The term “rhino wars” generally refers to two events in recent African conservation history that have threatened the very existence of the remaining rhinos on earth. The first started in the 1970s with a sudden upsurge in demand for rhino horn used to fashion the handles of the traditional curved daggers, or jambiya, worn by Yemeni men. By the mid-1990s, this onslaught had been curbed. The focus of the second war has been on South Africa’s White Rhinos, particularly those in the Kruger National Park, which have been decimated as a result. But, to grasp the full extent of the lopsided relationship between humans and rhinos, we need to reach back a lot further than these recent events.
THE KILLING FIELDS
However, as horrific as they have been, these two events fail to reflect the real horror of the wholesale persecution of African and Asian rhinos over millennia. Rhinos have had nothing in their evolutionary toolkit to defend themselves against the development of their rangelands, sport hunters and, latterly, the firepower of poachers.
We have been directly responsible for the death of millions of rhinos. The sections below give a brief overview of this deplorable state of affairs.
We have little knowledge of how many rhinos there were back in the mists of time when our human ancestors began to colonize the world, but their range and numbers would have certainly been substantial. The global rhino population probably ran well into the millions across all eight or so then-existing genera.
In those far-off little-known times, our forebears would have been as much the hunted as the hunters. However, we do know that hundreds of thousands of years ago, early humans were slaughtering rhinos for their meat and probably their tough hides as well. An archeological site in West Sussex in the U.K. (dating back some 700,000 years) has given up rhino bones showing the marks of stone butchering tools used by early humans, possibly Homo heidelbergensis. Moreover, the same bones show the overlying tooth marks of carnivores, suggesting that the rhinos were first downed by humans and then driven off their kill by powerful scavengers. Similar finds have been unearthed on the island of Luzon in the Philipines.
Although rhinos were clearly on the menu for early humans, hunting would have been the lesser threat to their existence. Rapid climate change was more likely to have caused the demise of those ancestral rhinos, some precipitated by massive volcanic eruptions.
By the beginning of the Holocene Epoch some 12,000 years ago, when our forebears learned to till the land, grow crops, and settle in large communities, the natural landscape began to change in earnest. It was possibly this event more than anything that, down the line, decided the fate of rhinos. Of course, these remarkable creatures were not alone in their persecution, but perhaps their story serves as a metaphor for our uneasy, exploitative relationship with the natural world.
The Woolly Rhino and the giant “unicorn” Elasmotherium would have been nudged into oblivion around this time, probably with some help from us. The Javan Rhino, however, once the most numerous and widespread of all the Asian rhinos, is likely to have been the first of the five still-living species to really feel the brunt of shrinking habitat in the wake of emerging irrigated rice cultivation along the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra and countless other rivers fed by the vast glaciers of the Himalayas some 3,000 years ago.
From the beginning of the 16th century, the human threat to rhinos and other wildlife snowballed as the influence of Britain and Western Europe began to take serious hold over the affairs of Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and Southeast Asia. At first, driven primarily by the lucrative spice trade, and then later, with the burgeoning Industrial Revolution from the latter half of the 1700s, so grew the demand not only for goods and produce but also for raw materials. Competition between the imperial powers—principally Britain, The Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and France—was intense, reaching its height towards the approach of the 1900s.
In four hundred years, the world’s human population had nearly quadrupled from about 430 million to more than 1.6 billion. The whole of Asia had grown from about 300 million to almost a billion in 1900. Likewise, Europe had leaped from a mere 78 million to nearly 500 million, notwithstanding the ravages of plague, starvation, and war. Africa lagged behind, but there, too, the population had grown from only 47 million to about 125 million, despite having lost more than 20 million men, women, and children to the slave trade. And, of course, humans weren’t the only treasure ripped from Africa—through all this time and for centuries before, ivory and horn in prodigious quantities had also been ripped from its shores.
In the face of this flowing human tide, the natural world was pushed back and compromised at an alarming rate. Whole landscapes were lost to agriculture, plantations, and industry. This process has continued to escalate, culminating in the climate and biodiversity crisis now challenging life as we know it.
