South Africa has hailed a stabilisation in the numbers of rhino poached in its national parks for the first time in a decade, an achievement described by its environment minister as “very, very good news”.
Edna Molewa said that in 2015, 1,175 rhino were poached across the country, 826 in the flagship Kruger National Park, compared with 1,215 the previous year.
Given that rangers had noted a 10 per cent increase in poaching activity, she said, the decrease was down to a combination of better security and technology roll-out in national parks, tighter border controls and an improved capacity to investigate poaching incidents and prosecute offenders.
“It is clear that were it not for these interventions, the situation would be far worse and many more rhino would be lost,” said Mrs Molewa.
“We are also pleased to report that based on a new census of the rhino population conducted by South African National Parks; the South African rhino population continues to be stable.”
Wildlife groups welcomed the news but pointed out that at the same time, the numbers of rhino poached in Zimbabwe and Namibia had risen.
South Africa is said to be home to around 20,000 rhinos, some 80 per cent of the worldwide population. The three southern African countries are home to nearly 95 per cent of all remaining African rhinos.
In Zimbabwe, where the national parks authority is woefully under-resourced, rhino poaching deaths rose from 12 in 2014 to a widely reported total of “at least 50” last year.
In Namibia, losses rose sharply from 24 in 2014 to 80 in 2015.
Tom Milliken, wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC’s rhino expert, said Africa as a whole had experienced its worst year in decades for rhino poaching.
“The poaching epicentre has spread to neighbouring Namibia and Zimbabwe, but is nowhere near being extinguished in South Africa: despite some commendable efforts being made, we’re still a very long way from seeing the light at the end of this very dark tunnel,” he said.
Jo Shaw, Rhino Programme Manager for WWF-South Africa, said better coordination was still needed between the police and law enforcement agencies of countries where rhino horn is obtained and where it is sold to tackle poaching syndicates.
“Major transit and consumer countries, such as Mozambique and Vietnam, need to take urgent law enforcement steps to stop the trafficking and buying of illicit wildlife products,” she said.
Mrs Molewa said South Africa was working with international partners to curb the trade in rhino horn, including welcoming Vietnamese students on “youth wildness trail” holidays, arranging a carnival in Cambodia to raise awareness about endangered African animals and supplying its impoverished neighbour Mozambique, whose countrymen account for many of Kruger’s poachers, with radios and ranger training.
Three out of five species of rhino are classified as critically endangered. Rhino horn is at present worth its weight in gold because of the belief it can cure ills from hangovers to cancer, despite being no more than keratin.
Wildlife groups have also raised concerns about a ruling by Pretoria High Court that was upheld on Wednesday allowing for the lifting of a domestic ban on the rhino horn trade.
They argue that since there is no consumer demand for rhino horn within South Africa, the decision will simply fuel the illegal international trade.
Mrs Molewa signalled on Wednesday she will apply to the Supreme Court of Appeal to block the ban from being lifted