Rhino insurance—time to move some of Kruger’s herd to Australia?

By February 16, 2022Editorial

Caption: White Rhino calf, Kruger National Park. © Sue Berry/Shutterstock

I have just read Ray Dearlove’s The Crash of Rhinos. It is a moving, sometimes funny, but ultimately sad account of one man’s attempt to move a population of rhinos from South Africa to a place of safety in Australia. The Australian Rhino Project (TARP) was started by Ray in 2014 and continues, but without Ray’s involvement. Seven years of sweat, toil, and tears and, as far as I am aware, rhinos have yet to make the journey from Africa to their planned sanctuary in Australia. The project should have been a triumph for collaborative effort—it wasn’t short of goodwill, and it had the endorsement of such luminaries as Jane Goodall and the late Ian Player, amongst others. But as so often happens in conservation, good concepts can all too easily founder on the rocks of ego, bureaucracy, and sometimes sheer arrogance. When Ray met with South Africa’s then environment minister, Edna Molewa, and tried to motivate his vision, her response was: “But Ray, you can see rhinos around every corner in the Kruger Park.”

Despite the awful personal disappointment for Ray, it is a tribute to his deep commitment to the future of rhinos that he remains positive and hopeful. “Until the day I die,” he concludes, “I will believe that persistence and constant, constructive engagement will result in a crash of rhinos peacefully and safely breeding in a paddock in Australia under the Southern Cross, far from the city lights. We owe this to the remaining rhinos on Earth.” I thoroughly recommend reading his book.

I hope that Ray’s vision does become a reality. Translocation over great distances is expensive and isn’t always a good use of precious funding. However, it has, and still does, play a relevant and positive role in conservation, particularly in the case of rhinos. If it wasn’t for Player’s successful Operation Rhino vision in the 1960s, there is a real possibility that by now, it would have been game over for White Rhino. So many of today’s White Rhino populations across several countries owe their origin to this project. Translocation has also played a critical role in the growth of Indian Rhino numbers. And, towards the end of 2021, 30 rhinos were airlifted to Rwanda under the supervision of African Parks and their partners. Admittedly all the African and Indian projects were carried out within continental boundaries and a solid understanding of the rhino’s historical distribution. Moving a large number of rhinos to Australia would be a big step, but I see a lot of sense in building an overseas investment in an “out of Africa” population. An insurance policy, if you will. May it never happen that these rhinos would need to be repatriated, at least not for the reason of continued deprivation here in Africa. However, given recent data on poaching, it is hard to quell a rising sense of disquiet that such an eventuality might come to pass.

South Africa’s latest poaching statistics certainly reinforce the growing unease. The Kruger National Park has recorded the loss of about 5,000 rhinos to poaching in little more than a decade. Furthermore, in 2011 the park’s White Rhino population numbered an official 10,621, but that was before the current poaching crisis really took hold. Since then, in little more than a decade, Kruger’s population has plummeted by 75 percent to a reported 2,607, a loss of more than 8,000 individual rhinos. The park’s small Black Rhino population fared only marginally better— a drop of about 50 percent from 415 to 202 at the end of 2021. So, in all the great expanse of Kruger, the overall rhino population has tumbled to fewer than 3,000 individuals. Hard to comprehend.

In 2021, 451 rhinos were poached, 202 of them in Kruger. (Not all victims are found, so the actual figure is likely to be higher). This was up from the 394 reported previously, the lowest for 13 years—a welcome but short respite due to Covid-19 lockdowns. The South Africa Department for Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) try to put a positive spin on the recent lower annual poaching stats, but this is at best disingenuous. Of course, poaching is down, but that is simply because there are fewer rhinos to target and, as a result, probably harder to find. Nevertheless, the motivation and success of poaching gangs entering Kruger remain high as the percentage of poaching deaths relative to the total number of remaining rhinos is proving to be remarkably consistent.

On a recent webinar, Dr. Luthando Dziba, acting head of SANParks, suggested that the point at which the trend of an ever-dwindling rhino population may be reversed might not be too far away. I hope he is correct, but 202 rhinos poached out of Kruger’s population of 2,809 (White and Black Rhinos together) is still a yearly loss rate of more than seven percent of the total. If natural mortalities of about 2.4 percent of the population are added to this number, I doubt that overall births are close to matching the total deaths. I would guess that annual poaching levels need to be held at well below 100 individuals for many years before any real growth in Kruger’s population will manifest.

