When reading data, context is everything.
We know that 33% less white and black rhino were killed for their horns last year. But if rhino population sizes as a whole in national and private game parks are decreasing, how significant is this 33%?
And is poaching the only threat to existing black and white rhino populations?
South African National Parks (SANParks) said anti-poaching efforts should be measured as “percentage of population lost” to give the statistics context.
Another factor to take into consideration is the poaching successes and arrests compared to rhino losses.
An anonymous source has, however, said that rhino populations in the Kruger National Park alone had dropped by more than 50%.
A rhino carcass. Picture: Adam Cruise/Conservation Action Trust
There were likely less than 3549 white and 298 black rhinos left in the park.
“Most people do not realise the major reason why poaching is dropping is because there are no rhinos anymore,” the source explained.
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SANParks said rhino population size decreases did contribute to lower poaching figures, but quickly added that this was “not the only factor” threatening the lives of rhinos in South Africa.
Amid constant threats of poaching, natural mortality is something all animals endure.
SANParks said from 2015 to 2020, white rhino natural deaths ranged from 0.6% to 1.7%, and black rhinos from 1.2% to 4.8%, in the Kruger Park.
Droughts also pose challenges for embattled rhinos.
A black rhino in the desert. Picture: Mike Kendrick/Conservation Action Trust
SANParks said that during the 2015-2016 drought, white rhinos “died naturally at twice the normal rate”, with around 3% of the population adversely affected by long bouts of little to no rainfall.
Birth rates plummeted too, with cows only conceiving half their normal birth rate, one year after the drought in the Kruger Park.
A rhino cow is pregnant for 16 months, and only produces, on average, one calf every two to three years.
But two years later, and the park recorded high birth rates. Most of the calves born then are now suckling, which means not as many cows gave birth in 2020, when compared to 2019.
Bovine tuberculosis in the Kruger Park also affected rhino populations, as moving them out of the park to safer areas was halted.
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But the most devastating threat continues to be the long-term effects of rhino poaching.
Each poached rhino cow means losing around five rhinos to the population in the future, SANparks estimated.
A white rhino family. Picture: Conservation Action Trust
Poaching also disrupts black rhino societies, whose cows conceive less often. Last year, saw the lowest rate of black rhino calves being born since 2013, SANParks said.
Another factor that affects population size is orphaned rhinos relocated from the park.
A unborn rhino calf, whose mother is poached, is not counted as a poaching fatality, SANParks explained, but is recorded “for statistical purposes”.
They added that “only a small number die”. Current statistics indicate that around 50% of orphaned rhino calves are recovered and rescued. Around 20% of the calves are euthanised due to ill health.
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“A poaching incident is captured in the reporting template as an animal that dies as a result of a bullet wound / other means.”
It is clear that preserving the lives of rhino cows is integral to the survival of the species.
SANParks said it had embarked on dehorning strategies to protect cows in vulnerable areas. However, they reported this impacted on the cow’s ability to protect her young against predators or male rhinos.
Bottle-fed orphaned rhino calves. Picture: Facebook/The Rhino Orphanage
Translocating sub-adult males has also had limited success.
As such, SANParks said it would implement “a prioritised biological management and veterinary care process aimed at enhancing the survival of injured and wounded cows”.
Due to the movement of poaching syndicates becoming severely restricted in the country’s stricter lockdowns implemented last year, SANParks said the impact on rhino poaching was “significant”.
In April 2020, 14 rhinos were poached, compared to 60 in April 2019. In May 2020, 13 rhinos were poached, down from 59 in May 2019. And in June 2020, 19 rhinos were poached, with 30 in June 2019.
As restrictions were lifted in July 2020, poaching incidents increased to 37.
A majestic white rhino. Picture: Conservation Action Trust
SANParks said poaching “was still contained” after lockdown, but conceded that numbers shot up last November and December, to 55 and 63 respectively.
With movement restrictions lifted, poaching is expected to surge, despite SANParks’ interventions.
An anonymous source told The Citizen that poachers drove in through the gates of the Kruger Park, posing as tourists or contractors, or were helped inside by staff. The source alleged that poachers had “free rein”, and that “internal corruption was getting worse”.
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Another anonymous source said rhino numbers dropping proved riskier for poachers locating them on foot, which resulted in them “shifting their modus operandi to recruiting more insiders”.
Analysing a rhino carcass. Picture: Adam Cruise/Conservation Action Trust
A source has also questioned why sniffer dogs were not deployed to exits and entrances of the southern gates of the Kruger, saying it may be due to fear that “they will catch poachers and possibly some of their own people”.
Stop Rhino Poaching founding director Elise Serfontein said: “No action, or slow action, leads to increasing insider involvement, even more pressure on investigators, [and] continues to cost rhinos their lives and puts good rangers’ lives in danger.”
She said that “honest rangers live in mortal fear of corrupt insiders”, while “syndicates have tentacles that explore every chink in the armour and are always a few steps ahead”.
Serfontein believes that a zero-tolerance approach to “internal corruption inside reserves” is essential to curbing rhino poaching.
An environmental group in Hong Kong said the 40 kilograms of rhino horn was a major bust. Picture: Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department/AFP/Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department
SANParks said there was a delay in prosecuting many suspects in the Lowveld, as well as an early release of prisoners linked to rhino poaching and wildlife crime. For them, this was the most significant challenge to curbing poaching syndicates.
They said financing remained a challenge, and said it aimed to “continuously counter” internal corruption. This would be done by roping in the Financial Intelligence Centre and banking institutions, which SANParks said was “likely to have a significant impact in these areas”.
An air-wing strategy was also needed, which SANParks said had already been implemented in the short term.
However, medium- and long-term plans are resource dependent, and have thus been affected by Covid-19 constraints, they said.
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