“South Africa saw a marked decline in rhino poaching during 2020, with the killing of rhino declining by 33%.” This was the headline statement in yesterday’s report back from the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries. Welcome news, of course, but I feel it was little more than a wafer-thin coating of sugar masking a rather bitter pill. For nowhere did the statement mention the fact that the Kruger National Park’s White Rhino population, and consequently that of the whole country, had continued to fall alarmingly.
And it has, in no uncertain terms. While not exactly hidden, tucked away on page 96 of the South African National Parks Annual Report 2019/2020, which was released a few days ago, is a sentence revealing that Kruger now only has 3,549 White Rhinos. And even its much smaller, but still important, Black Rhino population, previously thought to be doing modestly well in the face of poaching depredations, had also crashed.
The current wave of poaching, now showing some sign of abating, has been with us for more than a decade, with South Africa at its epicenter. More specifically, the scourge has homed in on Kruger National Park, which has the largest single White Rhino population in the world. The losses have been horrifying, and the often-voiced query now is an anxious, “How many rhinos are really left in Kruger?”
It is a good question, as estimating game populations is never easy, and there will always be a margin of error. There has been much speculation around the real position regarding Kruger’s rhinos, but maybe, at last, we are getting closer to the truth of the matter, unpalatable as it is.
In 2006, there was a tiny blip on the radar when 26 rhinos in Kruger fell to poaching. Then, in 2007, all went quiet again, although the 36 losses in Zimbabwe that year left a sense of unease in the minds of some of us. In 2008 the blip was back, and much bigger—164 rhinos died in Zimbabwe and 83 in South Africa, 58 of them in Kruger. From then, the horror began to unfold in earnest, and by the end of 2020, Kruger had lost some 5,320 rhinos.
And Kruger wasn’t the only part of the country to suffer. In KwaZulu-Natal, 1,225 had fallen, and another 2,267 in the rest of the country. All in all, South Africa had lost 8,936 rhinos in 15 years—all cruelly wiped out for their horns. Adding to the losses, there would, of course, have also been natural mortalities. And in Kruger, these would have been higher than the average because of the twin stresses of prolonged drought (which thankfully now seems to be over) and the rhinos’ susceptibility to tuberculosis.
Furthermore, there would have been collateral damage from poaching. Many young calves would have perished alongside their mothers. And, a number of the slaughtered adult females would have been pregnant at the time of their death. Some of their unborn offspring would have been females who would have also gone on to breed. All brutally removed from the potential breeding pool for no reason other than insatiable greed.
But, back to the statistics.
In 2011, South African National Parks (SANParks) reported that the Kruger’s White Rhinos appeared to have leveled off at approximately 10,600 animals. Then, in 2016, a survey using “the scientifically accepted block count method” recorded a total of 6,649–7,830 White Rhinos in the Park. The decline continued throughout 2017, and by the year’s end, White Rhino numbers in the Kruger had dropped to somewhere between 4,759 and 5,532 individuals. The shocking reality was that in six years, Kruger’s White Rhino population had fallen from 10,600 to as few as 4,759—a 55 percent crash.
Some commentators felt that even these figures were high. In 2015, Dr. Salomon Joubert, a former head of Kruger, estimated that there were then only some 6,000 White Rhinos in the Park. Wildlife vet Dr. Kobus du Toit was even more pessimistic, saying that he put the total population as low as 1,500-3,000. Now, it appears that these lower estimates might have been closer to the mark, given that at the end of 2020, only an estimated 3,549 White Rhinos remain within Kruger’s borders.
And so, the rhino numbers have continued to drop—despite a marked fall in the number killed by poachers. Killings throughout South Africa rose to a frightening all-time high of 1,215 in 2014, with 827 in Kruger alone. However, slowly at first and then gaining momentum, rhino deaths leveled and began to fall. By the end of 2019, rhino poaching deaths in South Africa had dropped to 594 and then to 394 in 2020. Kruger’s losses for the two years were 328 and 245, respectively. Without wanting to detract from the amazing work of the country’s rangers, the Covid-19 pandemic would account for much of this sharp drop. South Africa was under full or partial lockdown, with heavy restrictions on all forms of transport. This unintended respite seems to have hampered the poachers’ movements.
That said, we still face the awful reality that Kruger’s White Rhino numbers have fallen by two-thirds from the 10,600 thought to have been in Kruger in 2011—a tragic loss of 66 percent of the total population in a little over a decade. It is a shocking statistic, and the public deserves a far more detailed commentary than a mere passing reference in an annual report.
Black Rhinos in Kruger are the descendants of a founder population of 90 individuals originally from KwaZulu-Natal. The population count for 2017 was 427 to 586, and it was thought, relatively speaking, that they had fared better than the White Rhinos during the worst poaching years. It seems that this optimism was unfounded, as the annual report now states that only 268 remain, a 54 percent loss.
Kruger’s conservation team stands by their grid-pattern population counting method. However, this has been questioned, as has the length of time between annual counts and the release of results. Unsurprisingly, this has led to a great deal of speculation about the “real” population figures, particularly for White Rhinos in the Park. But the drop in Black Rhinos needs an explanation as well.
In April 2020, South Africa’s Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF) “saw a marked decrease in rhino poaching countrywide.” And that “In Kruger, there were fewer rhinos poached than in any single month since September 2013.” I guess this is pleasing, but it should come as no surprise that fewer rhinos were poached. After all, there are a lot fewer around to poach, and presumably a little harder to find as well. DEFF also noted that “The sharp decrease in rhino poaching in the Kruger National Park last month [April 2020] comes after the park recorded that the number of births equalled the combined natural and poaching deaths for the first time in five years by the end of 2019.” Let’s hope this can be maintained, but we won’t be anywhere near out of the woods until year on year we see the rhino birth and death ratio in Kruger and everywhere on a steady upwards trajectory.
As mentioned earlier, speculation continues, with some suggesting that the rot still has to stop and that White Rhino numbers are even lower than the 3,549 stated in the SANPark’s annual report. I am not one for listening to rumors, but DEFF (and its predecessors) have shown a historical unwillingness to divulge statistics timeously and willingly. Until this is addressed, speculation, mostly negative, will continue. The most sensible course of action would be to show greater transparency in all matters and to allow an independent audit of rhino numbers, not only in Kruger but in South Africa as a whole. I doubt that will happen.