And what of South Africa’s total rhino population? The White Rhino probably reached its zenith in the early 2010s when slightly more than 20,000 roamed the savannas of Southern Africa, a great many of them in Kruger. The park’s poaching experience and the resultant collapse of its rhino population have had a devasting knock-on effect on the country’s overall population. It is hard to see how current numbers could be more than 12,000 or so. Black Rhinos are far fewer than their white cousins—approximately 2,000 are now found in South Africa. However, as it does for White Rhinos, poaching remains a huge and present threat; therefore, populations of this critically endangered species must be increased as quickly as possible. WWF’s Black Rhino Range Expansion Project is doing an excellent job on that score.

A peculiarity of the rhino landscape in South Africa is the number of both species held in privately-owned conservation areas and ranches. According to the Private Rhino-owners Association (PROA), there are approximately 330 private game reserves in South Africa, covering an area of over nearly five million acres. Some 6,300 rhinos live on these reserves—as much as or even more than 50 percent of South Africa’s rhinos. This, of course, means that the contribution of private owners to the overall wellbeing of rhinos in South Africa is hugely important. They continue to invest millions of dollars in protecting their rhinos and, to date, have been more successful in doing so than the state and provincial reserves.

More recently, however, there has been an upturn in poaching incidents on private land. Generally, rhino poaching in private reserves has been within 10–16 percent of the national total, but in 2021 this spiked to 24 percent. The reason could be that as rhino numbers in the public reserves continue to decrease, the poaching syndicates are widening their reach to include more private game reserves, notwithstanding their traditionally more effective security measures. Perhaps, though, with the Covid-related fall off in tourism (the primary revenue stream for both state-owned and private reserves), the private owners are being forced to cut back on their own security spending and increasing their vulnerability as a result.

Dave Bryant, the Democratic Alliance’s shadow minister for the environment, recently voiced the misgivings of a powerful lobby within the PROA. “Many of the private reserve owners feel that they have been left out of the discussion around rhinos in South Africa and would like to have a seat at the table to raise their concerns and share their expertise and ideas. The minister must make more of an effort to meet with the owners of private rhino reserves on a regular basis. In a few years’ time they may well be guarding the only remaining rhinos in the country.”

So where to from here? Dehorning continues as a prime disincentive to poachers. In many reserves, including Kruger, there is a focus on dehorning female rhinos to protect the breeding stock. It is an expensive option and logistically difficult for a conservation area the size of Kruger, where the veterinary team concentrates on dehorning female rhinos to protect the park’s precious breeding potential. While generally regarded as effective, there are indications that poachers are beginning to target even dehorned rhinos. Perhaps this is because the horn stub remaining after dehorning is still worth taking, or maybe it is a simple act of vengeance to get them out of the system and avoid wasting time tracking a dehorned rhino more than once. If such actions are gaining ground, it is a worrying development.

Gareth Coleman, Kruger’s managing executive, stresses the importance of technology in anti-poaching efforts, asserting that the park is head and shoulders above the rest of the world in this respect. “Kruger probably has the most advanced anti-poaching techniques, operations, equipment, people, globally,” he said on the previously mentioned webinar. He’s probably right, but Kruger also needs boots on the ground. The park’s ranger complement is 400–500, but at the moment, 82 posts are unfilled, probably a consequence of an operating budget that has been cut by 66 percent. Understandable, perhaps, given the country’s parlous economic circumstances, but not helpful in a war on poaching that, in the seven years from 2014, has experienced 19,154 logged poacher incursions, an average of 2,736 a year. The devastating results of this are frighteningly clear.

What more can be done? Environment minister Barbara Creecy recently hinted at “establishing additional founder populations outside the Kruger National Park.” But where? Maybe this is finally the opportunity to realize Ray Dearlove’s vision to move some rhinos offshore to Australia. Although he would be sad not to be at the helm of TARP if this happens, I have no doubt that he would also be deeply pleased that the interests of the creatures he cares so much about had been served.