Amanda Watson
News Editor
6 minute read
18 Feb 2019
5:45 am

Mokonyane’s rhino poaching numbers don’t add up

Amanda Watson

Environmental groups and researchers have raised serious questions about official conservation data.

Roughly a quarter of the world population of rhinos has been killed in South Africa in the last eight years, due to demand for their horn. AFP/File/WIKUS DE WET

Environmental Affairs Minister Nomvula Mokonyane recently released the 2018 rhino poaching statistics. The numbers are not adding up and South Africa’s state-owned rhino population may be worse off than Mokonyane would have us believe.

A recent study put the number of black and white rhino combined in Kruger National Park (KNP) at an estimated 5,649, which falls far short of the 2020 target of 538 to 676 south-central and 169 south-western black rhino, and 9,854 to 10,232 southern white rhino.

According to a source in conservation who requested privacy to protect against backlash, two surveys were undertaken in 2018 after rangers said surveyed rhino numbers did not correspond to what they had observed on the ground.

Attempts to obtain current population numbers from South African National Parks (SANParks) and department of environmental affairs (DEA) spokesperson Albi Modise of the Kruger National Park (KNP) proved fruitless.

Mokonyane said in her statement – there was no press briefing – that between January 1 and December 31 there were 2,620 incursions into the park, with 125 contacts, but only 769 rhino were poached, making it the third consecutive decrease recorded, “particularly in the national parks”.

Outraged South African Citizens Against Rhino Poaching (Oscap) said they would be thrilled with these stats, if they could believe them, according to Oscap director Kim Da Ribeira.

“We note census figures for KNP for 2018 were not included in the release, and our understanding is that the population of white rhino in KNP is currently below 3,000 individuals.”

Da Ribeira noted 178 firearms were confiscated for 2018 in KNP and surrounding areas.

“If firearms recovered reflect to a degree the number of contacts with poachers, then why over the last quarter of the year was a similar decline in poaching numbers not recorded? We question the accuracy of this figure as incursions were reported to have increased from those recorded in 2017,” Da Ribeira said.

However, despite the poachers’ alleged inability to capitalise on their efforts, Mokonyane announced “initiatives to dehorn rhinos embedded in strategic approaches that target individuals that frequent poaching hot spots, but more importantly, approaches that minimise the losses of cows”.

In August, wildlife conservation organisation Wildlife ACT noted on its website that dehorning was “a last resort” and a “short-term solution, and the sad reality is that it only deflects the risk on to populations that have not been dehorned yet”.

According to the DEA, 7,694 rhino were killed nationally for their horns between 2010 and the end of 2018, while the KNP lost 4,484 rhino in the same time period.

The Species-specific drought impacts on black and white rhinoceroses study published in January has worrying numbers on KNP’s rhino population.

Due to the drought, and despite the effectiveness of anti-poaching, the study put the white rhino population estimate in September 2017 at 5,142, “significantly” lower than the 7,235 previously estimated for 2016.

On the plus side, the black rhino population estimate in September 2017 was 507, significantly higher than the 310 estimated in 2014.

All of which adds up to the previously mentioned combined total of 5,649 rhino in Kruger.

The study also noted SANParks had removed 1,402 southern white rhino from the Kruger since 1990 and, between 2015 and 2016, another 217 from “focal areas” north of the Sabie River.

It’s different from the “official” DEA numbers repeated by Mokonyane, who noted the export of 566 rhino from South Africa since 2014 had been “recommended”, with a further 58 in 2018.

There’s been no feedback on any of the 624 translocated rhino, which technically remain the property of the state, and by extension are the property of all South Africans, let alone the 1,619 moved between 1990 and 2016.

Knowing these numbers is critical in light of the disastrous transfer of six critically endangered black rhino to Chad’s Zakhouma National Park in September, which ended with four dead.

The report on their deaths is still outstanding, despite repeated requests from The Citizen to the entity responsible for their survival, African Parks, which in January was still finalising the report.

Then there’s the issue of collateral damage.

“Note that Kruger management recorded 127 natural mortalities of southern white rhinoceroses between the 2015 and 2016 surveys, compared to the 83 noted between the 2014 and 2015 surveys,” stated the 2017 Realization of poaching effects on rhinoceroses in Kruger National Park, South Africa study.

“South-central black rhinoceroses, a browser and thus less sensitive to drought impacts, had 11 natural mortalities between the 2015 to 2016 surveys compared to 14 between 2014 and 2016 (SANParks, unpubl. data)”.

There is also almost no detail on foetuses found in poached female rhinos, rhino orphans, or how many rhino survived attempts or were put down as a result of their injuries.

The only reference made was in the 2016 DEA release, where it was noted that 14 rhino were treated, making for 54 injured rhino treated since the beginning of 2014.

“Unfortunately, 31 of these were so badly injured they had to be euthanised,” said then environmental affairs minister Edna Molewa in the statement.

“So far during 2016, SANParks have rescued 11 rhino orphans, bringing the total to 38 since 2013. At present 29 rhino orphans remain alive and looked after in rhino orphanages,” Molewa said.

Aside from the above, while the DEA’s recorded data begins at 24 rhino poached in 2006, there is nothing to say how many privately owned and state-owned rhino were killed in the provinces.

According to Modise, at provincial level, publicly and privately owned rhino were included in the provincial numbers.

Da Ribeira said the DEA was making decisions based on fundamentally flawed and incomplete information.

“Preparations are well under way for the 18th Cites Conference of the Parties in Sri Lanka. When is the DEA going to start to follow the precautionary principle as it is obliged to do under our Constitution?”

Former managing executive of the Kruger Dr Salomon Joubert said the apparent absence of a census report shortly after each census and/or the moratorium placed on the release of the census results before being approved by the DEA was “seriously concerning”.

“This latter process clearly takes a very considerable time, a situation that can only lead to confusion and serious suspicion that either the DEA or SANParks are not being honest with the results,” Joubert said.

“Another source of concern is the method adopted for the census of rhino, elephants and other game,” Joubert noted.

“This involves block counts and statistical analysis, yielding confidence limits that are so wide apart that the population could either be crashing or flourishing. And providing enough opportunity to hoodwink critics.

“The role of an inadequate census method in determining the population trends of rhino should be seriously considered.”

Tables below are from the Realisation of poaching effects on rhinoceroses in Kruger National Park, South Africa, study.

Births vs poaching.


Rhino population estimates.


Survey techniques.


24 2006

13 2007

83 2008

122 2009

333 2010

448 2011

668 2012

1004 2013

1215 2014

1175 2015

1054 2016

1028 2017

769 2018

7936 (7694 from 2010)



146 2010

252 2011

395 2012

606 2013

672 2014

826 2015

662 2016

504 2017

421 2018



187 2010

190 2011

235 2012

366 2013

387 2014

349 2015

392 2016

524 2017

347 2018