Rhino Poaching Has Declined in South Africa During Lockdown

But conservationists worry about plummeting population numbers in Kruger National Park.

Rhinoceros adult with young in Kruger National Park
Rhinoceros with young in Kruger National Park. Jochen Van de Perre / 500px / Getty Images

On the surface, it seems like a bright spot in all the weary headlines that have come during the pandemic. Rhino poaching dropped by 33% during 2020 in South Africa, according to a report from South Africa’s Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries.

Last year, 394 rhinos were poached for their horns in South Africa, marking the sixth consecutive year that poaching has declined. In 2019, 595 rhinos were poached for their horns in South Africa.

“While the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the battle to beat the Covid-19 pandemic contributed in part to the decrease in rhino poaching in 2020, the role of rangers and security personnel who remained at their posts, and the additional steps taken by the government to effectively deal with these and related offenses, also played a significant role,” said Environment, Forestry, and Fisheries Minister Barbara Creecy in making the announcement.

While the drop in poaching is good news, conservationists are quick to point out that the pause is only temporary. And the rhino population is particularly in danger in the country’s flagship Kruger National Park.

The park experienced an overall decline in population of nearly 70% over the last decade due to a combination of poaching and drought, according to a recent report from South African National Parks (SANParks).

During 2020 alone, 245 rhinos were poached for their horns in Kruger National Park. Today there are only 3,549 white rhinos and 268 black rhinos left in the park. That’s down from more than 10,000 in 2010.

"Although there is improvement in tackling poaching in Kruger, we should note that this is related to a much smaller population than say 10 years ago. The remaining rhinos that are alive today are therefore more difficult to find by poachers," Bas Huijbregts, African species manager at World Wildlife Fund, tells Treehugger.

"Also, coronavirus lockdowns in South Africa, and resulting strengthened security on the roads, made travel around the park much more difficult, which led to a reduction in poaching. When those restrictions were eased, poaching picked up again, especially during December. The pressure on the rhino population in Kruger National Park remains high."

Conservationists Weigh In

Conservationists and wildlife researchers say the toll would be much worse were it not for the rangers and other law enforcement officials who work to prevent, detect, and prosecute poaching crimes.

"The situation could be far worse, were it not for the hard work and dedication of South Africa's rangers and other law enforcement officials," Huijbregts says.

"For instance, much progress was made in developing integrated wildlife anti-crime strategies involving all law enforcement agencies in South Africa and the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Areas. Also, protection technology has improved, with focus on saving females, and successes have been made in with arrests of high-level wildlife criminals."

“Taking a unified approach shows the battle against rhino poaching can be won. Taking on wildlife criminals is tough, dangerous and life threatening. In addition to congratulating the Department and its stakeholders, much of the credit must go to rangers on the front lines and the prosecuting authorities,” said Neil Greenwood, International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) Regional Director Southern Africa, in a statement.

“The continued pressure on rhinos in KNP is concerning. As home to South Africa’s largest population of rhinos the animals will remain a target in the cross-hairs of a poacher’s rifle. We encourage focusing even more on giving management and rangers in Kruger what they need to stop the poachers.”

“We welcome the news today of a 33 percent reduction in the number of rhinos lost to poaching in South Africa last year and ongoing decline in the number of rhinos lost annually to poaching over the last six years. However, we are very aware that the apparent reprise provided by lockdown restrictions in 2020 was only a temporary pause and that the pressure on our rhino populations, particularly in Kruger National Park, remains very high,” said Jo Shaw, Senior Manager Wildlife Program, World Wildlife Fund South Africa, in a statement.

“To stop rhino poaching, we need to address the factors that enable wildlife trafficking syndicates to operate. We must ensure skills, equipment, tools and resources are dedicated to fully implementing an approved National Integrated Strategy to Combat Wildlife Trafficking. We must commit to root out corruption, which continues to jeopardize efforts to break the illicit value chain for rhino horn. At the same time, we need to address the factors known to cause criminal behavior to proliferate locally, such as lack of opportunities, high levels of inequality and breakdowns in social norms and values.”

View Article Sources
  1. "The Department Report Back on Rhino Poaching in South Africa in 2020." Environment, Forestry & Fisheries Republic of South Africa, 2021.

  2. "South African National Parks Annual Report 2019/20." South African National Parks, 2020.

  3. "South African National Parks Annual Report 2010." South African National Parks, 2010.

  4. "Rhino Poaching Decreases In South Africa." IFAW, 2021.

  5. "South Africa: Fewer Rhinos Poached In 2020 and Fewer Rhinos Remaining in Kruger." World Wildlife Fund.