Anyone who has been following the plight of Africa’s rhino will have noticed that population statistics are hard to come by. This week, years of silence have been broken regarding the rhino population in Kruger National Park (KNP). Unfortunately, the news is pretty grim.
Rhino Poaching Statistics At A Glance:
67% decline in Kruger’s white rhino population since 2011
35% decline in Kruger’s black rhino population since 2013
Approximately 3,529 white rhinos and 268 black rhinos remain in Kruger National Park
The official stats for rhino poaching in South Africa say 594 individuals were poached in 2019, a decrease from 769 the previous year
“SANParks contributes 34.4% and 34.9% respectively of South Africa’s black and white rhino populations. Primarily due to poaching in Kruger National Park, one black rhino sub-species, and white rhinos, have declined over the past decade.”
SANParks Annual Report 2019/2020
Kruger’s White Rhinos
The white rhino population in the Kruger has seen a steep decline of around 3,529 individuals, which represents a massive 67% of the white rhino population within the park. In 2011 there were 10,621 white rhinos in KNP.
Kruger’s Black Rhinos
In 2013, there were 415 black rhinos in Kruger. This figure has now dropped by 35% leaving only 268 black rhinos in the park in 2019.
In recent years, there have been poaching statistics and arrest/ incursion-related statistics released in South Africa. These indicated poaching was on the decrease while arrests were increasing. When viewed on their own, these statistics seem positive, however it is likely the poaching has been decreasing because of the huge population decrease. After all, less rhinos to poach means less poaching.
Of course, there have been incredible efforts from the anti-poaching, veterinary and conservation teams on the ground to reduce poaching in the area and this too would have an impact on the poaching figures.
It is difficult to have up-to-date information on populations and situations such as this but these latest sobering statistics have given us plenty to think about.
In an attempt to minimise the impact of rhino poaching on the population Kruger National Park began dehorning selected rhinos in the Greater Kruger area in 2019. Dehorning is a common tool that is used by wildlife owners and reserves across South Africa to try to deter poachers.
How Can We Help Save Rhinos?
These statistics are shocking and they give us a glimpse into what the reality of the situation is. They indicate an urgency and the necessity to step up before it is too late.
Don’t buy wildlife products – it may sound obvious but rhinos are being killed because there is a demand for rhino horn. Never buy rhino horn or products made from rhino horn. When the demand stops, the killing will too.
Raise awareness – tell your friends what is happening. It’s surprising how many people remain unaware of the plight of rhinos. Although often aware of the killing of rhinos for their horns, users of rhino horn tend to see themselves as disconnected from the rhino poaching crisis. Education and awareness are key.
Support charities working to save rhino – volunteer, donate, host a fundraising event, like/ comment/ share their social media posts to help them reach more people. Joining a reputable organisation means you become part of the solution.
The consumer demand for rhino horn is primarily from Asia, with Vietnam and China being the top markets.
A 2019 article discussed the results of a study looking at the demand for rhino horn in Vietnam.
The study involved interviewing people who use rhino horn in Vietnam. The study found that people used rhino horn for a variety of reasons but mostly for medicine (most prevalently treating hangovers) and as a status symbol. Other uses included using rhino horn as a way of honouring terminally ill relatives.
The study also found that wild rhino horn was preferred over farmed rhino horn and the consumers were not affected by concerns about rhino populations. The users were also not concerned about the legal repercussions of buying rhino horn, this is due to the users believing police and law enforcement would not be interested in rhino horn use (on a personal or small scale).
The issue is that, in a lot of places across the globe, the potential profits of trading in rhino horn far outweigh the risks involved.
What does it mean for rhino horn to be a status symbol?
Essentially this means people share rhino horn within their social and professional networks as a way of demonstrating their wealth. This can be seen to strengthen relationships as it can let others know that the person with rhino horn has money and (potentially) influence. Gifting of rhino horns is also a way of getting favours from people in positions of power.
This week is Storms rescue-versary. You may remember a couple of months ago I shared that I had the pleasure of seeing rehabilitated critically endangered black rhino Storm back in the wild. Today I thought I’d share the story of rescuing Storm. It was a crazy night that I certainly wont forget.
