The recently published International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Rhino Report 2022 highlights that ‘Poaching of Rhinos shows an encouraging decline but remains an acute threat’.
The report, by the IUCN SSC African and Asian Rhino Specialist Groups and TRAFFIC, released on the 22nd of August gives encouraging news for some rhino species but shows there is still a year-on-year decrease in the combined global populations of all five species of rhino.
The rhino's survival remains in grave danger despite COVID-related drops in poaching and the illegal trade in their horns.
Ahead of the 19th CITES Conference, to be held in Panama in November this year, the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) African and Asian Rhino Specialist Groups and wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic released a report reviewing the current state of rhino populations across Africa and Asia.
The report reveals that poaching and the illegal trade in horns have fallen in recent years but still remain serious threats to the rhino’s survival.
Here we examine the facts of the report and look at what needs to be done to continue to protect and sustain rhino populations.
According to the report, rhino poaching rates in Africa have declined by 3% from 2015 to 2021. Between 2018 and 2021, at least 2,707 rhinos were poached with South Africa accounting for 90% of all reported cases, the majority of those affected being the white rhino, classified as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List.
As a result, overall white rhino numbers on the continent have declined by almost 12% (from 18,067 to 15,942 individuals) during this period, while populations of black rhino, classified as Critically Endangered, has increased by just over 12% (from 5,495 to 6,195 individuals).
Despite this, the report also notes that Africa’s rhino population declined by around 1.6% per year, from an estimated 23,562 individuals in 2018 to 22,137 at the end of 2021.
Though global lockdowns and restrictions due to COVID-19 contributed significantly to the poaching decline in most African countries, lifting of restrictions has led to increases in poaching incidences in some areas- for example, South Africa reported 451 and Kenya six poached rhinos in 2021. However, these numbers are still significantly lower than during the peak in 2015, when South Africa alone lost 1,175 rhinos to poaching.
Besides poaching, illegal trade in rhino horns from Africa has also decreased.
Data from the report suggests that, on average, between 575 and 923 rhino horns entered illegal trade markets each year between 2018 and 2020, compared to approximately 2,378 per year between 2016 and 2017.
However, in 2019, before the pandemic, the reported seized weight of illegal rhino specimens reached its highest point of the decade, possibly due to increased regulations and law enforcement efforts.
The report notes that while range and consumer countries most affected by illegal trade remained the same as in previous reports, the lack of consistent reporting by some countries still limits the ability to better understand patterns of illegal trade in rhino horns.
In Asia, the report notes that rhino poaching declined between 2018 and 2021, continuing the trend since 2013.
Notably, the populations of the greater one horned rhino (classified as Vulnerable) and the Javan rhino (classified as Critically Endangered) have both increased since 2017, while the Critically Endangered Sumatran rhino has suffered population declines of 13% per year.
Conservation efforts including strengthened law enforcement are considered to have contributed significantly to the increase with the number of greater one horned rhinos in India and Nepal rising from an estimated 3,588 in 2018 to 4,014 at the end of 2021, while the total population of Javan rhinos increased from between 65 and 68 individuals in 2018 to 76 at the end of 2021.
However, there were an estimated 34 to 47 Sumatran rhinos in 2021, compared with 40 to 78 individuals in 2018, as the small size and isolation of populations limit breeding in the wild.
The report finds that 11 rhino poaching incidents were recorded in Asia (ten in India and one in Nepal) since the beginning of 2018, all of which involved greater one-horned rhinos while there were no reports of illegal killings of Sumatran rhinos despite the substantial population declines recorded.
greater one horned rhino
Despite the decrease in rhino poaching during the global lockdown and restrictions to travel in 2020, and the decreases shown in the IUCN report, there is still a serious need for vigilance.
It is important to note that the report also revealed that Africa’s overall rhino population declined by around 1.6% per year, from an estimated 23,562 individuals in 2018 to 22,137 at the end of 2021.
