Rhino poaching in South Africa is down by 25 per cent but there is still a mountain to climb, says Professor Keith Somerville, senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies.

Rhino conservationists breathed a sigh of relief on 13 February when Nomvula Mokonyane, South Africa’s environment minister, reported ‘significant progress’ in the country’s anti-poaching strategy. She said that figures show a 25 per cent decrease in the number of rhinos poached in 2018, with 769 recorded deaths compared to 1,028 in 2017.

It would be wrong not to praise the efforts that have led to the decline. However, there is still a steep mountain to climb to keep bringing the numbers down, and to prosecute and jail the so-called rhino horn kingpins.

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


Between 2007, when the numbers began surging, and the end of 2018, records show that 8,014 rhinos were poached in South Africa, but the real number may be higher, with carcasses not found or reported. The launch in 2014 of the Integrated Strategic Management of Rhinoceros policy, bringing together the departments of Environmental Affairs, Justice, Crime Prevention and the Security Cluster agencies (including police, army and intelligence bodies) has had some success.

According to ministry figures in 2018, Kruger National Park (KNP) lost 421 rhinos to poachers compared to 504 in 2017. What is also heartening is that the shift of poaching away from Kruger, thanks to improved security and law enforcement, observed in 2016 and 2017, has halted at least for the time being. Those years saw dramatic rises in rhino poaching in KwaZulu-Natal KZN), where 222 animals were killed in 2017 (up 37 per centfrom the previous year). In 2018, KZN’s losses were down 80 to 142, and falls have occurred in every other province, except the Eastern Cape, where the number killed went up from 12 to 19.

A serious cause for concern is that the drop in poaching is partly a function of the decline in rhino numbers after more than 8,000 have been killed in the last 12 years. Dr Annette Hübschle of the University of Cape Town calls the fall a ‘pyrrhic victory‘ because there are probably fewer than 3000 white rhinos and 450 black rhinos left in Kruger.

With 421  poached there and others lost to natural mortalities, an eighth of the Kruger rhino population has gone.  SANParks (the national body which manages national parks) has declined to release the 2018 rhino population estimates.

Arrests and court cases up but problems remain when prosecuting kingpins

In her report on the anti-poaching successes, Minister Mokonyane also said that 365 suspected poachers and 36 horn traffickers have been arrested, and 318 poaching cases involving 645 suspects were before the courts. In 2018, the much-criticised National Prosecuting Authority obtained convictions in 78 of the 82 cases in which trials were completed.

However, major problems remain when it comes to bringing to court and convicting those believed to head the syndicates supplying horn to East Asian networks, which in turn supply the demand in China, Vietnam and other East Asian markets. Research into these criminal syndicates has shown that the failure to prosecute those in key positions to commission poaching, supply guns and ammunition and transfer the horn or ivory to international smuggling networks makes it ‘low risk, high reward’ criminal activity.

In November, the Mtubatuba Regional Court magistrate expressed extreme frustration at the constant delays in the trial of the suspected rhino horn syndicate boss Dumisani Gwala, who is charged with 10 offences and resisting arrest and was originally arrested in December 2015. His lawyers have used delaying tactics such as failing to turn up for hearings. The BBC reported in August 2018, that a whistleblower claimed he was involved in paying money from rhino horn kingpins, including Gwala, to members of the judiciary to delay cases.

Other high profile horn smuggling suspects have also been able to delay their cases and avoid jail. In 2014, Hugo Ras was arrested for rhino horn poaching and smuggling, and in December 2018, after many delays, his trial was postponed for a year pending the outcome of an appeal to the constitutional court over the laws relating to some of the charges against him. Ras, a professional hunter from Potchefstroom, his wife Trudie, brother Anton, brother-in-law Arno Smith, former Hawks officer Willie Oosthuizen, former Pretoria attorney Joseph Wilkinson, game capture pilot Bonnie Steyn, Willie van Jaarsveld and Matthys Scheepers, are on trial on a range of criminal charges involving rhino poaching, the alleged theft and illegal possession, transport and sale of rhino horn. They remain out on bail until their trial resumes at the end of November 2019.

In a parallel case, the trial of Polokwane game farmer Dawie Groenewald and seven co-accused, who are charged with running one of the country’s largest rhino poaching operations, has been delayed until February 2021 by the High Court in Pretoria. The prosecutor in the case, Joanie Spies, has blamed the delays on technical problems in preparing the case and getting witnesses to testify.

In January 2019, SANParks (which runs KNP) announced that internal disciplinary procedures were underway against two KNP rangers, Lucky Mkansi and Nzima Joe Sihlanguwho. They were arrested on 22 January and charged with involvement in rhino poaching, but according to SANParks were granted bail by the Skukuza Magistrates Court on 25 January.

The clear evidence of judicial dysfunctionality, corruption and the involvement wildlife rangers casts a dark cloud over what is the welcome development in reducing the numbers of rhinos poached.

Professor Keith Somerville is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London, and is a member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent. His book, Ivory, Power and Poaching in Africa, came out in December 2016. His new book, Humans and Lions Conflict, Conservation and Coexistence, will be published later this year.