During the colonial heyday, a new phenomenon had also burst upon the scene: a group of primarily European adventurer-explorers for whom it was “sport” to shoot and kill as many animals as possible. The biggest and most dangerous ones were the prime targets—rhinos did not fare well, and along with elephants, lions, and so many more, they fell in their thousands.
In 1500, a million or more rhinos were probably scattered across Africa and Asia. But, by the twilight years of the 1800s, a terrible toll had been exacted. The Southern White Rhino had crashed to 20 or so survivors and the Indian Rhino to fewer than 200. The Javan Rhino, once the most numerous and widespread of the Asian rhinos, had been driven from its northern ranges, and the Sumatran Rhino, which was probably never very plentiful, was also in trouble. Even Africa’s Black Rhino, though still numbering several hundred thousand, had clearly been devastated in parts of its range. For example, as early as the 1850s, the Southwestern Black Rhino had already been driven to extinction in South Africa. The Northern White Rhino still roamed in numbers, but its days were numbered. Possibly, the world lost two-thirds, or even more, of its rhinos between 1500 and 1900. This amounted to a sustained slaughter of more rhinos a year—a greater number by far than even at the height of the current poaching crisis.
At the dawn of the 20th century, the era of the hunting safari was in full swing. Attracting mostly wealthy British, European, and American men, it was to continue taking its toll through the decades—hides, horns, and ivory were big business. Furthermore, Southern Africa’s abundant wildlife had already been severely depleted due to the ongoing conversion of natural habitats for stock and crop farming. East Africa was not immune—for example, in less than three years, from 1946 to 1948, a game control officer and his colleagues in Kenya shot some 1,000 Black Rhinos to prepare land for human settlement. The pressure on wildlife in Asia was not much different.
The political upheavals in the early years of post-colonial Africa were a considerable challenge for those charged with caring for rhinos and all wildlife. Then, events in the Middle East precipitated further devastation of rhino numbers. The oil crisis in the early 1970s led to a massive inflow of funds into the Gulf States, including Yemen. Yemeni men have a centuries-old tradition of wearing a curved dagger, known as a jambiya, as a symbol of manhood and social standing—the better the craftsmanship and cost of the ceremonial weapon, the greater the status of its wearer. And the most prized of all were those with handles carved from rhino horns. The preference for rhino horn had long been established, but with sudden Yemeni affluence came a surge in demand sustained until the early 1990s.
Africa’s protected areas were ill-equipped to counter the escalation in poaching. This, coupled with the twin scourges of administrative incompetence and corruption, dealt a crippling blow to rhinos. The Northern White Rhino was annihilated to the extent that it is now functionally extinct. The Black Rhino, too, was decimated. Its numbers plummeted from an estimated 65,000 in 1970 to a mere 2,410 in 1995. Those in Central and East Africa were particularly hard hit, but the devastation reached southwards into Zambia and eventually Zimbabwe. Zambia’s rhinos were all but lost, while, from 1984 through 1993, Zimbabwe lost more than 1,100 of its Black Rhinos to poachers. The only countries to emerge relatively unscathed at the time were Namibia and South Africa, where White Rhino, by the mid-1990s, numbers had recovered to about 7,500.
Subsequently, sustained political pressure from the conservation lobby, coupled with Yemen’s continuing economic woes and civil war, considerably curtailed the trade in contraband horn. Today, the price of horn is beyond the pockets of most Yemeni men; many have sold their rhino-hilted daggers for ready cash, and only the very wealthy can now afford them. Even they tend not to wear them conspicuously for fear of theft. Also, alternative materials are gaining in popularity, especially a gum-derived substance that closely resembles rhino horn and is much cheaper.
The mid-1990s through the mid-2000s was a time of respite for rhinos, such was the fall-off in poaching. The sad fact, though, was there weren’t that many rhinos left to poach. The exceptions were South Africa and Namibia, which had largely escaped the devastation of the 1970s—from 1990 through to 2007, South Africa lost only some 260 rhinos, an annual average of just over 14 across an 18-year span.
In Asia, the Indian Rhino was also doing well. In Kaziranga National Park, where most Indian Rhinos live, the population had grown from 366 in 1960 to 1,855 in 2006. But over the border, the small population of Indian Rhinos in Nepal was having a rough time.