Poaching numbers in South Africa for 2022 are already showing worrying upward trends. The statistics for the first six months of 2022, released by South Africa's Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE), showed an increase in rhinos poached in the first half of the year compared with the previous time periods in 2020 and 2021. If these poaching figures continue to rise in the same way as the first six months, a potential year-end total of over 500 rhinos could be reached, taking the country’s rhino poaching crisis back to 2019 when nearly 600 rhinos were poached in a single year. These figures all point to the serious threats faced by rhinos.
"Whilst there is encouraging news with an overall decrease in poaching and an increase in the population for the black, greater one horned and Javan species of rhino, the global decrease across all five species shows there’s still much work to be done. More research is needed into the drivers of the decrease in population, i.e., is poaching still the biggest contributing factor? And how much is the growing pressure on wild spaces and the rhinos' natural habitat playing a role in their decrease? We also need to understand where the biggest decreases occurred - privately owned Reserves or state-owned Parks.
It is clear that collectively we must remain focused on delivering a better future for rhino and for all wildlife. Failure to do so will have a huge impact, not just for rhino, but for our planet and our own existence."
Founder and CEO, Helping Rhinos
The South African half year report also highlighted the changing trend of poachers moving away from the Kruger National Park to private game reserves, particularly in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. Many of the reserves where rhinos have been poached in 2022 are privately owned and therefore the requirement to fund the security of the rhinos falls on the individual Reserve owners. This was made all the more difficult during the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 when funds from tourism dried up. This is not only a costly exercise for these private reserves but a dangerous one with most poaching gangs armed and highly dangerous.
If this shift away from the more traditional hotspot of the National Parks to private reserves continues, it will become even more critical to offer government support to these organisations.
"The private sector is of increasing importance to the long term future of our rhinos. A multi-national intervention is required to provide secure habitats in state reserves and to derail the poaching syndicates. Unless we are successful in this approach it is extremely likely that in the future the only viable rhino populations in South Africa will be on private reserves."
Founder, The Black Mambas
One of the main reasons for the increase in poaching on the private reserves is due to the size of the area. National Parks cover a larger landmass than their privately owned neighbours, making it much easier to spot a rhino in the smaller private reserves. Add to this the general decrease in rhino populations in the Kruger over the last decade and it means that poachers will have to spend longer searching for rhino in the Kruger, covering a wider area to track one. By turning to a smaller area, such as a Private Reserve, the task of finding a rhino becomes easier. This may well lead to a continued assault by poaching gangs on private reserves in provinces such as Kwa Zulu Natal.
Many rhino conservation groups in Africa believe that a collaborative, cross-border approach is needed to stop poaching. “Disrupting international organised crime groups is essential to stop rhino poaching at South African reserves, but it will require a collaborative approach between international law enforcement agencies and governments. Threats to African rhinos from transnational crime networks remains high despite a reported pause during Covid-19 lockdown periods” the WWF South Africa stated.
The poaching syndicates and networks are deeply entrenched and active throughout South Africa, able to adapt and change according to the levels of security agencies that are trying to catch them. The arms of these networks are long, with trackers and shooters working locally to poach a rhino, moving the horn onto middle men and a series of couriers, eventually getting the illegal horn into the destination countries such as China and Vietnam.
Whilst poaching remains one of the main reasons rhino populations are decreasing, the shrinking of their habitat is also a major and growing concern. Helping Rhinos is working closely with organisations on the ground in Africa to not only provide support for urgent anti-poaching measures but looking at ways to create and sustain healthy ecosystems and strong biodiversity for rhino through the creation of Rhino Strongholds.
Helping Rhinos recognises the need to protect and restore degraded habitats back to their natural state whilst simultaneously providing for local communities. It invests in critical projects that have the greatest potential to protect black and white rhino, and consequently other species of endangered wildlife in Africa. We work in partnership with teams in the field that not only demonstrate a commitment to rhino conservation, their protection and reproduction in their natural habitat, but who also recognise the importance of local community involvement, employment opportunities, business creation opportunities and education in local schools.
You can read the full press release of the report from IUCN & Traffic here