Too early to celebrate decline in South Africa rhino poaching

Just as the South African government reported fewer rhinos poached in 2018, Hong Kong authorities yesterday announced a record-breaking seizure of rhino horn from two air passengers traveling from South Africa en route to Vietnam.

 

“The timing of these announcements couldn’t be more ironic,” said CEO of WildAid Peter Knights. “On the one hand, South Africa celebrates the decline in poaching and on the other, Hong Kong makes another record seizure. Meanwhile, the number of rhinos continues to dwindle.”

 

On Wednesday, the South African Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) reported that the number of rhinos poached in South Africa fell from 1,028 in 2017 to 769 in 2018 – a decrease of 259 or about 25%. In just a decade, more than 7,912 South African rhinos have been lost to poaching, according to government figures. With a total rhino population in South Africa of about 20,000, losing almost 8,000 to poaching over the past 10 years is clearly unsustainable.

 

“While slightly less than last year, 769 rhinos poached is way too many and we must get this number down to zero,” said Knights. “We need serious action to address this crisis.”

 

Also, while fewer rhinos were poached in 2018, the number of incursions inside and adjacent to the Kruger National Park remained about the same at 2,620 while the number of rhinos poached there declined by 16% from 504 to 422.

“As rhino numbers decline, each individual becomes harder to find,” said Knights. “This leads us to question whether we’re just running out of rhinos.”

 

Other areas with significant rhino populations had a higher decrease in poaching such as KwaZulu Natal (36%), North West (32%) and Limpopo (50%) among others, while Mpumalanga increased slightly from 49 to 51 rhinos poached and Eastern Cape increased 58% from 12 to 19.

South Africa’s ‘success’ story was further tarnished by yesterday’s news from Hong Kong where Customs seized a record-breaking 40kg of rhino horns worth about US$1 million from two men arriving on a flight from Johannesburg. Officers found the rhino horns in two check-in carton boxes, as they were transiting to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

 

WildAid is working in Vietnam to raise awareness about the devastating impact of the wildlife trade and to encourage Vietnamese to stop buying wildlife products. In celebration of Lunar New Year, WildAid, the local NGO CHANGE, and prominent Buddhist leaders urged Vietnamese to start the new year by saying no to rhino horn, ivory, and pangolin scales. Lifelike statutes of the three species were placed before Buddha as if begging for protection from poachers.

 

Primarily composed of keratin, the same protein found in human hair and fingernails, rhino horn has no unique medicinal properties. A 2016 survey conducted by WildAid, African Wildlife Foundation and CHANGE in Vietnam showed that the number of respondents who believe rhino horn has medicinal effects declined by 67% in two years, down to just 23% from 69% in 2014. Those who believe rhino horn can cure cancer declined by 73%, down to 9.4% from 34.5% in 2014.

 

In South Africa, WildAid launched its “Poaching Steals from Us All” campaign in 2016 to build support for rhino conservation efforts and urge the government to solve the poaching crisis. Video ads and billboards feature well-known South African personalities such as DJ Fresh, Springbok rugby player Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira, comedian Marc Lottering, actress Masasa Mbangeni, DJ Poppy Ntshongwana, and Super Rugby players Scarra Ntubeni and Joe Pietersen. Leveraging pro bono media placement from global campaign partner JCDecaux, WildAid’s billboards were placed around South Africa’s main cities, airports, and shopping malls.

“Stand up for wildlife,” says Springboks Captain Siya Kolisi in a WildAid PSA. “We want your voice. Join our team. Speak out against wildlife crime.”

 

Last year, WildAid expanded its Poaching Steal From Us All campaign to Zimbabwe with Black Panther star Danai Gurira, in partnership with Zimbabwe Parks & Wildlife Management Authority and the Zambezi Society, to encourage support for anti-poaching efforts and visiting Zimbabwe’s national parks.