In the early 1900s, rhinos were quite widespread in Nepal, but by the 1950s, only a few pockets remained. And by the 1970s, there were probably no more than 100 left in the country. However, sustained conservation efforts paid dividends, and by the 1990s, there had been a significant recovery. Notwithstanding, a severe setback was imminent—from 1996 to 2006, during the Maoist insurgency and the immediate years following, the remote mountain state lost more than 150 of its precious rhinos and total numbers fell to about 400. Again, the Nepalese authorities responded with strongly enforced antipoaching strategies that have since almost wholly halted rhino killings. A 2021 census confirmed a population of 752.
Today, despite recent poaching depredation, the southern subspecies of the White Rhino is the most abundant of all five living rhino species. In the late 1800s, however, it was in dire straits. In fact, it was thought to be extinct. Then, in 1894, some 20 individuals came to light in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal Province, in an area once the royal hunting ground of King Shaka, warrior founder of the Zulu nation. The following year, the Umfolozi and Hluhluwe Reserves were proclaimed to protect the remnant rhino population.
The rhinos prospered—by the late 1950s they numbered about 1,000, and it was feared that they had begun to outstrip their food resources in the reserves. Instead of resorting to culling (for a long while, a standard game management procedure in southern Africa), it was proposed that the “excess” rhinos be moved back into suitable habitats elsewhere in Africa. Spearheading this visionary effort was Dr. Ian Player and a small team, including Player’s mentor Magqubu Ntombela, John Clark, and Toni Harthoorn.
Harthoorn was a veterinary scientist who had recently helped save wildlife from being trapped by the rising waters of the newly completed Kariba Dam on the Zambezi River. He began experimenting with drugs to subdue rhinos before transporting them to their new homes. This led to the development of “M99”, an immobilizing drug that changed the face of big-game capture and translocation.
And so began Operation Rhino. Over a decade or so, White Rhino populations were re-established across Africa. They were also sent to wildlife parks in Europe and the U.S. Within six years, more than 600 individuals had been moved, and by the end of the 1900s, nearly 1,300 had found new homes.
Although challenged by the knock-on effect of poaching in Kruger, the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park remains a stronghold for the White Rhino. The initiative that began there nearly six decades ago saw Africa’s Southern White Rhinos peak at around 21,000 across southern Africa and as far afield as East Africa, where previously the Northern White Rhino held sway.
While the Southern White Rhino remains the most numerous of the living rhinos, the current poaching crisis has taken a terrible toll. Now, in 2022, numbers are unlikely to exceed 15,500. Notwithstanding this setback, it detracts nothing from the proud achievement of Operation Rhino, which is rightfully heralded as one of the greatest conservation successes of all time.
By the mid-1990s, the 20-year-long assault on rhinos beginning in the 1970s had been curtailed. A mix of government action and finding acceptable to its use in traditional Chinese medicine had put paid to this. But then, in the early 2000s, a rumor started in Vietnam that rhino horn had cured cancer in the wife of a former politician. The story went viral, and the demand for horn surged. (It is thought that the rumor could have been the cause of Vietnam’s sole surviving Javan Rhino being shot in 2010 in Cat Tien National Park.)
The first to feel the effects of the global poaching machine restarting its engines was Zimbabwe, still reeling from the earlier dagger handle-led killing spree. Poverty, social turmoil, and corruption made Zimbabwe’s rhinos an easy target, and in 2008 164 rhinos were killed for their horns. In South Africa, there was also a bump in 2008. From the then well-established 14 or so rhinos poached annually, 52 rhinos were killed that year, and a further 84 in 2009. It was a dire warning of what was to come.
Some felt that the poaching impetus came from traditional markets in China, but there was also speculation that it was the dealers and collectors of rhino horn that gave rise to the Vietnamese cancer cure rumor to drive up the value of their stockpiles as the scarcity of rhinos grew. Whatever the truth of the matter, the consequences were dramatic.