Everyone at the orphanage was settled for the night of elephant and rhino care and after many dry months, we had a powerful storm gracing us with heavy rain. As the evening went on as usual, we received a call about a black rhino calf in need of rescue. Soon after receiving the call, Angie and I packed the car and rhino ambulance with the emergency kits and set off. The rain was torrential and as a result, we could hardly see the front of the car, let alone the road ahead. The dirt roads were already beginning to wash away due to the rains so we knew it was going to be a long drive through the dark, stormy night. Even when we finally reached the tarred road, the drive was still slow as the continued rain meant the visibility remained terrible. It took us 4 hours of driving to reach the destination and after meeting with the wildlife vet we loaded the 3 month old black rhino calf into the rescue trailer.
I sat in the back of the rhino ambulance and watched over the tiny black rhino calf as Ang drove us back to the orphanage. The rain had begun to slow and at around 3am – after 6 hours of driving , we reached a flooded bridge that meant we couldn’t continue on. It had already been a very long night so we decided we would just wait at the side of the dirt road until sunrise but fortunately we didn’t have to wait that long as we received assistance from the reserve. So after some time of waiting for the almost unrecognisable bridge to be crossable we managed to continue on… It was a huge relief to finally make it back to the orphanage at 4:30 in the morning with the tiny black rhino. After parking up and making sure Storm was fine, Ang and I got a couple hours of sleep before getting back to work in the morning, caring for Ellie and the rest of the rhino orphans.
Storms rehabilitation was tough, he was struggling with internal parasites & aspiration pneumonia and needed intensive, around the clock care but when he finally turned a corner and his appetite grew, he began to gain weight and started playing we knew he’d pull through. Storm became good friends with Nandi, another black rhino orphan of the same age and the pair moved through their rehabilitation process together.
Despite the tough start to life, Storms rehabilitation was a success and he now lives wild & free.
I recently did a talk about my conservation journey and raising rhino orphans. After the talk a lady in the audience asked, “Have you ever been in danger…” I immediately thought ‘yes’ but as she continued her question, my answer changed “… as rhinos are so big and powerful, does working closely with them put you in danger?”
“That’s a great question. Rhinos are very strong and definitely have the ability to cause us harm if they feel it is necessary, for example to defend themselves, but I never felt like I was in danger while working with them. They are generally very gentle and tend to know our limits, especially when you’ve spent time with them and built that bond.
Although I have been nudged and stood on and knocked into the air a few times and ended up with some scrapes and bruises it was never the intention of the rhino to hurt me. To be honest, most of the ‘run-ins’ I had with the rhino orphans have been hunger-related… You know, in the wild they’d nudge their even bigger, even stronger mums when they are hungry but when they nudge us mere humans to tell us they are hungry it’s quite a bit more than a little nudge. That’s the only thing I can think of but it was never really danger.
However, there is another side to your question because when you asked if I had been in danger the first thing that came to my mind was poachers. So, yes, I have been in danger while at the orphanages but not because of the rhinos, because of poachers. The most afraid and at risk I feel I have been has been a result of the potential of poachers coming to attack the orphans for their small horns. There have been times we’ve been told we need to be on high alert because of intel that poachers are targeting us so for me when I think of being in danger it’s the humans that worry me, not the rhinos.”
Rehabilitating rhino calves has been a huge part of my conservation life. I have spent countless hours working with orphaned rhinos who have been left traumatized by poaching and the loss of their mother. I’ve had sleepless nights trying to bond with new arrivals, encouraging them to drink much needed milk or trying to settle them down as they pace and call for their mum. I’ve cried behind closed doors about the sad situation and the stark realities. I’ve had nights filled with fear due to high alerts of poacher activity. I’ve driven through the night to rescue orphans and bring them back to the orphanage. It’s been a long, tough road but earlier this year I was able to experience something amazing that showed our efforts were never in vain.
On Saturday morning I met with Alyson, who I worked alongside at Thula Thula Rhino Orphanage back in 2015, and we drove to a beautiful game reserve in KZN. Our hope for the day was to see Ithuba, Thando and Storm in the wild.
