In his second look at the rhino-horn trade debate, Professor Keith Somerville, applauds a recent announcement that rhino poaching in the Kruger National Park is on the decline. But is it really a downward trend, or just a re-orientation by poachers in the face of stepped-up security and a reflection of the steady decline in South African rhino numbers due to poaching?

The triumphant announcement in early September by Edna Molewa, South Africa’s minister of environmental affairs, that the Kruger National Park has seen a decline in rhino poaching – the area hardest hit – looks like good news for rhinos and conservation. She said 702 had been killed in South Africa so far, compared with 796 for the same period last year.

This announcement will be a relief to the government and wildlife officials. But is the announcement all it seems? Is there really a downward trend or just a re-orientation by poachers in the face of Kruger’s stepped-up security and a reflection of the steady decline in the country’s rhino numbers due to poaching?

The swings and roundabouts of rhino poaching
Edna Molewa said that between January and August this year, 458 poached rhino carcasses were found in the Kruger National Park, compared to 557 in the same period last year. Earlier this month, Nicholus Funda, the park’s chief ranger, told me that last year, 826 rhinos were poached and he was hopeful this year it would be as low as 700–752. The minister’s figures bear that out. However, he also said the thinning out of rhino in the park’s northern and central areas has led to an increase in the poaching of elephants – 25 in 2015 and 36 this year.

Although the number of discovered carcasses has fallen, incursions by poachers, about half of which were caught by rangers, are up a worrying 27.87 per cent, with a staggering 2,115 for the first eight months of 2016. Minister Molewa stated that since 1 January, 414 alleged poachers had been arrested in South Africa – 177 in the Kruger National Park and 237 in the rest of the country. But the figures don’t tally, unless a significant number of those Nicholus Funda claimed are caught are either shot during capture or released without arrest. The Tipping Point report by investigative journalist Julian Rademeyer, confirms that, in recent years, more than 200 poachers were killed in South Africa (mainly in Kruger).

The number of incursions indicates poachers are developing new strategies and rhinos are harder to find. Kruger has instituted very high security in an intensive protection zone in the southern third of the park and along the border with Mozambique (a regular route for poachers entering the park). As a result, Funda told me, poachers are now posing as tourists to come in through the park gates, rather than via the unfenced Mozambican border. They are also increasingly armed with high-powered Czech hunting rifles with sound moderators Funda believes are bought in from Mozambique, where they are supplied to wildlife officials but then sold on to poachers.

But South Africa has another problem, which could mean a resumption in high poaching levels. While Kruger is experiencing a decline, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Reserve in KZN has experienced the opposite. Jabulani Ngubane, the reserve’s director, confirmed that 95 rhinos have been poached since the beginning of the year. A new carcass was found the day I visited the park.

Hluhluwe-iMfolozi’s head of rhino protection Cedric Coetzee, said he feared that poaching efforts could shift to his reserve, which has about 4,500 white rhinos and 500 black. This is due to the success of Kruger’s security measures and the fact that, while it might take poachers days to track a rhino in Kruger, the high density of animals in the KZN reserve meant they might only spend two to three hours there before killing a rhino and escaping with its horns.

Coetzee and David Cook (a former director of the Natal Parks Board, and former Hluhluwe senior ranger), both believe poaching isn’t declining, it is just shifting location and developing new strategies. Cook, who in the 1960s, worked closely with renowned conservationist Ian Player to save the reserve’s rhino, was particularly upset by this. They enabled the restocking of southern Africa’s parks, protected areas, conservancies and private game reserves/farms with white rhinos from Hluhluwe-iMfoloz’s sole surviving population.

What does the future hold for South Africa’s rhinos?
Since 2006, 5,763 rhinos have been killed in South Africa for their horns. But that number may be even higher according to veteran conservationist John Hanks. The figures released only relate to the carcasses found and identified as having been illegally killed. The problem is not going away. Kruger’s record looks better, but Hluhluwe-iMfolozi is now under threat and there has been a noticeable increase in elephant poaching in Kruger. Rhino horn fetches around $60,000 per kg in Vietnam and China, and too many poor rural dwellers, greedy white professional hunters, former parks officials and even qualified veterinarians, are tempted by the money to be made.

One must hope that the downward trend in poaching continues, but the omens from KZN are not good. A battle has been won in Kruger but the war continues and there are more battles to come.

Professor Keith Somerville, is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, and teaches journalism at the Centre for Journalism at the University of Kent. His book on the history of the ivory trade in Africa – Ivory. Power and Poaching in Africa is published in November 2016. In the coming weeks he will be writing more on the rhino horn debate and Swaziland’s bid at CITES.