In 2008, 333 rhinos were killed in South Africa, 448 in the following year, and then ballooning to an all-time high of 1,215 in 2014. By then, Kruger National Park, vulnerable along its long porous border with Mozambique, was the focus of the killings, with two-thirds of all the recorded crimes taking place within its boundaries.
South Africa and the whole conservation world were in shock. Ex-army major-general, Johan Jooste, was recruited to help staunch the hemorrhage and given command over a team comprising rangers, a contingent of police and soldiers, and an air wing including helicopters, fixed-wing planes, and microlights.
Special Intensive Protection Zones (IPZs) were created, and rhinos were moved there for safety. Some were moved to other strongholds in the country, and some were sold. These and other interventions helped prevent further escalation. Still, the killings continued—1,175 in 2015 and then dropping to just over 1,000 in 2016 and 2017. By the end of 2018, a further 769 rhinos had been killed, followed by 594 in the following year. Then Covid-19 struck worldwide. Strict lockdowns worldwide made travel as difficult for the poaching syndicates as for everyone else, and rhino killings in South Africa fell to 394. A slight increase occurred in 2021 when 451 died at the hands of poachers. The official spin is that the recent drop heralds a turning point in the war. However, the reality is there are simply fewer rhinos to poach and, as a result, harder to find. The focus of poaching crimes—some 46 percent— remains the Kruger National Park, but KwaZulu-Natal reserves are also experiencing significant losses, as are many private conservation areas around the country. Since 2008, 9,338 South Africa have been lost—the battle to secure a long-term future for rhinos, particularly in Kruger and the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, is clearly far from over.
For more than a decade, South Africa has been the global focus of rhino killings.
For more than a decade, South Africa has been the global focus of rhino killings. Kruger National Park, home to the largest single White Rhino population, has been the epicenter of the poaching scourge. The losses have been horrifying, and a question often asked is, “How many rhinos are left in Kruger?”
During the 13 years from 2008 to December 2021, 5,569 rhinos fell to poachers in Kruger— some 60 percent of all the rhinos lost in South Africa. Natural mortalities have added to this sad statistic. In Kruger, these would have been higher than the average because of the twin stresses of prolonged drought and the rhinos’ susceptibility to tuberculosis.
Furthermore, there would have been collateral damage from poaching. Many young calves would have perished alongside their mothers. A number of the slaughtered adult females would have been pregnant, and some of the unborn offspring would have been females. All have been brutally removed from the potential breeding pool for no reason other than insatiable greed.
In 2011, South African National Parks (SANParks) reported that the Kruger’s White Rhinos had seemingly leveled off at approximately 10,600 animals. Then, in 2016, a survey using “the scientifically accepted block count method” recorded 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. In early 2022 came the shocking revelation that Kruger’s White Rhino population was a mere 2,607—South Africa’s premier conservation area had lost 75 percent of its White Rhinos in no more than a decade.
Adding to the tragedy, Kruger’s Black Rhinos appear to have fared no better. From an estimated 427–586 in 2017, the population fell to only 202 in 2021—a loss of some 55 percent over three years.
The poaching situation in Kruger has been constantly under the spotlight for over a decade. However, pressure has also been felt on rhino populations in state and private reserves elsewhere in South Africa. In some measure, because Kruger now has so few rhinos and, as a result, they are harder to find, poachers are looking for pickings further afield.
In 2014 when the poaching crisis peaked, 827 or 68 percent of rhino poaching crimes in South Africa happened in the Kruger National Park. Three years later, in 2017, the Kruger tally had dropped to 504 rhino killings or some 50 percent of the total. However, the disturbing statistic was the rise in poaching crimes outside Kruger, 222 in KwaZulu-Natal, and 302 in the rest of South Africa. In 2021, South Africa lost 451 rhinos, with 209 or 46 percent of the crimes happening in Kruger. The same year, poachers killed 102 rhinos (22 percent) in KwaZulu-Natal and 140 (31 percent) in the rest of the country. The total annual loss remains unacceptably and unsustainably high.
Other countries have also felt the sting of poaching attacks since 2008. For example, Zimbabwe, already severely hit in the 1980s and 90s, lost another 635 rhinos, while Kenya and Namibia lost 237 and 375 individuals from their precious populations. Botswana’s newly re-introduced rhinos have been virtually wiped out. In Asia, poaching in Nepal has been under control for some time. However, south of the border in India, 229 rhinos have been lost.