To give you some backstory: Ithuba was the first rhino calf to be brought to the Thula orphanage; he was playful, gentle and cheeky. For a while, he was our only rhino and we cared for him around the clock; keeping him company, playing and feeding him a special milk formula every three hours. He was only around 5 months old when he was rescued and he needed 24/7 care; he hated the sound of rain on the roof of his room, he panicked when it was full moon and he had spent close to a week trying to survive in the wild without his mum. Then Thando arrived and something interesting happened… Ithuba and Thando had this instant connection. They were so entranced by each other and were desperate to be together, so much so that we thought they maybe actually knew each other. They had both been rescued from the same reserve but after we did the maths, they couldn’t have met as Thando was too young to have known Ithuba before the poaching incident. Despite this, the pair were drawn to each other. Whether there was something they sensed, something familiar about each other, we do not know but what we did know was that they were desperate to be together. Once Thando was big and strong enough we introduced them and they have been inseparable ever since.
Storm is a black rhino and he was rescued in the middle of the night, the weather was so bad (hence his name) that we needed to rescue him and get him back to the orphanage otherwise it was unlikely he’d have survived the night in the wild. Storm was very vulnerable and his rehabilitation journey was incredibly rocky, there were times when he was so unwell that we worried he would not survive. When we hit a breakthrough and Storm started to gain weight, roll in the wallow and play we knew he was going to pull through.
Ever since the early days of raising a very young Ithuba, Aly and I used to talk about going to see him in the wild one day. It was something we had always wanted to experience and in 2019, it was finally happening.
As we entered the gates of the reserve we were so excited at the possibility of seeing the orphans, at the same time we knew there was a chance that we would not see them. After all, they are wild and anybody who has been on a game drive knows there is never any guarantee of seeing wildlife. We hoped that we would be lucky on this day.
Grinning from ear to ear, we climbed into an open game viewer and the search began. During this drive we saw lots of incredible wildlife including a magnificent pride of lions on the banks of a dam but we had yet to see rhinos. As we drove along the weaving roads, the one thing on my mind were the rhinos Aly and I had come to know so intimately, who were now living somewhere on this protected reserve. We slowly covered the area where Ithuba and Thando were last spotted but there was no sign of them. “Come on, where are you ‘Thubes?” I thought again and again as we searched. As there were no signs of the pair, we had to continue the drive and leave the area the two white rhinos were most likely in. We were disappointed but we always knew this could happen, as we drove away Aly and I tried desperately to search for them but to no avail. We left the area, now turning our attention to looking for black rhino storm.
We used the telemetry to track him and as we sat where the signal was strongest and waited, he emerged out of the bush. I could hear the branches breaking before I saw Storm, he was getting closer and closer. As he stepped into view I was so overwhelmed by the joy of seeing him that I began to well up. My eyes filled with tears and my heart burst with pride as this black rhino I had helped raise appeared out of the bushes. Despite all of my adventures in the bush, I have only ever seen black rhino in the wild twice and one of those was seeing Storm. He looked so well. He had grown a lot since I had last seen him and he seemed to be coping with life in the wild.
As I watched him happily eating I thought about how small he was when we went to rescue him and all of the issues we had faced. I thought of the hard times and the special moments of sitting under the heat lamp with him and feeding times. All of the memories of him as a tiny baby black rhino flooded back as I watched him, now big and thriving in the wild. To see him, even for a few minutes, left my heart feeling so full. The tears flowed freely, tears of absolute joy. Everything we had put into the orphanage, it was all worth it.
As the sun was setting, we began to make our way back to camp. Although we had not seen Ithuba and Thando, we had an amazing experience with Storm so all in all the drive was a success. Then, to our absolute delight we heard that the boys had been spotted. As I wiped away the tears from the Storm sighting, Aly and I exchanged excited glances as we may see Ithuba and Thando after all. We looked around, keeping our eyes peeled and then we suddenly caught a glimpse of two very healthy looking white rhino bums as they disappeared off into the bush. It was Ithuba and Thando. Still sticking together after all these years. They were so big now and they looked to be in great condition. Although we hadn’t seen them for long, to catch a glimpse of them against the backdrop of the setting sun was incredible.
These rhinos, they live in the wild. If you were to see them you wouldn’t know they were raised in a rhino orphanage because now they live as they always should have. That is, and always has been, the goal. Rescue, rehabilitate, release. To see these orphans, who’s stories and personalities dominated a part of my life, now living in the wild was a true honor. I am so grateful to have been able to visit the reserve where they now live and to have been lucky enough to actually see them. All of our hard work has well and truly paid off…
Thank you. To everyone who has supported rhino orphanages, to everyone involved in the rehabilitation of these amazing animals, to the team who now protect and keep a close eye on these wild rhinos… Thank you.