Like most non-profit organizations, Save the Rhino had a complicated year in 2020. Covid-19 had a devastating impact on many African countries where economies depend strongly on tourism to survive. Specifically, animal reserves and conservancies, like the Uhmkuze Game Reserve in South Africa, where the rhino conservation programs we support take place, went from being almost self-sufficient on tourism income to having to depend on government subsidies and supporters’ contributions to survive.
Similarly, travel and mobility restrictions affected the progress of many programs that Save the Rhino coordinates in Asian countries like Vietnam and Indonesia. In these locations, veterinary assistance and support to ensure the continuity of the search and rescue missions of rhinos are paramount.
Like most reserves in Africa, the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park also went on lock down. Indeed, many rangers decided to stay on the ground for three months instead of going back home to continue protecting wildlife at the park. This meant that, during that time, they needed material to protect themselves against Covid-19 in addition to the usual material provided by Save the Rhino.
Indeed, 2020 was not a bad fundraising year for Save the Rhino. Despite the pandemic, the organization reached record contributions thanks to their campaigns to support rangers in African and Asian reserves.
At the start of the pandemic, there were many who linked the origin of the virus to Chinese wet markets. Yet these are markets where any kind of fresh produce -and not only wildlife- can be sold. These claims spurred the conversation about the status and regulations surrounding the human connection to wildlife and how it affects animal trade. While some claims were unfair and ill-informed, China is still home to a wide range of world wildlife. In this regard, the situation caused by Covid has inspired revisions and improvements in Chinese wildlife policies.
Yet, in the case of rhino conservations, these revisions and conversations did not have too much impact. It is widely known that one of the main reasons for poaching rhinos is to sell their horns in the black market. Indeed, in traditional Chinese medicine, rhino horns are believed to have healing properties. This belief overlooks the fact that they are made of keratin, the same protein found in hair and nails. Still, revisions of Chinese regulations did not explicitly address the issues involving the illegal trade of rhino horns and poaching of these animals.
Save the Rhino’s efforts in 2020 are reflected mainly in the decline in poaching. In 2015 a rhino was killed every 6 hours, now it happens every 12h. Since that year, the number of rhinos poached in Africa every year has dropped from over 1,200 to about 750 in 2019. The decline was even more significant -594 in 2019- in South Africa. The latest rhino statistics released by the South African Government indicate that 394 rhinos were killed by poachers during 2020. While this is still an extremely worrying situation, the figures represent a welcome and much-needed decline since the peak of the poaching crisis. However, due to the long-term poaching pressure, rhino populations have declined significantly in recent years. According to a new report by South Africa National Parks, there are just 3,529 white rhinos and 268 black rhinos left in the Kruger National Park, a historical stronghold for this iconic animal. These shocking numbers really show the full and devastating scale of the poaching crisis.
Data collected over the last year points to a general reduction in poaching activity rather than a lower success in poaching attempts. The circumstances of the Covid-19 crisis indicate that the risk of being caught during a period of lockdown has deterred poachers, who turned to other illegal activity such as smuggling. Still, in some areas rangers continue to face with up to 6 poaching incursions per day.
Thankfully, we hope that the declining poaching trend will give rhinos space to recover and increase their population once again. Support from international partners, like the Madrid Zoo and the Parques Reunidos Foundation is important to make sure rangers have the skills, tools and motivation to continue their work to ensure rhino conservation.