All in all, Africa and Asia have lost more than 11,500 rhinos since 2008. A grim picture indeed.
The global loss of rhinos has been appalling; there is no doubt about that. But, the situation would likely have been far worse if it hadn’t been for the incredible efforts of anti-poaching initiatives, especially at the coalface where brave men and women have gone face to face with desperate poaching gangs, often better equipped than they have been. Human lives have been lost on both sides of the battle line, and families and communities devastated as a result.
Corruption and inadequate funding have exacerbated the situation. Criminal behavior permeates every aspect of society, from those high in the political circuit through the police, law courts, and those guarding international borders. Ordinary citizens are participants in plundering rhinos, and, most galling of all, included in their number are conservation professionals and veterinarians, the very people in whom the care of rhinos has been entrusted.
Nevertheless, against this sad backdrop, some initiatives have triumphed. Launched in 2005, the Indian Rhino Vision 2020 was an ambitious effort to attain, by 2020, a wild population of at least 3,000 Indian Rhinos spread over seven protected areas in the Indian state of Assam. Despite setbacks, it succeeded. Recent surveys show that India’s rhino population has topped 3,200, while across the border in Nepal, rhino numbers have climbed to 752, and poaching has been hugely curtailed.
In Africa, Black Rhinos are on the rise thanks to programs such as WWF’s Black Rhino Range Extension Project. At the same time, recent translocations of White Rhinos to Akagera National park in Rwanda and their release back into Mozambique after a 40-year absence are reasons for cautious optimism.
And then, of course, there is the resilience of the rhinos themselves. In circumstances of reasonable safety and suitable habitat, rhinos breed well. Despite decades of challenges, the global population of rhinos nudged upwards towards 30,000 in 2012—an all-time high since the 1970s. It seems remarkable, notwithstanding the loss of more than 8,500 rhinos to poaching in the decade just passed, that overall rhino numbers have held up as well as they have. The global population at the end of 2021 was some 25,000.
Notwithstanding the odd glimmer of encouragement, it is clear that much remains to be done to secure the future of rhinos. In this endeavor, embracing science and technology in antipoaching strategies and the legal processes of crime detection and prosecution will be paramount. So will international co-operation in the fight against trafficking. Most of all, there must be a massive improvement in relations between conservation areas and their impoverished neighboring communities. Unless these folk can derive some direct benefit from Nature’s bounty, it is hard to see a positive future for any wildlife, let alone rhinos.
Success can be achieved, but not without long-term commitment and money. And therein lies the rub. Where will this funding come from in a conservation world almost universally strapped for cash? This, of course, leads straight into one of the most debated and divisive subjects in today’s conservation circles—whether or not it would be sensible and wise to open a legal trade in rhino horn. Influential opinion leaders, organizations, governments, and academics argue the case on both sides of the divide, and tempers frequently become frayed. On occasion, the debate has, regrettably and to the advantage of neither side, turned nasty and personal. It is sometimes difficult to see how the “pro” and “anti” legal trade factions could ever be reconciled, so entrenched are their positions.
Hardcore pro-traders view opening up legal, regulated trade in rhino horn as the only sensible solution. Although they do not contend that trade alone is the “silver bullet,” they see it as a practical option in the quest for financing the rhino’s long-term survival. In their eyes, those opposed to it are at best well-intentioned but essentially idealistic, naïve, and impractical. On the other hand, no-trade protagonists argue that a legal trade could lead to an even greater demand for horn and open a veritable Pandora’s Box of unforeseen circumstances.
In November this year, the debate will no doubt once again move to center stage when CITES (the international treaty charged with regulating international trade in endangered flora and fauna) holds its 19th meeting of the member parties in Panama. Despite an expected and concerted push by the powerful pro-trade lobby, the decades-long ban on legal trade will hold. However, much energy and emotion will have been expended. And unfortunately, as long as this impasse exists, the conservation movement as a whole is weakened and the killing fields are more likely to persist.