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WWF responds to South African rhino poaching numbers for 2022

White Rhino, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Image: Luca Galuzzi/Wikimedia Commons

By WWF | February 6, 2023

WWF welcomes the release of the South African rhino poaching numbers for 2022. Transparency and regular communication about rhino numbers and rhino poaching are vital to understand the threats to our rhinos and the best solutions to conserve them.

The most recent rhino population numbers for Africa to the end of 2021, as released by IUCN last year, showed that white rhino numbers have continued to decline at around 3.1% per year and numbered just below 16 000 animals. More positively, between 2018 and 2021, overall numbers of the Critically Endangered black rhino increased at a rate of 3% per annum to 6 200 animals in part due to long-term efforts to actively expand their range and numbers across the continent.

Overall, there was a slight decline in rhino poaching losses in South Africa from 451 in 2021 to 448 in 2022. However, we note with concern that the organised crime networks orchestrating the trafficking of rhino horns continue to move their targets onto important rhino populations in large conservation areas across southern Africa. Of specific concern is the report from the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) of the ongoing rhino poaching pressure in KwaZulu-Natal. Last year, 244 rhinos were poached in KZN, notably in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park.

The 40% decrease reported in rhino poaching losses in Kruger National Park from 2021 to 124 in 2022 provides hope and important lessons regarding successful interventions for rhino security in large conservation areas within a landscape exploited by organised criminality.

“Over the last year, several positive security interventions have been proven in disrupting wildlife criminals including dehorning programmes, multi-agency law enforcement collaborations including financial investigations and efforts to build ranger morale and integrity. However, the transnational organised crime networks targeting large conservation areas and important rhino populations across southern Africa remain a serious concern.  At the same time as targeting the criminals involved in wildlife trafficking, we must continue our parallel platforms of rhino population management to grow numbers as quickly as possible and building relationships with communities around protected areas for the long-term benefits of people and nature.” Dr Jo Shaw, Africa Rhino Lead, WWF

At a site level, DFFE reported on the benefits of active dehorning programmes in Kruger National Park in shifting the risk/reward to criminals involved in rhino poaching. Dehorning has also been recognised as an important security intervention in the private reserves forming part of the WWF Black Rhino Range Expansion Project in KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo.

The Wildlife Justice Commission 2022 Global Threat Assessment into rhino horn trafficking from 2012-2021 identified irrefutable evidence pointing to the involvement of transnational organised criminal networks. The report called for in-depth, intelligence-led investigations that focus on the criminal networks rather than individuals, conducting further investigations after seizure incidents to identify the product owners, using advanced investigation techniques, conducting parallel financial or corruption investigations, and seizing assets. The DFFE Environmental Enforcement Fusion Centre (EEFC) plays an important role in these National responses to wildlife crime in South Africa.

An excellent example of such an intervention is the multi-disciplinary integrated take-down operation “Blood Orange” conducted in Mpumalanga, Gauteng and Limpopo provinces by the Hawks, SAPS, Mpumalanga Serious Corruption Investigation, Serious Organised Crime Investigation and Serious Commercial Crime Investigation, Crime Intelligence, Tactical Response Team and Local Criminal Record Centre, KPMG, DFFE and South African National Parks (SANParks).

This operation led to successful arrests of former SANParks rangers and family members for their involvement in serious organised crimes relating to rhino horn trafficking, including money laundering. Such collaboration between local law enforcement and prosecution agencies not only disrupts rhino poaching networks but also promotes broader safety and security for people throughout the landscape.

Over the last year, there has also been growing recognition of the importance of professionalising rangers working on the front line of conservation efforts. Valuing the critical work by rangers and building morale and trust within teams can also prevent transnational organised crime networks corrupting staff to gain information and access to rhinos.

WWF works with BMUV (the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conversation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection) to provide training, equipment and infrastructure for Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife rangers in KwaZulu-Natal. Together with USAID, WWF capacitates rangers as leaders and conservationists as well as law enforcers in the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area (GLTFCA). An important development was the SANParks Board approval of integrity testing as part of a holistic plan to improve integrity and reassure staff of their colleagues’ trustworthiness.

Concurrently, WWF supports the work of dedicated community engagement practitioners who facilitate communication and cooperation between local people and conservation agencies. The long-term survival of conservation areas depends on their ability to be relevant and valuable to those who live closest to them. Community engagement practitioners ensure that local people’s problems, views and ideas are taken into account when dealing with challenges such as wildlife crime. Those working at the interface between parks and people are therefore as important as law enforcement officials in securing the future of protected areas and the species in it.