Over the past nine years, the white and black rhino populations of the Kruger National Park have plummeted by 66.4 and 64.5 per cent respectively. Professor Keith Somerville, a writer and lecturer on African affairs, reveals the crisis behind the figures.

There are now an estimated 3,549 white rhinos and 268 critically endangered black rhinos left in South Africa’s world-famous park, according to the latest figures taken from a 2019 census.

These figures, though not the statistics indicating the massive decline, were in the 2019–2020 SANParks annual report, which has just been published. However, this report is a desperate and transparent attempt to put a positive spin on the attempts to reduce rhino poaching. In her preface, environment minister Barbara Creecy breezily boasts that, ‘Wildlife crime decreased significantly in the Kruger National Park in the 2019/20 financial year’ and that rhino poaching declined year-on-year by 21.61 per cent and elephant poaching by 43.75 per cent.

But what she and the annual report did not mention is that since 2011, white rhino numbers have dropped from 10,621 to 3,549 and black rhinos from 415 to 268. The last official population figures, in 2017, showed 5,142 white rhinos and 507 black rhinos (though there were question marks over the accuracy of the black rhino figures at the time), so even in the last three years there has been a significant decline, with numbers down by 1,593 in that short period when poaching, we were told by SANParks in a series of annual reports on rhino poaching, was falling.

The overall picture

In 2017, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which maintains the Red List of endangered species, estimated the total world population of white rhino at 18,064 and it was listed as Near Threatened. South Africa is the key country for white rhino, with by far the largest number, with Kruger the main location for them. A drop of an estimated 1,593 in the Kruger population potentially means that the total world population (all in Africa – South Africa, Botswana, Kenya, Namibia, Swaziland, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Uganda) may have fallen to under 16,500; one must note that in Namibia, numbers have been stable and may have risen slightly in recent years due to anti-poaching and conservation successes from the 2018 Namibian government estimate of 1,037.

But Botswana, which tried to increase its rhino population through imports from South Africa, has suffered a devastating wave of rhino poaching The major relocation effort started in the early 1990s with the establishment of the Khama Rhino Sanctuary near Serowe in central Botswana. These were supplemented with the relocation of 33 white and six black rhinos from Zimbabwe and South Africa into the Wilderness Safari’s Mombo reserve in Okavango Delta in 2003. The number increased when Wilderness Safaris relocated more black rhinos to its private Mombo reserve in the Okavango from South Africa and Zimbabwe in 2015. This took place amid the rhino poaching crisis throughout southern Africa and as elephant poaching increased in northern Botswana.

The result was that Botswana increasingly became a new focus for poaching gangs, taking advantage of the effects of the hunting ban and the growth in political factionalism in Botswana and disagreements over conservation policy following Masisi’s ascendance to the presidency in 2018. At least five gangs were believed to be operating in Mombo. Most of the rhinos have now been dehorned and relocated and there have been no recent reports of poaching, though that may be because silence has been imposed in Botswana to end the embarrassment caused by the poaching wave. But the small Botswana population was so hard hit that there are doubts whether it is viable as a fully wild population, rather than in small, heavily guarded sanctuaries.

Rhino are poached for their horn, which is much sought after as a traditional medicine and a prestige commodity in Vietnam and China, where most of the poached horn ends up, fetching prices somewhere between $40,000 and $65,000 a kilogram.

Kruger’s figures a major cause for concern

The fall in black rhinos in Kruger is a serious cause for concern. There are between 5,366 and 5,627 black rhino in the wild across Southern and East Africa, with South Africa and Namibia the most important range states in southern Africa. The fall of 147 in the Kruger population amounts to 2.5 per cent of the world numbers. And rhino are still being poached on other reserves and private sanctuaries in South Africa, The Mankwe Wildlife Reserve in north West province lost two rhino – a mother and calf, both dehorned, being killed for less than a kilo of horn on 1 January this year.

Figures from the Environment Ministry say that, in 2020, 394 rhinos were poached in South Africa, compared with 594 in 2019. The fall is partly due to Covid restrictions on movement and fewer people entering national parks and reserves as tourists; poachers have entered the parks as tourists and then let poachers hidden in their vehicles out into the park. The fewer visitors, the easier to spot poachers. Police checks on road users to prevent unnecessary journeys during the pandemic may also have made it harder for poachers to operate.

Figure 2Dehorned white rhino on a private reserve near Kruger. Keith Somerville

What is also concerning with the Kruger figures is that for years the combination of poaching and natural deaths have exceeded the birth rate – thus the sustained fall in numbers. In 2017, 513 rhinos were poached in the park, 116 died from natural causes, 21 from unknown causes, 13 were shot for various reason by the park wardens and 13 relocated elsewhere – a total loss of 678. Only 345 rhinos were known to have been born that year. The latest SANParks annual report says 303 were poached in Kruger and six other parks containing rhino but gives no figures for natural deaths or removals or for births.

The environment ministry released figures on 1 February saying that during 2020, 247 rhinos were poached for their horns in South African National Parks, 245 in Kruger National Park and two in Marakele National Park, with a national total of 394. The ministry press release makes no mention of the 303 figure used by SANParks, which is confusing to say the least. The SANParks annual report also unrealistically optimistically says that for the first time in several years ‘births equalling combined natural and poaching deaths for the first time in five years. This bodes well for future population growth’.

But no figures are given for natural deaths or live births. Therefore, it is hard to judge and SANParks and the environment minister have every reason to put a positive spin on things given the blow South African safari tourism has taken from Covid, with the report saying South Africa’s national parks were ‘dramatically impacted by the global Covid-19 pandemic’ with the disappearance of foreign tourists and mass cancellations by domestic ones.

In its annual report, SANParks lauds the successes in reducing poaching, which of course should be welcomed, but fails to provide the context – that of the continued overall Kruger population decline or to calculate that the 2020 poaching figure for the park, 303, represented 8.5 per cent of the remaining population.

The decline in numbers poached is obviously a good thing, despite the overall population losses, and appears to have three causes – there are fewer rhino and so are harder to find and kill, forcing poachers to spend longer hunting them and so increasing the chances of being caught or of leaving empty-handed; anti-poaching has improved in recent years and the intensive protections zones around major rhino habitat have helped; and, as SANParks noted, Covid measures have ‘restricted movement and strengthened security on the roads in late Quarter 4’. The latter curb on poaching is unlikely to be maintained if and when Covid is brought under control and restrictions lifted.

The major white and black rhino population declines in one of its key range areas is worrying and is an indication that the danger posed by poaching is not over, even if it has at least temporarily been reduced. As Cathy Dean, CEO of Save the Rhino International said, ‘These numbers paint a very dark picture: ten years of conservation work has been undone. Now the numbers are clear, we must work harder than ever to protect rhinos from poaching. It won’t be easy, especially with the financial strain that Covid-19 has already put on rhino conservation projects across the world. But there’s no other option.’

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, is out in March 2021.

Cover image: Black rhino in Kruger National Park. Keith Somerville