Business Maverick


Saving private rhino — non-government owners of the animals succeed in stemming poaching carnage

Saving private rhino — non-government owners of the animals succeed in stemming poaching carnage
Johan Hume’s rhinos roam around at his farm on 28 May 2016 in Klerksdorp, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Rapport / Deon Raath)

Private owners of rhinos last year stemmed the carnage – while hardly putting a stop to it – as the shift of poaching to KZN’s state-run reserves picked up momentum.

The latest rhino poaching data released last week by the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) once again highlighted the private sector’s relative success in pachyderm protection. About 8,000 rhinos are now in private hands in South Africa, perhaps 60% of the national herd. And the world’s largest private rhino conservation project is about to be auctioned.

The data showed that there was almost no change in the poaching numbers, with 448 rhinos slain in South Africa in 2022 for their horns to meet overwhelmingly Asian demand for the commodity, compared with 451 in 2021.

The devil as always is in the detail. As my colleague Tony Carnie has noted, the poaching surge into KwaZulu-Natal has remained a torrent, making the province’s state reserves, notably the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, the current hotspots of the onslaught.  

The data also underline the recovery of the private sector from a 2021 surge. The toll on private reserves fell in 2022, while on state land it rose.  

In 2020, when there were 394 recorded rhino deaths linked to poaching, 37 of the pachyderms were killed on private reserves and farms – less than 10% of the total. In 2021, 124 of the 451 rhinos illegally killed in South Africa were privately owned animals, a rise of more than three-fold that accounted for 27.5% of the total.

Several factors were behind this push into private reserves, including the collapse of the Kruger Park population, which was once an estimated 11,000 rhinos, but is now probably only between 2,000 and 3,000 after more than a decade of relentless poaching.

Kruger rhino collapse

But private owners last year stemmed the carnage – while hardly putting a stop to it – while the shift to KZN’s state-run reserves picked up momentum. Of the 448 rhinos poached in 2022, 86 were privately owned animals, a 30% fall from 2021 that accounted for just under 20% of the total.  

And since the private sector now has around 60% of the national herd, but less than 20% of the poaching total, it is simply doing a better job of protecting these natural and national assets than the government.

A recent academic paper highlighted the fact that at least half of all African rhinos across the continent roam on private or communal lands.  

“My concern is that because rhino horn has been and remains such a lucrative commodity, that as long as demand persists, the profit opportunities provided by poaching are always going to direct poaching to where the softest targets are,” Michael ’t Sas-Rolfes, a conservation economist with the African Wildlife Economy Institute at Stellenbosch University, told Business Maverick.  

“The private sector is doing better by default because they’re not as hamstrung and they can employ hi-tech security. They don’t have to go through onerous procurement procedures, they are just more flexible,” he said.  

KZN carnage 

KwaZulu-Natal’s provincial wildlife authorities, by contrast, appear to be anything but flexible. The province lost 244 rhinos to poaching last year, more than double the 102 recorded in 2021. The vast majority were in the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, which a century ago was the last stronghold of Africa’s white rhino population that would go on to repopulate the Kruger and other regions.

KZN’s provincial government and municipalities are mostly a shambles thanks to years of ANC maladministration. The costs are many, including on the environmental front – from Durban’s sewage-fouled beaches to the collapse of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s capabilities. The province still has many good people on its books, no doubt, and brave rangers on the frontline, but is hampered by wider state failure.

The province’s rhinos are now paying the price, just as the Kruger Park’s were targeted because of the soft underbelly that state failure and corruption create. The Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park may now turn reluctantly to dehorning – a measure used in national parks and private reserves with mixed success – to help turn the tide.

A tale of failure

This is not part of a straightforward and sterile privatisation versus nationalisation debate. It is rather one of many indictments of ANC rule, which has been marked – or marred – by staggering levels of corruption, mismanagement and policy missteps.

By way of example, Eskom is not up for privatisation, but businesses and households are forging ahead with the installation of privately procured solar panels to ensure themselves a reliable power supply. Where the state fails, the private sector steps up to the plate. In an ideal world, it would be preferable in the eyes of many for the state to provide basic services such as power. But the ANC is simply incapable of delivering.

The withering state that the ANC presides over has also failed to protect the country’s rhino population, which remains the world’s largest. The government has had some recent successes, with the DFFE pointing to “a recent focus on money laundering and international cooperation with other law enforcement authorities”, which it said, “saw the arrest of 26 rhino horn traffickers and 13 people for money laundering and bribing of rangers”. 

But overall, the numbers, like Eskom’s, tell a tale of failure.

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The private sector has stepped into the conservation breach here because of a legal framework that allows for the ownership of wild game. Soaring security costs have seen a consolidation of ownership, with many smaller players divesting from rhinos.  

Private owners fall into a number of categories, including game-viewing operators and hunting ranches. Some have been labelled “speculators”, with speculation being that they hope to cash in if and when the global ban on the trade in rhino horn is lifted. Still, they have clearly added to the animals’ numbers – a conservation success story – though some scientists and activists take issue with “intensive-breeding operations” on the grounds that they are not completely “natural” or “wild”. On the other hand, neither are interventions such as dehorning.  

On that front, the world’s largest rhino owner and breeder, John Hume, announced on Monday that his conservation project – and 2,000 white rhinos – was going to be put on the auction block in mid-April.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Wildlife baron John Hume’s 2,000 white rhinos up for grabs in global online auction

It will be of more than passing interest to see the ultimate fate of these animals, which make up 16% of South Africa’s white rhino population. DM/BM/OBP

Absa OBP

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  • Eberhard Knapp says:

    … I remember the days when ALWAYS the KZN game reserves were miles better than SANPARKS. I loved Hluhluwe – you even saw the occasional black Rhino. Thus we can conclude: the ANC is not only killing South Africa’s economy, people like Andries Tatane, etc. – it is also killing our rhinos!

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