University of Kent

Expert Comment

Olivia Miller1 February 2021Environment

Black rhino in Kruger National Park. Credit: Professor Keith Somerville

The white and black rhino populations of South Africa’s Kruger National Park have plummeted by 66.4% and 64.5%, respectively, over the last 9 years. There are now an estimated 3,549 white rhinos and 268 critically endangered black rhino left in the national park (according to latest figures). These figures for the rhino populations, rather than the statistics indicating the massive decline, were contained in the recently published SANParks annual report for 2019-2020. Professor Keith Somerville of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE) has commented on how rhino poaching is very much still a problem despite the successes claimed in the SANParks annual report. He said:

‘The SANParks annual report is a desperate and transparent attempt to put a positive spin on the problem of rhino poaching and the attempts to reduce it. In her preface to the report, Environment Minister Barbara Creecy breezily boasts that, ‘Wildlife crime decreased significantly in the Kruger National Park in the 2019/20 financial year. Rhino poaching declined year-on-year by 21.61% and elephant poaching by 43.75%.’ Yet, what she and the annual report do not mention is that since 2011, white rhino numbers have dropped from 10,621 to 3,549 and black rhino from 415 to 268. The figure for rhino poached in South Africa in 2020 stands at 394, down from 594 in 2019 – no doubt helped by Covid-19 restrictions on movement and fewer people entering national parks and reserves.

‘The fall in black rhinos in Kruger is particularly a cause for major concern. There are between 5,366 and 5,627 black rhino in the wild, with South Africa and Namibia the most important range states in southern Africa. The fall of 147 in the Kruger population amounts to 2.5% of the world numbers.

‘The SANParks report lauded the successes in reducing poaching, which of course should be welcomed, but failed to note the continued decline or to calculate that the 2020 poaching figure for the park, 303, represented 8.5% of the remaining population. When poaching was at its worst in Kruger in 2017, 853 rhino were poached (9.6% of the remaining population), so there is a marginal improvement but related to a far smaller population.

‘Rhino are poached for their horn, which is much sought after as a traditional medicine and a prestige commodity in Vietnam and China, where the majority of poached horn ends up, fetching prices somewhere between $40,000 and $65,000 a kilogram. The fall in numbers poached has three causes – there are fewer rhino and so are hard to find and kill; anti-poaching has improved in recent years; and, as SANParks noted, Covid-19 measures have ‘restricted movement and strengthened security on the roads in late Quarter 4’. The latter curb on poaching is unlikely to be maintained when current Covid-19 restrictions end in South Africa.

‘The major white rhino population decline and the fall in critically endangered black rhino numbers in one of its key range areas are worrying and an indication that the danger posed by poaching is not over, even if it has at least been reduced in recent years. Much work is still needed internationally and in southern Africa to improve overall conservation of Africa’s rhino species and to combat the illegal trade in rhino horn. Poaching must be reduced further to enable birth rates to substantially exceed poaching and natural deaths to increase numbers of both African species.’

Professor Keith Somerville is a member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation, teaches at the centre for Journalism, is a Fellow of the Zoological Society of London and a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. He has written books on the ivory trade in Africa, human lion conflict and his latest book– Humans and Hyenas: Monsters or Misrepresented, is out in March 2021.

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