/ 23 August 2022

Rhino poaching and illegal horn trade declining in Africa and Asia

Despite the decline in rhino poaching, there are critical threats to the survival of these iconic animals.

Rhino poaching rates have declined overall in Africa and Asia since 2018. Trade data also suggests the lowest annual estimate of rhino horns entering illegal trade markets since 2013, according to a new report on the global status of rhinos.

Rhino poaching and illegal trade, however, are critical threats to the survival of the iconic animals according to the report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Species Survival Commission’s African and Asian Rhino Specialist Groups and Traffic, a global NGO working to prevent the illegal trade in wildlife.

The report was prepared for the upcoming Conference of the Parties (COP19) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), which will be held in Panama in November.

According to the report, in Africa, rhino poaching rates have continued to fall from a peak of 5.3% of the total rhino population in 2015 to 2.3% last year. The report also found that not properly detecting the carcasses and indirect effects of poaching — like calves who need adult rhinos for survival — means populations need to experience a less than 3.6% poaching rate, for African rhino numbers to grow.

“The overall decline in poaching of rhinos is encouraging, yet this remains an acute threat to the survival of these iconic animals,” said Sam Ferreira, scientific officer with the African Rhino Specialist Group. “To support the growth of rhino numbers, it is essential to continue active population management and anti-poaching activities for all subspecies across different range states.”

According to Rhino Review, 16 countries — 11 in Africa and five in Asia — are recognised as the “rhino range states”. The governments and institutions of these countries play, or should play, a primary role in rhino conservation and protection through their networks of national, provincial and other parks, including anti-poaching strategies, operations, border security and the legal system.

White rhinos down but black rhinos increasing

Between 2018 and 2021, at least 2 707 rhinos were killed across the continent. South Africa accounted for 90% of all reported cases, predominantly affecting white rhinos in Kruger National Park, which is home to the world’s largest white rhino population. The white rhino is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species

As a result, overall white rhino numbers on the continent have plunged by almost 12% — from 18 067 to 15 942 individuals — during this period. By contrast, populations of the rarer, critically endangered black rhino surged by just over 12%, from 5 495 to 6 195 individuals. 

Dr Jo Shaw, Africa rhino lead at the World Wide Fund for Nature said the news about increased black rhino numbers is encouraging, as it underscores the value of creating new habitats and growing numbers of rhinos and the need to continue to commit to these efforts in future. 

“We must support the partnerships required between state agencies, local communities and the private sector to secure future range for rhinos and work towards broader conservation benefits to wildlife and people,” Shaw said.

Reduced poaching 

Overall, the report found that Africa’s rhino population declined around 1.6% per year, from an estimated 23 562 individuals in 2018 to 22 137 at the end of last year. 

Global lockdowns and restrictions because of the Covid-19 pandemic saw several African countries experience dramatically reduced poaching rates in 2020 compared to previous years. In 2020, South Africa lost 394 rhinos to poaching while Kenya recorded no rhino poaching that year. 

However, as Covid-19 travel restrictions were lifted, new increases in poaching activities were reported in some range states. South Africa, for example, reported 451 and Kenya six poached rhinos in 2021. The report, too, further notes concern about unconfirmed reports of rhino poaching in Botswana, suggesting that this continued in 2021. 

These numbers are still significantly lower than during the peak in 2015, when South Africa alone lost 1 175 rhinos to poaching.

By the end of 2021, Africa conserved an estimated 22 137 rhinos, which comprised 6 195 black and 15 942 white rhinos. Further, 218 black and 1 077 white rhinos are in ex situ collections (zoological gardens), resulting in 23 432 African rhinos worldwide at the end of 2021.

Illegal trade 

Data analysed for range and consumer states suggests that, on average, between 575 and 923 African rhino horns entered illegal trade markets each year between 2018 and 2020, compared to about 2 378 per year between 2016 and 2017. 

However, in 2019, before the Covid-19 outbreak, the reported seized weight of illegal rhino specimens reached its highest point of the decade, “perhaps due to increased regulations and law enforcement efforts”. 

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. 

“Overall better reporting of seizure data will help us quantify the extent of horns entering illegal trade for future reports,” said Sabri Zain, director of policy at Traffic. “Although we cannot say with exact certainty what impact Covid-19 restrictions have had on rhino horn trade, 2020 did represent an abnormal year with low levels of reported illegal activity, law enforcement and government reporting. The continued and consistent monitoring of illegal trade is vital,” said Zain, adding that the need for greater sharing of critical information such as DNA samples among countries affected by the illegal trade in rhino specimens.

Rhino range states reported 1 588 rhino-related arrests from 2018 to 2021, together with 751 prosecutions and 300 convictions. 

South Africa bears brunt

South Africa is the range state with the highest number of white rhinos, and “it is worth noting that the white rhinoceros’ population in South Africa declined from 15 625 at the end of 2017, to 12 968 at the end of 2021”, the report found. This represents the lowest number of white rhinos in South Africa since pre-2005.

South Africa, it said, was most affected by illegal rhino specimen trade between 2018 to 2020, in terms of the weight and number of specimens detected in illegal trade. “It had the highest value for the number of seizures made within its territory, and the second-highest value in the number of seizures that implicated a party.” 

Overall, seizure records related to South Africa during the period 2018 to 2020 involved an estimated 1 116 whole horns representing more than 558 individual rhinos or about 4% of the estimated 2021 total population of rhinos in South Africa. “It’s not surprising that South Africa was most affected by this illegal trade as the country contains more than half of the rhinoceroses that occur in Africa.”  

The activities undertaken by authorities in South Africa to combat rhino poaching and horn trafficking are welcomed. “However, continued vigilance and sustained efforts are needed, considering the rising poaching numbers observed in 2021 and that open media sources suggest an increase in poaching in 2022, especially in the country’s KwaZulu-Natal province.” 

China (including Hong Kong special administrative region of China) and Vietnam continue to be important destination countries for illegal rhino horns from South Africa, and Mozambique an important transit country for such horns. “South Africa is therefore encouraged to continue and expand its engagement with China, Mozambique and Vietnam,” the report said.