Despite the unprecedented level of poaching in recent years, white rhino populations are at an all-time high. Of course, not as high as they would be but for the poaching, but not in decline. In South Africa, the high level of poaching has not yet reached the rhino growth rate, which would be the tipping point. Moreover, the poaching rate has declined. The hard-fought reduction in poaching has occurred before the level of poaching reached the rate of reproduction.
There has been plenty of reason for alarm and pro-action, but claims that the system is broken are false. The rhino is not in decline and the poaching peak is behind us. All is not lost. The African Rhino Specialist Group of IUCN (AfRSG) issued “final figures” for the rhino at the recent CITES 65th Standing Committee meeting in Geneva, which Conservation Force attended. The Group reports that “growth is slowing in response to the rise in poaching,” but the “tipping point” has not been reached. The “tipping point may have been reached” in Kruger with that “population just starting to decline,” but now poaching is declining there.
It should be noted that some rhino are being removed from Kruger on “strategic grounds.” Get this: That is expected “to enhance metapopulation growth rates.” Yes, there were too many rhino. Countrywide, the Specialist Group concludes that poaching in South Africa is “still at sustainable levels…[w]hile poaching levels…are approaching the tipping point where poaching ceases to be sustainable and deaths will start to exceed births.” Keep in mind the poaching is now in decline. The poaching of three rhino a day, which is the average in 2013, is sustainable. The Group concludes that “the apparent leveling off in poaching in the first half of 2014 is to be welcomed as current poaching levels of 4.3% of rhino numbers (all of Africa) are just sustainable.” The population is not in decline. The trend in increasing arrests corresponds with the stabilizing and declining of poaching. “A minimum of 54 poachers died following shootouts in 2011 and 2012 increasing to at least 50-plus in 2013 with the majority in Kruger Park and small numbers in KwaZula-Natal. So far this year a further 30 poachers have died as a result of armed contacts in Kruger and another two in KwaZulu-Natal.”
Sustainable or not, there has been a distressing decline in white rhino sale turnover in South Africa following the upsurge in poaching. The Group reports, “[t]his is primarily as the major conservation agencies have fewer surplus rhinos to sell due to the poaching.” “In addition, the trend of increasing numbers of private sector owners in South Africa getting rid of some or all of their rhino given the increased security costs and increased risks that have accompanied the upsurge in poaching…” is also of concern.
This is distressing because it is the loss of millions of dollars of revenue for operation of the responsible agencies and the private sales reaction to the poaching “may reduce the range available for expansion of rhino range and numbers.”
In short, the rhino is not yet in decline, but there is plenty of reason to step up emergency action until this crisis passes.