Rhino poaching in South Africa: are numbers falling or focus shifting?

Rhino poaching in South Africa's Kruger National Park has decreased this year but it has increased in other regions. Shutterstock

South Africa recently triumphantly announced that rhino poaching is on the decline in the Kruger National Park. South Africa’s Minister of Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa, said 702 rhinos had been killed in the country as a whole so far this year, compared with 796 in the same period last year.

She also announced that between January and August this year a total of 458 poached rhino carcasses were found in Kruger compared to 557 in the same period last year. This represents a 17.8% decline. The park is the hardest hit by poaching and the numbers look like good news for rhinos and conservation.

But is there really a downward trend? Or is it just a re-orientation by poachers in the face of stepped-up security in the Kruger Park and the reflection of the steady decline in South African rhino numbers due to poaching?

Poaches adopt new strategies

Chief Ranger Funda, who heads the protection teams at the Kruger National Park, told me that despite the falling carcass numbers, the number of incursions by poachers had increased by a worrying 27.87%. That is a staggering 2,115 for the first eight months of 2016. He told me that about half the poachers who entered the park were caught by rangers.

So far this year 414 suspected poachers have been arrested. Around 177 of these were in Kruger and 237 in the rest of the country. The figures don’t tally, unless Funda’s estimate includes a significant number of the poachers caught and released without charge or perhaps killed in contacts with the rangers.

The number of incursions suggest there has been no let up in poaching. It may be that poachers are finding rhino harder to find. Kruger’s chief ranger said that the park had deployed very high security in an intensive protection zone. This zone, in the southern third of the park and along the border with Mozambique, is a regular route for poachers entering the park.

He added that poachers were now often entering the park posing as tourists rather than sneaking across the unfenced border with Mozambique. Poachers were also increasingly armed with high-powered Czech hunting rifles with sound moderators. These, he believed, had been brought into South Africa from Mozambique, where they had been supplied to wildlife officials but then illegally sold on to poachers.

This single piece of rhino horn, from a non-lethally dehorned rhino, is worth about $40,000. Keith Somerville

Problem shifts elsewhere

Molewa did briefly note that although poaching had declined in Kruger it had increased in other areas. The number of carcasses found has increased in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Reserve in Kwa-Zulu Natal. The director of the reserve, Jabulani Ngubane, told me that 95 rhino had been poached in the reserve since the beginning of the year, a big increase on last year. The reserve has about 4,500 white rhino and 500 black rhinos.

Cedric Coetzee, the head of rhino protection for Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, told me that he feared that poachers could shift to his reserve. One reason for this was the success of security measures at Kruger. The other was that the high density of animals in his reserve – about three rhino to a square kilometre – meant that a killing could take only two to three hours.

What does the future hold?

If you add the new figures released by the minister the number of rhino killed for their horns in South Africa since 2006 stands at 5,763. The number is undoubtedly higher given that rhino would certainly have been killed but carcasses never found.

The Kruger park record looks better, in spite of a noticeable increase in elephant poaching. But Hluhluwe-iMfolozi is now under threat. With rhino horn fetching around $60,000 per kg in the booming markets in Vietnam and China, the temptation to poach is great. Rhino horn is a lucrative alternative for poor people struggling to feed, clothe and educate their families, as it is for greedy white professional hunters, former parks officials and even qualified veterinarians.

Security is being stepped up, but park officials admit the use of intelligence is disorganised. And many of the army and police units sent to supplement park rangers had no experience of working in thick bush full of potentially dangerous animals.

One option is some form of regulated trade from dehorning sedated rhinos, natural mortality and horn seized from poachers. But it is contentious and conservationists are divided on the issue.

One must hope that the downward trend in poaching continues. All one can say is that there are improvements in Kruger National Park but the war is not won. For sure, there are more battles to be fought.

The Conversation

Keith Somerville received funding from the Comanis Foundation for his research trip to South Africa and Swaziland.