Sadly, for two of Africa’s rhino subspecies, our best conservation efforts have failed. For the western black rhinoceros and the northern white rhinoceros, it is already too late.
The western black rhinoceros was already on the verge of extinction in the 1930s, and although the French colonial authorities had some success in bolstering the population in the decades that followed (by the early 1980s there were in the region of 100), by 1997, only 10 to 18 remained in northern Cameroon, their last remaining stronghold. By 2001, there were only a handful left. Catastrophically, complacency or incompetence on the Cameroonian government’s part resulted in the last few western black rhinoceroses falling to poachers in 2003.
Although the northern white rhinoceros is, technically, not yet extinct, its days are numbered. Its demise, too, is yet another pitiful tale of woeful inaction on our part. Sixty years ago, the northern white rhino actually outnumbered its southern cousins – there were still 2250 of them distributed across five countries in 1960. Today, however, following the recent death of the last male Sudan, there are only two left, both of which are in captivity in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya.
The plight of Africa’s other two rhino species is, thankfully, a slightly less woeful tale. Although both the southern white rhinoceros and black rhinoceros have at different times been ominously close to extinction, thanks to considerable conservation efforts – largely on South Africa and Namibia’s part – populations of both species are now considered to be sustainable. The recovery of the southern white rhino is in fact one of the greatest conservation success stories of all time.
In 1948, there were only 550 southern white rhinos left on Earth. Today, there are an estimated 21,500, almost all of which are in South Africa. But the way in which the species was brought back from brink of extinction has polarised conservationists and environmentalists ever since.
In 1961, South Africa was home to a few hundred white rhinos, all of which were confined to two neighbouring game reserves in KwaZulu Natal – Mfulozi and Hluhluwe. Spearheaded by the late, great Dr. Ian Player, then head game warden at Mfulozi, South Africa embarked on a ground-breaking plan, dubbed ‘Operation Rhino’. The overarching aim was to establish new satellite populations of white rhinos in other parts of the country, including Kruger National Park and, somewhat controversially, for the first time ever, on privately-owned land.
But keeping rhinos on private property is a risky and expensive proposition, and in order to provide land-owners with an incentive to buy, keep and protect their rhinos, the decision was made in 1968 to grant a limited number of trophy hunting permits for the species.
As contentious as it was, it worked, and within 10 years, the live auction value of a southern white rhino had rocketed from R200 to R250,000 per animal. “The trophy hunting market drove this increase in the price of live rhinos, making the breeding of rhinos an attractive option,” says Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes, a wildlife resource economist who has studied economics of rhino ownership for more than two decades. “And not only to private landowners, but also to the national and regional parks who have also generated revenue by selling rhinos to the private sector.”
Dr. Ian Player himself acknowledged the crucial role that legal, regulated trophy hunting played in the success of Operation Rhino: “Hunting led to the increase from a few hundred rhinos in 1953 to in excess of 18,000 in 2010. For the loss of a few animals (for the purposes of trophy hunting), their overall numbers increased. Regrettably, this is a form of logic that is lost on most people.”
And it wasn’t just rhino that benefitted from South Africa’s new pro-utilisation policy: underpinned by a thriving trophy hunting industry and associated wildlife breeding programmes, overall game numbers flourished, increasing from approximately 1.5 million head of game in the 1970s to in excess of 20 million head by the turn of the century.
Indeed, during the first few years of the new century, things were looking relatively rosy for Southern Africa’s rhino; the demand for rhino horn on the black market seemed to have fallen to sustainable levels, and overall, their numbers were on the rise. Therefore, no one could have foreseen it, but this was the lull before the storm; we were on the cusp of the most dramatic rise in rhino poaching ever seen in Southern Africa.