Keith Somerville

1 August 2021

South Africa’s rhino poaching rise – fears that as COVID restrictions are lifted more will be killed again

Figures released by South Africa’s Department of the Environment, Forestry and Fisheries on International Rangers Day (31st July) show a 50% increase in rhinos poached in the country, compared with the same period of 2020. The environment minister, Barbara Creecy, admitted that 249 rhinos had been killed between 1st January and 30th June 2021.  She said that lifting of COVID restrictions was a major factor in the increase from 166 killed in the same period last year.

When the numbers of rhino poached in South Africa fell in 2020, it was widely seen as a result of three factors – 1.  COVID restrictions making it harder for poachers to operate and easier for anti-poaching and police units to intercept poachers. 2.  Success of the stepped and better targeted anti-poaching in national parks and reserves 3. A natural consequence of the fall in the number of rhinos in Kruger and other protected areas.

When the overall figures for 2020 were announced in February this year, Ms Creecy said that wildlife crime decreased significantly in during the year. Rhino poaching, she said, declined year-on-year by 21.61% and elephant poaching by 43.75%. But what the statements avoided saying openly, though it was buried in the longer environment department report, was that since 2011, white rhino numbers had 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.  The figure for 2021 could top 500 again.  No details were given in the six monthly figures for white and black rhino poached but one can confidently speculate that white numbers are now below 3,500 and black below 250.

Figure 1Black Rhino. Keith Somerville 2016

Much of the fall in 2020 was put down to the improved observation, interception and arrest of poachers, given that COVID restrictions had cut travel and the tourist presence in Kruger – poachers often go in posing as tourists in order to poach and bring horns out. I was told several years ago by Kruger anti-poaching officials that a car would enter Kruger and be logged in with say two passengers (but with poachers hiding in the boot or on the floor of the rear of the vehicle) and logged out again having let the poachers out.  Another vehicle would enter a day or two later and pick up the poachers and the horns.

As COVID restrictions have eased and travel, as well as visitors to national parks, have begun to climb again, the numbers of rhinos poached has risen sharply.  With more traffic and more people in the park it is harder to pick out poachers. And what is clear is that the fall in poaching in 2020 did not amount to a fall in demand for rhino horn in markets like Vietnam, China and elsewhere in East Asia.

The fall in numbers is of huge concern, but so is the attitude of the South African government, which claims to be seriously addressing poaching. The government has closed the special anti-poaching court that had been operating at Kruger’s Skukuza HQ since 2017 and had a very good record of convicting arrested poachers.  The court was set up in March 2017 to ensure captured rhino poachers faced justice quickly.

A hard-hitting report by Tara Keir of  National Geographic in July 2021 on the closure of the Skukuza court,  said that the failure of the South African Police Service to renew a contract for DNA testing of rhino horn evidence and sidelining of effective anti-poaching rangers, like David English (who had helped catch Kruger NP rangers who were themselves poaching), highlighted government failure to seriously combat poaching and suggested they were “a likely example of syndicate influence”.

Keir detailed that “during its first year, the court brought more than 90 poachers to justice—a 100 percent conviction rate”.  Its closure means more delays in bringing poachers to trial, during which time they can continue their activities or through the syndicates organise others to poach.  One high profile case, that would have been tried at Skukuza is of Rodney Landela, a senior Kruger ranger, who was caught by colleagues after poaching a rhino 27 July 2016.  He is still out on bail in a village near the north of the Kruger NP and an attempt to bring him to court on 6 July this year failed, as his lawyers employed more delaying tactics.

As Landela stays out of jail, the successful and respected Kruger Regional Ranger, Don English suffered suspension from duty and is now being moved from the Intensive Protection Zone to the north of the park, where there are now few rhino.  This weakens the capability of anti-poaching units in the Zone and gives poachers a chance to continue increasing the kill rate.

The Skukuza court closure, the inefficiency or susceptibility of other courts to the influence of the rhino horn syndicates, the lack of serious efforts to enable DNA testing of seized rhino horn and the effect on moral and operational capability of suspending or moving out of Kruger’s IPZ of successful officers are highly damaging.  They suggest at best a lack of seriousness on the part of the wildlife and law enforcement authorities to combat poaching, or at worst a willingness to allow powerful figures linked to or bribed by the criminal syndicates to make a mockery of the efforts of those seriously trying to end rhino poaching and enable the population to recover.

Professor Keith Somerville is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London. He is a member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation at the University of Kent, and a fellow of the Zoological Society of London. He has written books on the ivory trade in Africa, human-lion conflict and his latest book, Humans and Hyenas: Monsters or Misrepresented was published in March 2021 and he is now working on a book on conservation of honey badgers and jackals.