Herald (Zimbabwe)

SIPOKAZI FOKAZI Journalist 

21 September 2021

A handful of surveillance cameras may not seem very sophisticated for a sanctuary which is also home to the largest population of critically endangered black rhinos anywhere in East Africa.

A handful of surveillance cameras may not seem very sophisticated for a sanctuary which is also home to the largest population of critically endangered black rhinos anywhere in East Africa.
Image: 123RF/Jacoba Susanna Maria Swanepoel

The estimated rhino population in Africa is about 18,000, which represents a 12% decline in the past decade, according to the latest State of Rhino report, published by the International Rhino Foundation .

Poaching continues to put rhino populations in Africa under threat, and in SA alone the white rhino population — once thought to be the largest population in the world – has plummeted by more than two-thirds within eight years, a new report suggests.

After experiencing a decline in poaching in 2020 due to closure of borders as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, white rhino poaching incidents in SA are again on the rise, the report states. In the first half of 2021, SA experienced higher poaching numbers than last year, but fewer deaths compared to the same period in 2019.

Apart from a jump in poaching in the Kruger National Park, authorities have also noted a rise in poaching figures in other areas of the country, possibly due to fewer rhinos in the park.

SA National Parks (SANParks) released a report indicating that the total white rhino population in Kruger National Park – once thought to be the largest population of white rhinos in the world – had plummeted 67% from about 10,621 in 2011 to just 3,549 individuals in 2019.

After experiencing a decline in poaching in 2020, due largely to border closures and the Covid-19 restrictions, the report says white rhino poaching incidents are again on the rise.

The report noted that even though Africa’s black rhino remains an endangered species, it has seen an encouraging population increase of  about 17% over the past decade –  to more than 5,600.

Namibia hosts the largest population of black rhinos in Africa and its Etosha National Park has the world’s largest black rhino population. Rhino numbers are increasing steadily, thanks to the government’s innovative conservation efforts.

On the other hand, Kenya is celebrating the first zero-poaching year in 21 years. Kenya’s worst year for poaching was in 2013 when 59 animals were killed, more than 5% of the national population. The poaching rate has since declined, with just four animals poached in 2019 and none during 2020.

Authors of the report say even though rhinos are found in nine African countries – SA, Botswana, Eswatini, Kenya, Malawi, Namibia, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe — not all countries report rhino populations or  poaching data.

“Demand for rhino horn destined for black markets remains a top threat to the survival of rhinos,” said Nina Fascione, executive director of International Rhino Foundation.

 “Continued co-ordination between countries for law enforcement is vital to breaking the hold of international criminal syndicates on trade.”

In an effort to restore endangered rhino populations, conservation experts are now turning to assisted reproductive technology, which continues to show promise.

In July of this year, scientists working to bring back the functionally extinct northern white rhino announced they had successfully created three additional embryos of the subspecies, bringing the total to 12. They used eggs collected from Fatu, one of the last two remaining northern white rhinos in Ol Pejeta Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya, and sperm from two deceased males.

A scientific consortium, Biorescue, is leading the research with co-operation from the Kenyan government. “The eggs are being fertilised in a lab in Italy. Due to their advanced age, neither of the remaining northern white rhinos are capable of carrying a calf to term, so a surrogate mother will be selected from a population of southern white rhinos if a viable embryo is developed,” the report noted.

“Labs across the world are conducting additional artificial reproductive technology (ART) research in an effort to better understand its application to rhino conservation. The foundation continues to monitor achievements in ART with great interest. Any gains in the understanding of the science behind rhino breeding could prove extremely useful.”

Wildlife crime is an ever-evolving challenge and requires collaboration and co-ordination within and between countries, as rhino horn trade is controlled by large criminal syndicates that operate multinationally.

While the act of poaching is often the most visible and most readily understood part of wildlife crime, the report noted that “it is the transport, trade and sale of illegal rhino horn from the protected area, across provincial boundaries and national borders and all the way to the end consumer that makes this type of crime not just possible, but also profitable”.

“During the past year, there have been some large seizures of rhino horn and several high-profile arrests of suspected wildlife trade criminals by authorities in SA, India and Vietnam. Training is ongoing to better analyse and secure crime scenes, collect evidence and provide testimony to convict wildlife criminals. In Vietnam, authorities have worked to secure longer sentences for wildlife criminals as a deterrent,” the authors said.

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