Professor Keith Somerville, senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent, welcomes the news of a dip in the number of rhinos poached in South Africa and Namibia.

In 2019, the number of rhinos poached in South Africa fell to 594, down from 769 the year before, according to figures released by South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs. And in December, Namibia’s environment ministry confirmed that rhino poaching had fallen to 41, down from 72 in 2018.

These successes are to be warmly welcomed, but the situation in Botswana is worrying. Between October 2018 and December 2019, thirty-one rhinos (23 white and 8 black) were killed in the private safari regions of the Okavango Delta, mainly in areas protected by anti-poaching units supported by heavily armed members of the Botswana Defence Force (BDF).

South Africa’s fight against rhino poaching

Most of Africa’s rhinos are in just four countries – South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Kenya. Few of either species now survive outside protected areas and sanctuaries, excepting the community conservancies in Namibia’s Damaraland and Kunene regions. South Africa has the largest populations of black and white rhinos, but it had seen the most serious rise in poaching with annual numbers rising above 1,000.

The drop to 594 is encouraging and is attributable to heightened security and more arrests. But it may also be because there are fewer animals left to kill. Records between 2008 and 2019, show that 8,410 rhinos were killed in South Africa and their horns removed to be smuggled to markets in Vietnam, China and other East Asian countries. There has been no recent census in South Africa, so it is impossible to calculate the percentage of rhinos that have been killed and exactly how many remain, or to work out if the poaching and natural mortality rate exceeds the birth rate.

Namibia and Botswana – conservation success balanced against failure to protect

Namibia is home to the second largest rhino population in the world, and is third in terms of black rhino numbers, according to Save the Rhino. Prior to independence in 1990, illegal killing by South African senior officials and soldiers, as well as criminal poachers, led to a severe decline in rhino numbers. Since independence however, the development of community conservancies has helped preserve wildlife outside protected areas like the world famous Etosha National Park.

This has enabled the Ministry of Environment and Tourism to get local community support for rhino conservation through the promotion of high-cost tourism (and regulated hunting on some conservancies). It has brought direct benefits to local pastoral communities through the presence and increased numbers of rhino, elephant and other wildlife.

In the arid Damaraland region, where local conservancies have entered into deals with the Namibian Save the Rhino Trust and lodge operators like Wilderness Safaris, the income for local communities has increased support for rhino conservation and cooperation in cracking down on poaching. What is worrying is that more poaching takes place in Etosha National Park, raising questions about the competence and integrity of its anti-poaching measures. But rhino poaching fell to 41 in 2019 from 72 the year before and it is now less than half the terrible 2015 level of 95. Hopefully this is a sign that the government is getting it under control.

The main area of concern is Botswana. Once known for its successful community-backed conservation policies and low poaching levels, since 2014 the country has seen a rise in elephant poaching (though a relatively modest one) and a worrying increase in rhino poaching.

Most of the rhinos to be found in the Okavango Delta are those relocated there from South Africa. Botswana’s own rhino population was decimated by Zambian poachers crossing the border back in the 1970s and early 1980s. Only the deployment of the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) and a virtual shoot-to-kill policy stemmed the poaching.

In 1993 the Khama Rhino Sanctuary was opened in Serowe and rhinos were sent there from South Africa for later release in the Okavango. In 2015 more than 100 rhinos were taken to Botswana from South Africa and released in the Okavango on private concessions. They were heavily protected by wildlife rangers and the BDF. In October 2019, it is believed six rhinos were killed at Mombo and two suspected poachers were shot dead by BDF soldiers tracking a rhino wounded by poachers. The relocation was carried out when South African poaching was at its height with the hope – now sadly seen to be unfounded – that the animals would be safer in Botswana.

The Botswana government is wary of saying how many rhinos were relocated from South Africa, exactly where they were released and how many remain. But the Department of Wildlife and National Parks Rhino Coordinator, Dr Mmadi Reuben said in October that if the poaching ‘continued at this rate there will be no rhinos in Botswana in a year or two, especially the black rhino, a critically endangered species’.

How many rhinos are left?

Africa’s white and black rhinos have been targeted by poachers for more than 50 years. The market for rhino horn used to be in Yemen and the Gulf States, with horn being used to make sought-after dagger handles. Now the markets are in Vietnam, China and East Asia.

Despite science disproving notions that rhino horn can cure cancer, prevent hangovers and confer other supposed health benefits, the markets persist. Demand is such among the rich and ambitious (it is a prestige commodity) that its price was peaking somewhere between $60,000 and $65,000 per kilo, though Save the Rhino’s CEO Cathy Dean told me that signs that the price may be falling raise hopes of a fall in demand.

So how many rhinos are left in Africa? The black rhino is slowly recovering from catastrophic levels of poaching. In 1993, fewer than 2,300 rhinos remained from populations of more than 65,000 in the 1970s. Today black rhino numbers are somewhere between 5,366 and 5,627.  The white rhino had also been almost wiped out but recovered to around 20,000 at the start of the new millennium. But the population has fallen again because of high levels of poaching. Between 2012 and 2017, the poaching caused a 15% decrease in white rhino numbers. There are now between 17,212 and 18,915, according to Save the Rhino. They will only be conserved, and numbers allowed to recover if poaching is brought down.

Cathy Dean of Save the Rhino expressed very cautious optimism to me: “Dare we hope that the poaching crisis is coming to an end? But the [South African] DEFF’s figures don’t tell us the impact on the overall rhino population – without accurate, up-to-date numbers, we don’t know what percentage of South Africa’s rhinos has been poached. The part of the picture we can see is encouraging, but what about the rest?”

Professor Keith Somerville is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London, a member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent where he teaches at the Centre for Journalism. His book, Humans and Lions. Conflict, Conservation and Coexistence, was published in July 2019 and he is now working on the next: Humans and Hyenas. Monsters or Misunderstood.

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