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Conservation efforts bring cautious hope for African rhinos

Gland, Switzerland, 19 March 2020 (IUCN) – The African Black Rhino remains Critically Endangered, but its population is slowly increasing as conservation efforts counter the persistent threat of poaching, according to today’s update of the IUCN Red List of Threatened SpeciesTM.

Between 2012 and 2018, the Black Rhino (Diceros bicornis) population across Africa has grown at a modest annual rate of 2.5% from an estimated 4,845 to 5,630 animals in the wild, respectively. Population models predict a further slow increase over the next five years, according to today’s update.

The IUCN Red List now includes 116,177 species of which 31,030 are threatened with extinction.

“While Africa’s rhinos are by no means safe from extinction, the continued slow recovery of Black Rhino populations is a testament to the immense efforts made in the countries the species occurs in, and a powerful reminder to the global community that conservation works. At the same time, it is evident that there is no room for complacency as poaching and illegal trade remain acute threats,” said Dr Grethel Aguilar, Acting Director General of IUCN. “It is essential that the ongoing anti-poaching measures and intensive, proactive population management continue, with support from national and international actors.”

“These developments for African rhinos show the changes that can be achieved through committed conservation action,” said Dr Jane Smart, Global Director of the IUCN Biodiversity Conservation Group. “It is crucial that local people are increasingly involved in and benefit from conservation efforts. International, national and local actors need to work together to tackle the biodiversity crisis. It will be critical for the voices of those working in the field to protect threatened species such as African Rhinos to be amplified in coming years as we set the conservation agenda for the next decade.”

The increase in Black Rhino numbers is mainly due to continuing law enforcement efforts and successful population management measures, including moving selected rhinos from established populations to new locations to keep populations productive and increase the species’ range. One subspecies of the Black Rhino, the South-western Black Rhino (D. b. bicornis) – previously assessed as Vulnerable – has seen sufficient population growth over the last three generations to be newly categorised as Near Threatened. The other two surviving subspecies, the South-eastern (D. b. minor) and Eastern (D. b. michaeli), both remain Critically Endangered following heavy declines between the 1970s and mid-1990s. While all three surviving subspecies are on a slow path of recovery, they remain dependent on continued conservation efforts.

Africa’s other rhino species, the more numerous White Rhino (Ceratotherium simum) continues to be categorised as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List. Numbers of the Southern White Rhino (C. s. simum) subspecies declined by 15% between 2012 and 2017 from an estimated 21,300 to 18,000 animals, which largely cancelled out most of the growth in White Rhino numbers from 2007 to 2012. This recent decline was largely due to the high levels of poaching in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, home to the world’s largest White Rhino population. The other White Rhino subspecies, the Northern White Rhino (C. s. cottoni), remains Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct in the Wild). The White Rhino is more vulnerable to poaching as it has larger horns, and favours more open habitats so is easier to find than the black rhino.

The poaching of African rhinos to supply the illegal international rhino horn trade remains the main threat to the two species. However, the strong counter-measures taken by range states, private landowners and communities in recent years are having a positive effect: recorded poaching of African rhinos has been declining at a continental level in recent years. After a peak in 2015, when a minimum of 1,349 rhinos were found to have been poached – an average of 3.7 rhinos poached per day – poaching numbers have decreased every year since. In 2018, there were a minimum of 892 rhinos poached – approximately 2.4 African rhinos poached every day, or one every ten hours. Preliminary data for 2019 indicates poaching levels have further declined.

“With the involvement of transnational organised crime in poaching, rhino crimes are not just wildlife crimes. A number of range States are to be commended for their efforts, elevating rhino crimes to a higher level and taking a more ‘whole of government’ approach to combat the organised crime behind the poaching. If the encouraging declines in poaching can continue, this should positively impact rhino numbers. Continued expenditure and efforts will be necessary to maintain this trend,” said Dr Richard Emslie, Red List Authority Coordinator for the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s African Rhino Specialist Group.

While conservation efforts have led to slightly lower levels of rhino poaching in recent years, the costs of keeping rhinos safe have risen greatly and live sale prices have significantly decreased over the last decade, reducing incentives for private landowners and communities to keep rhinos. With around half of White Rhinos and close to 40% of Black Rhinos now conserved on privately or community managed land, the trend towards rhinos being increasingly viewed as costly liabilities could threaten to limit or reverse the future expansion of the species’ range and numbers.

Header image: south-western black rhino. Credit: Dave Hamman Photography.

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