2015 may have seen a small dip in the number of rhino poached in South Africa, but the level of killing is still double natural reproduction rates
The announcement that South African rhino poaching deaths fell slightly in 2015 adds a misleading gloss to another devastating year in which criminal gangs expanded their operations into new, even more delicate rhinoceros populations.
South Africa’s environment minister Edna Molewa said on Thursday that 1,175 dead rhinos were discovered during the country’s annual census of poaching activities – 40 less than the 2014 record of 1,215.
“I am today pleased to announce that for the first time in a decade – the poaching situation has stabilised,” said Molewa. Since 2007, when just 13 rhinos were taken for their horns, poaching has spiralled into a crisis that now threatens the last stronghold of southern white rhinos an has grown so bad that the government has enlisted the armed forces to assist park rangers.
The South African government was keen to tie the “stabilisation” to an increase in poaching-related arrests and firearms seizures, beefed-up security around Kruger National Park (where the majority of animals are killed) and the translocation of 124 rhinos to more secure areas.
Wildlife advocates, while praising South Africa’s renewed efforts to combat poachers, were quick to point out that stable numbers did not equate to a stable situation.
“It’s still catastrophic,” said Dan Stiles, an expert on the illegal wildlife trade. Heather Sohl, WWF-UK’s chief advisor on species, said the current level of poaching was “totally absurd”.
“In the 17 years preceding the sudden escalation in 2008, fewer than 36 rhinos used to be killed by poachers in South Africa each year,” she said.
Tom Milliken, a rhino expert from wildlife trade watchdog Traffic, warned about misinterpretation of the South African census numbers. He said the real number of deaths could be considerably higher given that not all poached rhino carcasses are found. With this uncertainty taken into account, he said, the results of the 2014 and 2015 censuses were “virtually the same”.
He said the loss of more than 800 animals from Kruger alone – roughly 10% of the park’s remaining animals in one year – was double the natural rate of reproduction.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if numbers [of rhino] were starting to go down,” he said, although the government said the population remained stable.
Milliken said the “stabilisation” may have more to do with the total number of rhinos that poachers are able to take on their smash and grab missions across the border from Mozambique.
“The low-hanging fruit are rhino populations that are pushed up against a border for one reason or another. They are possibly the easiest animals to get. If you have to walk in and penetrate the park deeper and deeper, that could be an impediment,” said Milliken.
The pyrrhic victory in South Africa was outweighed by a dramatic increase in poaching of the critically endangered black rhino in Namibia and Zimbabwe.
“The overall situation for Africa has not changed at all, this year is really going to show record levels of rhino poaching,” said Milliken. The South African announcement brought the total number of rhinos poached in Africa to 1,305 – six more than 2014 and the worst year in decades.
In Namibia the number lost to poachers jumped from 24 in 2014 to 80 last year. At the same time, Zimbabwe reported an increase from 11 to more than 50. Together the three countries (including South Africa) house 95% of remaining African rhino.
The rapid explosion of South Africa’s poaching crisis shows how quickly criminal gangs are able to scale up operations once they set up in a country. Milliken called the rise of poaching in Namibia, which has the largest remnant population of black rhino, as “horrifyingly worrying”.
“What we are seeing is the conflagration is spreading to other rhino populations,” said Milliken. “What’s happening [in Namibia] is the same kind of poaching brand that South Africa has represented. There’s the presence of the Asian syndicates, there’s some degree of corruption in the private sector and there’s other evidence of government officials being corrupted and involved.”
Millken said many Chinese nationals, working as development officials with legitimate jobs, had been implicated in the growing trade. As China’s influence in the continent grew, he said, so too would the influence of the international gangs that drive the trade.
Shaw said the developments should prompt national governments and their international law enforcement partners to enrol local communities in the fight against poachers.
“The infiltration of these communities by sophisticated criminal gangs not only threatens rhinos, it also compromises the safety and sustainable development of the people living in these communities,” said Shaw.
“Local communities can help tackle wildlife crime, but only if they see themselves as active partners in conservation with a real stake in protecting wildlife, not just as pawns in a fight between law enforcement officers and international criminal syndicates.”