Rhino Poaching Declines, But Animals Still Threatened

Poaching rates have been dropping since 2018.

White rhino female and calf. Lake Nakuru National Park. Kenya
White rhino female and calf in Kenya. Martin Harvey / Getty Images

There’s some good news for rhinos that have long been illegally hunted for their horns. Rhino poaching rates have dropped since 2018, according to a new report. Information also suggests that the lowest estimated amount of rhino horns have entered illegal markets since 2013.

The report is from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Survival Commission (SSC) African and Asian Rhino Specialist Groups in conjunction with TRAFFIC, a global organization focused on ensuring wild animals and plant trade is not a threat to conservation.

Data showed rhino poaching rates in Africa have declined from a peak of 5.3% of the total rhino population in 2015 to 2.3% in 2021.

Lockdowns during the early years of the pandemic played a part, according to the report. 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 drop in global movement isn’t the main reason for the decline in poaching.

“Poaching rates, i.e. the fraction of the continental population poached each year, started declining in 2015 already, five years before COVID realized,” Sam Ferreira, scientific officer with IUCN SSC’s African Rhino Specialist Group, tells Treehugger.

“We are of  course concerned that numbers may rise again as our analyses suggest that poaching rates need to be below 2.3% for an extended time for live rhino numbers to start increasing again.”

Once travel restrictions and lockdowns were lifted, there was an increase in poaching in some places. For example, Kenya had six poached rhinos in 2021 and South Africa reported 451. The report points out these statistics were still much lower than in 2015, when South Africa had 1,175 rhinos taken by poachers.

Affecting the Poaching Rate

Although poaching numbers have been dropping, there are still many animals that are hunted illegally.

A total of at least 2,707 rhinos were poached in Africa between 2018 and 2021. Animals poached include the white rhino (Ceratotherium simum), which is classified as near threatened on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, as well as the black rhino (Diceros bicornis) which is critically endangered.

The majority of the reported poaching cases (90%) were in South Africa, involving mostly white rhinos in Kruger National Park. That had a big impact on the overall rhino population on the continent.

By the end of 2021, there were an estimated 22,137 rhinos 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 drop of about 12%. According to the report, the rhino population in Africa declined about 1.6% each year, from an estimated 23,562 animals in 2018 to 22,137 animals at the end of 2021.

Poaching rates were at their peak in 2007 at 5.3%, dropping to 3.9% in 2018 and to 2.3% in 2021.

Researchers are considering what factors had an impact on the drop.

“We have not done formal cause and effect analyses, but it is likely that a combination of improved law enforcement, coordination between range states, collaboration with consumer states, and policy changes like controls on the use of horn were influences,” Ferreira, says.

African states are continuing to implement protection measures and working in collaboration to protect the animals.

“A key insight is that partnerships play key roles,” Ferreira says. “Rhinos usually do better when managed in partnership between government and other parties.”

Illegal Trade Markets

The report also analyzed the illegal trade markets and found the estimated number of rhino horns passing through is also dropping.

Data suggests that between 575 and 923 rhino horns entered the illegal trade each year between 2018 and 2020, compared to about 2,378 each year between 2016 and 2017.

The amount of seized illegal horns shot up again in 2019, likely because of more laws and tighter enforcement. Because not all countries report seizures consistently, researchers say they can’t completely understand patterns with illegal rhino horns.

Researchers are cautiously optimistic about the trends but know that things could easily change.

“[Poaching] remains a key threat to rhinos and in particular in some populations. Unless the successes are continued, rhinos will decline in future,” Ferreira says.

“These findings suggest that Africa can address complex societal challenges, with rhino poaching just part of a suite of criminal activities that degrades the safety and security of people in many areas in Africa.”

View Article Sources
  1. "Rhinoceroses." Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

  2. "White Rhino." IUCN Red List.

  3. "Black Rhino." IUCN Red List.

  4. Sam Ferreira, scientific officer with IUCN SSC’s African Rhino Specialist Group