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Specialist group releases latest African rhino numbers

Updated information on rhino populations showing that threats to African rhinos from transnational crime networks remain high.

The IUCN African Rhino Specialist Group (AfRSG) has released updated information on rhino populations showing that threats to African rhinos from transnational crime networks remain high, despite the reported pause during COVID lockdown periods. 

  • At a continental scale, the threat of illegal wildlife trade in rhino horn to African rhinos has declined to 2.3% poaching rate of the total population from the peak in 2015 (5.3% poaching rate)
  • Encouragingly, between 2018 and 2021, overall numbers of the Critically Endangered black rhino increased at a rate of 3% per annum to 6 200 animals. 
  • Of ongoing concern, however, is that white rhino numbers have continued to decline at around 3.1% per year and numbered just below 16 000 animals at the end of 2021. The declining white rhino populations predominantly occur in the large state-managed protected areas in South Africa.
  • The total estimate of rhinos in Africa was 22 137 rhinos at the end of 2021. These latest figures show an overall decline in rhino numbers on the continent, from 23 562 at the last report in 2017.

These findings describe the global status of rhinos, which has been submitted to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) ahead of the 19th Conference of Parties (CoP19), which will take place in Panama in November 2022. 

The Specialist Group highlighted that rhino populations which are co-managed through partnerships between local people, private sector and state agencies are performing better than those managed solely by state agencies.

This recognition of the importance of the role of local communities in biodiversity conservation in Africa, echoes the Kigali Call to Action for People and Nature from the IUCN Africa Protected Areas Congress. It is also notable that private ownership of rhinos increased to 53.2% of the South African national white rhino population, thanks to the sector’s significant and sustained investment in their protection.

African range states recorded a total of 2 707 illegal killings of rhino between 2018 to 2021, and South Africa continues to face the greatest threat, reporting 90% of these losses. Range states also reported 1 588 rhino-related arrests from 2018 to 2021, together with 751 prosecutions and 300 convictions. 

Restrictions on movement and travel during 2020 as result of the COVID-19 pandemic hampered the efforts of horn trafficking networks and all four of the major rhino range states - South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Kenya experienced lower poaching rates. This respite has not lasted and, as COVID travel restrictions are lifted, there are concerning signs that rhino poaching is returning to near pre-pandemic levels. In particular, unconfirmed reports of continued poaching of rhinos in Botswana in 2021 remain a concern.

Dr Jo Shaw, Africa Rhino Lead, WWF, said: “The news about increased black rhino numbers is encouraging, as it underscores the value of creating new habitat and growing numbers of rhinos and the need to continue to commit to these efforts in future. We must support the partnerships required between State agencies, local communities and private sector to secure future range for rhinos and work towards broader conservation benefits to wildlife and people. The Kigali Call for Action for People and Nature from the recent African Protected Areas Congress emphasized the importance of the role of local communities in the future of biodiversity conservation in Africa” 

Dr Margaret Kinnaird, Wildlife Practice Leader, WWF, commented: “Transnational organised crime networks and the corruption they create continue to threaten rhinos. These networks are a risk to the safety and security of wildlife, and the people living around them and those working to conserve them. We know these challenges are global in nature and transnational collaboration and co-operation is required to overcome them, such as has been proven through multi-agency wildlife crime units. We must continue targeted efforts to build resilience to corruption, and to address the problem at the source in the form of illegal demand for rhino horn”. 

A white rhino cow with her calf. White rhinos numbers have declined while black rhinos have increased over the past few years.

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