted that this was “great news from South Africa with fewer rhinos poached in 2018 than before – and the first time this figure has been below 1,000 since 2012!”

‘This is an important step forward, even though the level of poaching remains a very serious threat, with the 2018 level of  poaching in South Africa alone amounting to nearly 3% of the entire black and white rhino population in Africa (which numbers between 24,724 and 26,532 animals).

Annual poaching figures (from Save the Rhino and Ministry of Environmental Affairs)

2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018
13 83 122 333 448 668 1004 1215 1175 1054 1028 769


‘It would be wrong not to praise the efforts that have led to the decline but there is still a steep mountain to climb both in continuing to bring the numbers down and in prosecuting and jailing those who control and benefit most from poaching, the so-called rhino horn kingpins.

‘There is clear evidence of incompetence and corruption within the judiciary, some sections of the police and even national park rangers (with two of the latter arrested in Kruger National park last month on charges of rhino poaching).

This graft and dysfunctionality casts a dark cloud over what is the welcome development in reducing the numbers of rhino poached. There is clearly still a mountain to climb in overcoming the corruption and institutional failings that are preventing the successful prosecution of those who run rhino horn syndicates.​’

Professor Keith Somerville is a member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent and teaches at the Centre for Journalism.  His book on the history of human-lion conflict and coexistence from the Pleistocene to the present, Humans and Lions Conflict, Conservation and Coexistence,  will be published by Routledge/Earthscan in the summer.​