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South Africa faces escalating rhino poaching despite conservation efforts

South Africa faces a surge in rhino poaching, with 499 rhinos lost in 2023. Conservation efforts intensify amidst international concern.



South Africa recorded a distressing 499 rhinos poached in 2023, marking an increase of 51 from the previous year, the government said on Tuesday (27 Feb).

Rhinos, particularly the critically endangered black rhino (diceros bicornis) population, have long been a symbol of Africa’s rich biodiversity.

South Africa, home to nearly half of the continent’s black rhinos and boasting the largest population of near-threatened white rhinos globally, finds itself at the forefront of the battle to protect these majestic creatures.

The poaching crisis is fueled by the insatiable demand for rhino horns, predominantly in East Asian countries, where they are used in traditional medicines and jewelry.

Despite widespread awareness campaigns and stringent enforcement measures, criminal syndicates continue to ruthlessly exploit these animals for profit.

In 2023, the grim reality of rhino poaching unfolded across both state and privately-owned properties, with 406 rhinos falling victim to poachers on state lands and 93 on private reserves, parks, and farms.

The Department of Forestry, Fisheries, and the Environment expressed deep concern, particularly highlighting the intensified pressure on KwaZulu-Natal’s (KZN) Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, which faced a significant number of poaching incidents.

Environment Minister Barbara Creecy underscored the gravity of the situation, revealing that despite 49 arrests and 13 firearms seized in KZN, the battle against poaching remains an uphill struggle. The complexity of the issue extends beyond national borders, with rhino poaching often involving sophisticated international criminal networks colluding with local poachers and, at times, even corrupt park rangers.

In response to the escalating crisis, South Africa’s environment ministry has intensified efforts to support rangers, enhancing healthcare, training, and counseling services to dissuade collusion with poachers.

Furthermore, conservation organizations like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) have stepped up their interventions, focusing on bolstering ranger capacity, improving living conditions, and developing integrity management plans to fortify organizational resilience.

Jeff Cooke, the leader of WWF’s Black Rhino Range Expansion Project, emphasized the pivotal role of professionalizing rangers and expanding rhino habitats in safeguarding these vulnerable populations.

Cooke stressed the importance of turning the tide on illegal poaching, particularly in regions like KZN, where conservation efforts have historically been paramount.

Despite some positive indicators, such as the recent increase in rhino numbers across Africa, highlighted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the gains remain precarious in the face of relentless poaching activities.

Black rhino numbers rose by 4.2% to 6,487, while white rhino numbers increased to 16,803, offering a glimmer of hope amidst the crisis.

Cooke, however, cautioned that until the poaching crisis is effectively addressed, the progress achieved thus far remains vulnerable.

The WWF, in alignment with South Africa’s national strategy to combat wildlife trafficking, continues to advocate for comprehensive measures to disrupt illicit trade networks and bolster conservation efforts at both national and provincial levels.

Initiatives such as the Black Rhino Range Expansion Project and the WWF Khetha program play a pivotal role in fostering collaboration between governments, communities, and conservation organizations to mitigate the impact of wildlife trafficking.

These programs not only focus on enhancing law enforcement responses but also prioritize community engagement, conflict management, and youth involvement in conservation efforts.

The black rhino, smaller than white rhinos, is one of two African rhino species. Their lips distinguish them; black rhinos have hooked upper lips, while white rhinos have square ones.

Black rhinos, herbivores that browse, use their pointed lips to feed on leaves. They have two horns that grow continuously, with the front horn averaging around 19 inches long.

Black rhino populations dramatically declined due to European hunters and settlers in the 20th century, dropping by 98% between 1960 and 1995.

Despite this, conservation efforts across Africa have led to their numbers doubling from less than 2,500 to over 6,000 today.

However, the black rhino remains critically endangered, requiring extensive work to increase their population and ensure their survival. Poaching for their horns persists as a significant threat to their recovery.

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