There is good news for rhinoceroses that have long been illegally hunted for their horns. Rhino poaching numbers have declined since 2018, according to a new report. Information also suggests that the lowest estimated amount of rhinoceros horns has entered illegal markets since 2013.
The report comes from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Survival Commission (SSC) African and Asian Rhino Specialist Groups in partnership with TRAFFIC, a global organization dedicated to ensuring wildlife trade poses no threat to conservation.
Data showed that the number of rhinoceroses in Africa has fallen from a peak of 5.3% of the total rhino population in 2015 to 2.3% in 2021.
According to the report, lockdowns played a role during the early years of the pandemic. Several countries in Africa had much lower poaching rates in 2020 compared to other years. Kenya reported no rhino poaching in 2020 and South Africa reported 394 rhinos lost to poachers that year.
But the decline in the global movement is not the main reason for the decline in poaching.
“Poaching rates, i.e. the proportion of the continental population that are poached each year, started declining as early as 2015, five years before COVID realized,” Sam Ferreira, a research associate at IUCN SSC’s African Rhino Specialist Group, tells Treehugger.
“We are of course concerned that numbers will rise again, as our analyzes suggest poaching needs to stay below 2.3% for an extended period of time before the number of live rhinoceroses starts to rise again.”
Once travel restrictions and lockdowns were lifted, poaching increased in some places. For example, Kenya had six poached rhinos in 2021 and South Africa reported 451. The report points out that these statistics were still much lower than in 2015, when South Africa had 1,175 rhinos captured by poachers.
Influencing the poaching rate
Although poaching has declined, many animals are still illegally hunted.
A total of at least 2,707 rhinoceroses were poached in Africa between 2018 and 2021. Poached animals include the white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium Simum), which is classified as near threatened on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, as well as the black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) which is under serious threat.
The majority of reported poaching cases (90%) have occurred in South Africa, mainly involving white rhinoceroses in the Kruger National Park. That had a major impact on the total rhino population on the continent.
At the end of 2021, there were an estimated 22,137 rhinoceroses in Africa. That’s a total of 6,195 black rhinos, which was about 12% higher than the estimate at the end of 2017, and 15,942 white rhinos, which was a decrease of about 12%. According to the report, the rhinoceros population in Africa declined by about 1.6% each year, from an estimated 23,562 animals in 2018 to 22,137 by the end of 2021.
Poaching rates peaked in 2007 at 5.3%, falling to 3.9% in 2018 and 2.3% in 2021.
Researchers are looking at which factors influenced the decline.
“We have not done formal cause-and-effect analyses, but it is likely that a combination of improved law enforcement, coordination between states in the range, cooperation with consumer states, and policy changes such as controls on horn use had an impact,” Ferreira said. .
African states continue to implement conservation measures and work together to protect the animals.
“An important insight is that partnerships play a key role,” Ferreira says. “Rhinocs usually do better when managed in collaboration between the government and other parties.”
Illegal Trading Markets
The report also analyzed the illegal trade markets and found that the estimated number of rhino horns passing through them is also declining.
Data shows that between 2018 and 2020, between 575 and 923 rhino horns entered the illegal trade each year, compared to about 2,378 per year between 2016 and 2017.
The number of illegal horns seized shot up again in 2019, likely due to more laws and stricter enforcement. Because not all countries report attacks consistently, researchers say they can’t fully understand patterns involving illegal rhino horns.
Researchers are cautiously optimistic about the trends, but know that things can easily change.
“[Poaching] remains a major threat to rhinoceroses and in particular to some populations. Unless the successes continue, the rhinos will decline in the future,” Ferreira says.
“These findings suggest that Africa can address complex societal challenges, with rhino poaching being just one part of a series of criminal activities affecting the safety and security of people in many areas of Africa.”