Why There Is Still Hope for the World's Critically Endangered Black Rhinos

Although the species remains threatened by poaching, populations have increased thanks to conservation efforts in Africa.

An adult black rhino in Kenya

Pierre-Yves Babelon / Getty Images

Black rhinos have been listed as a critically endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) since 1996. Three generations ago, there were nearly 38,000 of these animals spread across their native range in Africa, but heavy poaching in the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s eradicated an estimated 85% of the population. Today, there are just 3,142 mature black rhinos left.

It’s not all bad news when it comes to the black rhino, however. Population numbers have more than doubled since their lowest point in the 1990s, primarily thanks to increased protection, animal relocation programs, and enhanced biological management.

Threats

A black rhino with baby grazing in Kenya
Manoj Shah / Getty Images 

The black rhino was the most numerous of the world’s rhino species for much of the 20th century until the slew of poaching and clearing of land for settlement and agriculture reduced its numbers.

Whereas about 100,000 wild rhinos lingered in 1960, large-scale poaching over the following three decades caused a powerful 98% collapse in every country within the animal's native range besides South Africa and Namibia. They've since been reintroduced to Botswana, Eswatini, Malawi, Rwanda, and Zambia but are considered extinct in at least 15 other countries, including Nigeria, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Sudan.

While the main threat to the black rhino remains unlawful hunting and poaching in response to the illegal wildlife trade, these extraordinary animals are also vulnerable to habitat loss and fragmentation.

Poaching and the Illegal Wildlife Trade

Rhino horn has two main uses encouraged by the illegal wildlife trade–medicinally and ornamentally. Historically, rhino horn was used as a fever reducer in traditional Chinese culture, though it has more recently become a popular material for high-end carved products such as jewelry and decorative pieces.

Poaching numbers have remained unsustainably high despite a slow decrease over the past decade. In 2019, for example, 594 rhinos were poached in South Africa, a substantial dip from 2014, when there were 1,215.

Habitat Loss and Fragmentation

Land development for agriculture and infrastructure for settlements often result in the loss and fragmentation of black rhino habitats.

Black rhinos are territorial, so without enough space they may become stressed and aggressive (the same happens when populations become too dense). As a result, they’re prone to slow population growth when forced into communities of high density over a small area, leading to a loss of genetic diversity. When rhinos are separated into smaller subpopulations, they also run the risk of inbreeding and increased susceptibility to disease; plus, they are more accessible to poachers.

Using the largest and most geographically comprehensive sample of black rhino genetic profiles ever assembled, researchers in 2017 found that the black rhino species has lost a total of 69% of its mitochondrial genetic diversity over the last two centuries. Still, the study also revealed that the historic range of the West African subspecies (declared extinct in 2011) extended farther than previously thought into southern Kenya, meaning the subspecies still survived with a few individuals in the Masai Mara.

What We Can Do

Black rhino grazing, Nairobi National Park
Lost Horizon Images / Getty Images

Since 1977, black rhinos have been listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Appendix I, indicating the highest level of protection in international commercial trade. Further anti-trade measures were implemented in the 1990s on the domestic levels amongst various consumer states as well.

Nonetheless, the most crucial factor in black rhino conservation comes in the form of effective field protection for the wild animals themselves. Most of the world’s remaining black rhino populations are concentrated in fenced sanctuaries and conservation areas with thorough law enforcement and intensive protection zones.

Anti-Poaching Patrols

In black rhino sanctuaries, anti-poaching rangers provide round-the-clock security amongst poaching hotspots like watering holes and near buildings or roads at night. Some locations even employ military-style operations to patrol for poachers and protect exceptionally susceptible populations. Canine units trained in tracking and detection are sometimes added to retrieve illegally smuggled wildlife products or to track and apprehend poachers.

Patrolling for poachers is extremely dangerous work. In 2018, an estimated 107 wildlife rangers died on duty over a 12-month period—nearly half of them were murdered by poachers. That year’s death toll brought the total number of rangers who’ve lost their lives in the line of duty since 2009 up to 871. Even worse, experts believe that the actual number of deaths could be much higher than the reported numbers. Organizations like the Thin Green Line Foundation and Project Ranger directly support wildlife rangers who dedicate their lives to protecting the world’s endangered rhinos.

Monitoring

Black rhino horn fitted with radio transmitter
Martin Harvey / Getty Images 

Black rhinos often occur on private land in Namibia, and custodian landowners are both responsible for the protection of the animals and required to report regularly to the Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism.

Monitoring is expensive and time-consuming, however, and attaching tracking devices—typically drilled into the horn or fitted around the leg—can be dangerous. As a solution, scientists have invented a new identification technology that uses smartphones to record black rhino footprints; the system can analyze rhino movements and locations from a distance to help keep them safe from poachers.

Biological Management

Biological management has played a large part in the species’ rehabilitation over the years. Through monitoring individuals within their specific protective zones, experts can gain information to make decisions and manage black rhino subpopulations for optimal population growth.

Several communities throughout Africa have become involved in education and engagement, setting up conservancies to help foster community governance, training, and the skills necessary to successfully manage their own wildlife resources.

Relocation

South African conservationists work with the WWF Black Rhino Range Expansion Project to safely move rhinos from parks with significant populations into others within their original historic range. In most cases, rhinos are sedated by wildlife veterinarians and lifted by helicopter to transport them from the difficult and dangerous terrain onto vehicles, which then take them to their new homes.

The project's numbers are remarkable—there’s been a 21% increase in the black rhino population in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal, the project’s first site, since it began in 2003. The site has performed so well that some of the offspring of the original translocation have since been moved to form part of the program’s 11th breeding population.

In 1996, the new Namibian government set an example when it became the first African country to incorporate environmental protection into its constitution—a huge win for black rhinos, as at least 98% of the species’ global population is condensed to Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Kenya. Part of this conservation philosophy has included translocation projects to relocate black rhino individuals into new habitats with ample space to breed.

Save the Black Rhino: How You Can Help