A rhino half-hidden by tall grass and branches

Another Devastating Year for Rhinos in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

The official 2023 rhino poaching figures for South Africa have been released, and the level of devastation in the province of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) cannot be understated. An estimated 325 rhinos were killed last year in KZN – which means that on average a rhino was poached every 27 hours.

The loss of 325 rhinos sets a grim new poaching record for KZN and represents the greatest number of rhinos killed in the province in the post-colonial era. Sadly, this is the second consecutive year that KZN set a new poaching record. In 2022, an estimated 244 rhinos were killed in KZN, accounting for approximately 55 percent of all rhinos poached in South Africa that year.

The country as a whole lost an estimated 499 rhinos to poaching in 2023, an 11 percent increase over the 448 killed in South Africa in 2022

A graph comparing rhino poaching rates in Kruger National Park and KwaZulu-Natal province in South Africa. The data shows the sky-high poaching rates in the national park going down over time, while the province's numbers gradually rise and surpass them.

As rhino poaching has declined in Kruger National Park, KwaZulu-Natal has experienced a surge in poaching. Data sources: South Africa Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment; Ezemvelo-KZN Wildlife; and IUCN SSC African Rhinoceros Specialist Group

South Africa is home to the largest population of white rhinos and the second largest population of black rhinos (after Namibia) in Africa, and consequently has been affected by significant, sustained poaching fueled by demand for rhino horn in China and Vietnam.

Until recently, rhino poaching in South Africa was concentrated in Kruger National Park and the surrounding area; however, after more than a decade of poaching the park’s rhino population has plummeted from more than 10,000 animals to less than 2,000. KwaZulu-Natal, home to the iconic Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park (HiP), has always been a poaching target as well, but in 2022 there was a clear shift away from heavily-depleted Kruger to KZN by the organized criminal groups responsible for the poaching.

HiP is ground zero for poaching in KZN. Of the 325 rhinos killed in KZN last year, 307 were poached in HiP. The park, managed by the provincial agency Ezemvelo-KZN Wildlife, was once home to more than 1,500 white rhinos, but the population has been in a tailspin for the past several years. Ezemvelo has not released updated rhino population figures to the public in recent years, so it is unclear exactly how many rhinos remain in the park.

A perfect storm of adverse factors that has long loomed over KZN has given rise to the ongoing poaching crisis there: organized crime, a severe lack of funding and resources, poverty, poor governance, and corruption. These issues are not unique to KZN, but their intensity there has been devastating for rhinos in the province – and for the men and women tasked with protecting them.

Recent high-profile arrests of key players allegedly involved in rhino poaching in KZN and the dogged perseverance of Ezemvelo rangers, private reserves, and civil society groups like Project Rhino give reason for measured optimism about the future. But the clock is ticking, and we can’t afford to waste any more time or resources if we are to protect and recover KZN’s rhinos.

This blog post was updated on 27 February 2024 to include the countrywide rhino poaching figures released by the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE).

A table highlighting the rhino poaching numbers in South African provinces and national parks, totaling 541 in 2021, 448 in 2022, and 499 in 2023.

Data source: DFFE