Rhino Poaching Increases as COVID Restrictions Ease

Wednesday 04 August 2021

On Saturday 31st July, South Africa's Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) released the latest statistics on the rhino poaching crisis in South Africa - the increase is alarming.

The first six months of 2021 saw a 50% increase in rhinos poached across both National Parks and Private Game Reserves compared to the same period in 2020.

Across the country, from January to June 2021, South Africa recorded 249 rhino lost to poachers. This compares to 166 for the same period in 2020 and 318 in 2019. Of the 249 rhinos poached, more than half, 132, were lost from within the Kruger National Park. The world-famous Park experienced 715 "poacher activities", up 3.77% on the 689 poacher activities recorded in the same period in 2020.

125 people have been arrested for rhino poaching and/or rhino horn trafficking, 40 of whom were arrested in Kruger National Park. The impact of COVID, however has affected successful prosecutions as courts have been hampered by the self-isolation of witnesses, court staff and the accused. Only 14 cases have been finalised with 20 accused poachers convicted for their crimes.

Click to read the DFFE statement in full.

Significant Increase in Attacks on Private Reserves

The impact of rhino poaching is felt across both National Parks and Private Game Reserves, but the report from DFFE highlights a concerning increase in the number of privately owned rhinos, or in other words rhinos that are found on privately owned Reserves, such as Kariega, Amakhala and Manyoni Game Reserves, that have fallen victim to the poachers. During the same reporting period over the last three years, losses in private Reserves constituted 15% of the total reported loss in 2019, 9% in 2020 and 30% so far in 2021. 

According to the Private Rhino Owners Association, 55% of the South Africa's rhinos, between 14,000 and 15,000 animals, can be found on private Reserves. On one hand the latest poaching stats show that private rhino owners are doing a great job in protecting their rhino – just 30% of the poaching took place on locations that house 55% of the overall population. However, the recent numbers indicate a much more worrying trend that demonstrates poaching on private Reserves is increasing. In the first half of 2019, 48 rhinos were poached on private Reserves (15% of the 318 poached countrywide). But in 2021, despite the national number of rhino poached being lower than 2019 (249 rhinos lost), the 30% poached on private Reserves means that 75 rhinos were killed by poachers - a 56.25% increase on private Reserves year on year. 

There are a number of reasons that are likely to be driving this rise in poaching on the private Reserves. For example, the National Parks typically cover a larger landmass (Kruger is approximately the size of Israel) than their smaller privately owned neighbours. Rhino populations in National Parks have been in decline over recent years - we reported last year that the Kruger rhino population was down 70% in the last decade, meaning a poacher would need to track for longer and further in a place like Kruger than they would in a smaller area such as a private Reserve, making it easier to find their 'target' on the smaller private land. 

Another significant factor is the global COVID pandemic. While 2020 saw a welcome and significant reduction in the number of rhino poached, it was a statistic achieved by the strict lockdown measures that were stringently enforced by an increased police presence on the streets. Coupled with the closure of international borders, this made it much more difficult for poaching gangs to both carry out their crime undetected and also to transport the rhino horn to its destination, typically in Asia, where the black market for trade in rhino horn is still very evident. 

Now restrictions are easing and borders are opening, poaching is once again on the rise. International tourism, that supports conservation, including anti-poaching operations, through a National Parks and Private Reserves conservation levy to safari goers, is still a long way from recovering to pre-pandemic levels. The continued loss of revenue places an enormous strain on conservation resources, both financially and psychologically. Many Reserves are having to rely on the good will of their Rangers, with limited fuel available and reduced technical functionality to carry out their duties. This puts huge pressures on the Rangers, and the Reserve, who are unable to support and reward them as they deserve to be. 

When a rhino is lost, it is the Rangers on the front line who must deal with the immediate aftermath of such a tragedy. It is they who feel the biggest loss.

“Certainly the lockdown and increase in policing on the roads would have deterred rhino poachers and the stats show this. However we know the overall densities are lower as well and therefore similar decline in rhinos lost. We anticipate increased incursions with more relaxed movement regulations. In addition the economic impact of covid and unrest has resulted in greater unemployment and therefore likely increase in criminal activities such as poaching”

Karen Odendaal 
Managing Director
Manyoni Private Game Reserve

the INTERNATIONAL role to protect rhinos

While the poaching of rhino occurs in very specific areas of Africa and Asia, the protection of our rhino is without doubt a responsibility that falls upon all of us, no matter where in the world we live. The most pressing need for all rhino protection operations is to recover the funding from the loss of tourism driven by the COVID pandemic. You can help in several ways that include:

  • Book a safari now, even if you will not be able to travel this year or next year. SafariPLUS+ from Helping Rhinos is a great way of supporting conservation projects now and treating yourself to a trip of a lifetime to look forward to when you feel safe to travel again
  • Support Helping Rhinos and keep an eye out for our urgent campaigns to raise funds for specific rhino protection initiatives, such as procedures to reapply tracking collars and to save new rhino orphans
  • Adopt a rhino via our Adoption Centre – choose from a rhino orphan, northern white rhino, miracle rhino poaching survivor Thandi, a dog from Ol Pejeta’s anti-poaching unit or a Black Mamba Ranger
  • Keep the threat to rhinos foremost of the minds of your friends and family. Despite there being a lot of challenges in the world right now, rhino continue to face the very real threat of extinction if we do not act now to protect them - and the latest poaching statistics sadly reinforce this
  • Sign up to our newsletter and follow our social media pages for all the latest news


“It is incumbent upon all of us to play our part in protecting this icon of the plains and to ensure that the rhinoceros has a future where it can roam freely and peacefully.”

Simon Jones
Founder and CEO
Helping Rhinos