Business Maverick


Two out of three SA white rhinos now in private hands while poachers decimate KZN herds

Two out of three SA white rhinos now in private hands while poachers decimate KZN herds
Rhino at the Tala Collection Game Reserve near Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu-Natal. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Jackie Clausen)

As the rhino poaching crisis pivots to KwaZulu-Natal’s shoddily managed state-owned parks and reserves, South Africa’s population of the pachyderms is effectively being privatised.

The percentage of South African rhinos in private hands keeps growing, even as the overall population falls in the face of the poaching onslaught for the animals’ coveted horns. 

Pelham Jones, head of the Private Rhino Owners’ Association (Proa), told Daily Maverick that Proa estimates its members now have more than 8,000 white rhinos roaming their properties, or about 65% of the national herd. That’s up from an estimate of 60% last year. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Saving private rhino — non-government owners of the animals succeed in stemming poaching carnage

Proa also estimates that about 750 black rhinos, or close to 40% of that population, are privately owned in South Africa.

The main reason for the growing private percentage is the decline of populations in the hands of the government, notably in KZN, where poachers have taken advantage of a provincial wildlife authority that is a shambolic shell of its former self – one of many tragic examples of state failure. 

The latest rhino poaching stats, unveiled on Tuesday by the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE), once again highlight the fact that private owners are doing a far better job of protecting their herds despite soaring security costs.

“During 2023, 499 rhinos were poached across South Africa, 406 were killed on state properties and 93 on privately owned parks/reserves/farms. This was an increase of 51 in comparison to 448 rhinos poached in 2022,” the DFFE said.

The Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park has replaced the Kruger National Park as the epicentre of the poaching crisis, fuelled by Asian demand for rhino horn for ornamental carving and bogus medicinal purposes. 

Hluhluwe lost a startling 307 rhinos to poachers last year, almost one a day. 

As my colleague Tony Carnie reports, local “business forums” have been squabbling with provincial conservation authorities, demanding a chunk of a government contract to patch up the dilapidated boundary fences of the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Business forums demand cut of fencing contract at height of KZN rhino bloodbath

In other words, the “procurement mafia” has aided and abetted the slaughter of KZN’s rhinos.  

But with well over half of the national white rhino herd, private owners lost 93 of the pachyderms last year – less than 20% of the poaching total.  

South Africa’s rhino population is effectively being privatised because of state failure. 

This is a reflection in some ways of wider trends, such as households and businesses installing solar panels on their roofs because of Eskom’s unreliability. 

Whether it’s power generation or rhino conservation, it is the private sector that is stepping into the breach when the state falters. 

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. 

But in 2022, private sector losses fell back below 20% as KZN’s state parks became increasingly targeted. 

Fears for private herds

One concern is that having mowed down much of the Kruger population and with the KZN state herd now under relentless pressure, the poachers’ sights will swing to private land at a time when owners have less incentive to maintain their herds.

Security costs are growing, while private demand for rhinos is anything but robust. 

John Hume, who bred a herd of 2,000 white rhinos, was forced to sell his animals and ranch last year to the NGO African Parks for financial reasons. 

African Parks – which plans to relocate the animals to former range states – clearly has donors with deep pockets, but few, if any, of the other private rhino owners in South Africa can tap such sources for funding.

“We pick up from the intelligence circles that interest in private reserves is growing,” Proa’s Jones told Daily Maverick

“The only thing that’s saving us is that private reserves are doing an exceptionally good job in securing their populations, but at a huge and unaffordable cost.”

Jones reiterated Proa’s call for a transparent and legal trade in rhino horn – which grows back after being harvested if the animal is darted and alive rather than gunned down – to meet Asian demand. 

Lifting the global ban on horn trade is seen as one way to provide private rhino owners with an incentive to keep forking out the costs of maintaining and growing their herds. 

But that can only be ironed out at the Conference of the Parties meetings of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species held every two or three years, and such proposals always face stiff resistance. 

Meanwhile, South Africa’s rhino population is gradually being privatised – a trend that may not remain on its current trajectory. DM

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Ben Harper says:

    And this dear people, is clear and undeniable evidence that farming of wildlife for hunting and the international market is critical to survival of the wild populations. Take away international trade rights and the demand will not disappear, it simply moves to illegal ways to satisfy it and the decimation of the wild populations ensues

  • ian hurst says:

    Poaching rhinos for horn kills them. Farming rhinos for horn does not kill them. One of the objections to legalizing the horn trade is the (totally speculative) assertion that this will increase the demand for horn. Well, there are enough horns in stock to meet any demand, and if the increased demand continues, farmers would be able to slowly increase their production. Barbara Creasey and her supporters who oppose the horn trade have rhino blood on their hands.

  • Ben Harper says:

    Funny how all the bunny huggers are quiet now when the bare naked truth is looking at them in the face

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