A young rhino looks up while their mother grazes

Alleged Rhino Horn Trafficker Case Falls Apart as Rhino Poaching Holds Steady in South Africa

On August 1st, South African Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment Barbara Creecy provided a mid-year update on national rhino poaching figures and enforcement progress. As usual, some of the news is good, some is bad, and most is complicated.

Rhino poaching is effectively holding steady in South Africa for the third consecutive year while the white rhino population continues to decline. An estimated 231 rhinos were poached in South Africa over the first six months of 2023, a slight decline from the estimated 259 killed by this time last year. If the current pace of rhino poaching holds, South Africa will lose more rhinos this year than in 2022 (448), 2021 (451), and 2020 (394).

The total continental white rhino population has fallen by more than 25 percent over the past decade due to poaching to meet consumer demand for rhino horn. According to the most up-to-date population data, there were fewer than 16,000 white rhinos left in Africa by the end of 2021. Most of the poaching has taken place in South Africa, which has lost 17 percent of its white rhinos since 2017. There are fewer than 13,000 white rhinos remaining in South Africa – the smallest population on record since before 2005.

A bar and line graph demonstrating how the white rhino population has declined while poaching rates have increased over time

Compare South Africa’s white rhino population trends with the number of rhinos poached in key areas over time. Population data is sourced from IUCN SSC African Rhinoceros Specialist Group. Poaching data is sourced from IUCN SSC African Rhinoceros Specialist Group and South Africa Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment.

It is important to remember the poaching numbers are estimates because it is impossible to account for every single rhino that has been killed throughout the country. For instance, SANParks scientists acknowledge that approximately 20 percent of rhino carcasses are never detected in large landscapes like Kruger National Park.

The Minister’s press release contained another key detail: 62 percent of the rhino poaching occurred in the province of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), home to the densely-populated rhino stronghold of Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park (HiP). Last year KZN experienced its worst year of rhino poaching since the 1800s with the loss of 344 rhinos – accounting for nearly 55 percent of all rhinos lost in South Africa in 2022. The mid-year poaching data sadly confirms that the targeting of KZN’s rhinos is a continuing trend rather than an anomaly.

HiP faces a range of complex challenges that have helped make it particularly susceptible to rhino poaching. Insufficient financial resources, corruption, human-wildlife conflict, a multitude of easy access points, socioeconomic issues in neighboring communities, and severely depleted rhino population in Kruger National Park have all contributed to HiP’s rhino poaching crisis.

In addition to all these challenges, HiP’s rhinos still have their horns. While dehorning alone is not a silver bullet solution and comes with more than a few drawbacks, HiP is currently an island of fully-horned rhinos among an ocean of nearby private game reserves that have opted to dehorn their rhinos. As a result, HiPs rhinos present an irresistible target to poachers and rhino horn traffickers.

KZN Justice System Falling Short

The failure of the judicial system to effectively prosecute poachers and rhino horn traffickers in KZN has further compounded the province’s struggle to address rhino poaching.

Just last week, a high-level alleged rhino horn trafficker – who at one point was believed to be responsible for 80 percent of horn moving out of KZN – was acquitted on rhino horn trafficking charges. Dumisani Gwala’s court case stretched on for nearly a decade with more than 30 postponements before the final verdict was reached.

Allegations of widespread corruption have been cast against prosecutors, lawyers, and magistrates in KZN for years. Corruption in the courts has undermined the rule of law in the province and has affected far more than rhino-related crimes, though individuals connected to rhino poaching have certainly benefitted from a deficient justice system.

For instance, Gwala’s attorney, Welcome Ngwenya (who has represented many rhino poachers in their court cases), has been implicated in an expansive web of corruption tied to KZN’s Regional Court President, Sibusiso Eric Nzimande. EIA has urged the US Government to sanction Nzimande for his serious acts of corruption pursuant to the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.

A rhino grazes in a sunny field

Reason for Cautious Optimism

Even though the outlook for South Africa’s rhinos may seem bleak, there are reasons to be hopeful. National and provincial government agencies are increasingly working together and with civil society organizations and private rhino owners to address rhino poaching and trafficking.

South Africa has established an Environmental Enforcement Fusion Center to facilitate information sharing and maximize shared resources to conduct intelligence-led investigations into rhino horn trafficking and other environmental crimes. In Kruger National Park, SANParks is preparing to implement a new Anti-Corruption and Ranger Resilience Action Pan that will further efforts to tackle corruption head-on and provide critical support for Kruger’s over-worked and under-resourced ranger corps.

In her rhino poaching update last week, Minister Creecy announced that the National Prosecuting Authority has designated a prosecutor to focus on rhino-related cases in KZN and that these cases have been prioritized for expedition through court processes. This is an encouraging development, though only time will tell whether this initiative is implemented effectively.

The challenges facing South Africa’s rhinos are daunting, and it is important to look beyond simplistic headlines declaring poaching levels have (marginally) decreased before drawing any conclusions about the well-being of these threatened species. If you’ve made it to the end of this blog post, it should be clear that we are nowhere near out of the woods yet.

There is much more work left to do, but progress is being made every single day by dedicated rangers, government officials, law enforcement officers, and civil society organizations who refuse to give up on saving wild rhinos from extinction.