In 2015, the world faced a wildlife conservation crisis. The population of African rhino had plummeted from an estimated 500,000, at the turn of the 20th century, to just 25,000. South Africa, home to 80% of the world’s remaining rhinos, was in the throes of a poaching epidemic. Driven by Asian black-market prices that could reach over $750,000 for the horns of a single rhino, poaching deaths had spiked from only 13 in 2007 to 1,215 in 2014. On its current trajectory, rhinos could be extinct in the wild within the next 10 to 15 years.
Recognizing the gravity of the situation, government agencies, non-government organizations (NGO’s), donors and the private sector worked together to develop an integrated strategy to save the rhino. On the interdiction front, additional manpower and equipment were brought to bear while better private sector detection technologies were developed and deployed. Cooperation improved between law enforcement entities at the local, regional and national level as well as across international borders. Interdictions and arrests increased and, more importantly, so did meaningful prosecutions.
NGO’s, such as Peace Parks Foundation, provided critical resources and expertise to improve security, expand habitat, reduce human/wildlife conflict and create economic incentives for local communities to protect rhinos.
Other conservation organizations, such as WildAid, worked to lower demand by educating Asian consumers that rhino horn provides no medicinal value and the horn trade was decimating the wild population of these iconic animals. According to Peter Knights, CEO of WildAid, these demand reduction efforts have increased consumer awareness of the false claims about rhino horn and has dropped prices by two thirds – from $65,000 per kilogram to around $22,000 per kilogram.
All these efforts have started to pay off. On February 3, 2020, South Africa announced that rhino poaching had declined for the fifth straight year with 594 rhinos poached in 2019, down from 769 poached in 2018. Although the annual loss of 594 rhinos is still tragically high, it represents a reduction of over 50% from the peak of 1,215 in 2014.
It’s also very important to note that all these conservation initiatives are not just benefiting rhinos. They protect all the wildlife that live within those ecosystems. Since rhino are, by far, the most valuable and easiest to poach of all African wildlife, the intensive security umbrella necessary for their protection dramatically reduces the poaching of other high target wildlife such as elephant, lion and pangolin. Just to give one example, the number of elephants poached in South Africa declined from a relatively low number of 71 in 2018, to just 31 in 2019.
Over the past five years, Jason Paterniti and I have had the opportunity to experience, first hand, how this collective effort has come together to help save the rhino. Working though GEOS Foundation, which Jason founded, we and our donors have been supporting our counter-poaching operating partner, Dyck Advisory Group. Our focus has been at the epicenter of the rhino poaching crisis, along the border of South Africa’s Kruger National Park, in Mozambique.
GEOS and Dyck Advisory Group are working in partnership with Peace Parks Foundation, one of the largest and most respected conservation wildlife charities in Africa, and in close collaboration with the government of Mozambique, South African National Parks (SANParks) and Wild Foundation. We are now providing training, technical expertise, strategic management and equipment to support counter-poaching operations in four national parks comprising over five million acres of critically important conservation land. A team effort that has yielded significant and quantifiable results.
I would be remiss not to give special recognition to the counter-poaching rangers who operate in often brutal conditions and literally risk their lives every day in pursuit of heavily armed poachers. I’ve had the privilege to get to know and work with a number of these individuals and their dedication is truly awe-inspiring.
All that said, no one should have any illusions as to the fragile nature of this progress. There is still endemic corruption at every level and the incentives to continue poaching remain huge. Further, some of this improvement may be the result of there being fewer easily accessible rhinos to poach. It will take an expanded effort by government, NGO’s, donors and the private sector to ensure that all the magnificent wildlife of Africa, and the ecosystems which support them, remain in existence for generations to come.
Still, in an era where conservation success stories seem few and far between, it’s important to take a moment to appreciate the victories when you can.