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Saving Private Rhino: We must reimagine the future of species conservation in South Africa


Dr Dave Balfour consults widely in Africa on conservation management, planning and strategy, following 20 years in formal conservation. He is a member of the IUCN African Rhino Specialist Group and chairs the SADC Rhino Management Group. Dr Luthando Dziba is Acting CEO of SANParks. Both authors write in their personal capacities.

We should be looking far more actively at a range of options for conserving rhino. These include philanthropy, public-private-community partnerships, social impact bonds for communities adjacent to national parks, tax incentives and other innovative approaches to securing a national herd of each subspecies of rhino.

Earlier this year, a panel appointed by Minister of Fisheries, Forestry and the Environment Barbara Creecy released a comprehensive report reviewing policies, legislation and practices relating to the management and trade of lion, elephant, leopard and black and white rhino. The department subsequently developed and gazetted a draft policy position on the conservation and ecologically sustainable use of the same five species.

The draft policy has intensified an ongoing discourse with extremely polarised positions characterised by those who advocate trade in rhino horn and those who oppose it. We take this opportunity to frame a new discourse on the future of rhino conservation in South Africa.

First, some background

South Africa is widely acknowledged as having saved the southern white rhino from extinction in the early part of the 20th century. This was done by securing the remaining rhino clustered around the confluence of the black and white iMfolozi Rivers (commonly cited to be fewer than 100 rhinos) from ongoing and indiscriminate hunting. Continental numbers of the subspecies subsequently grew to more than 21,000 in 2012

There are parallels with the two subspecies of black rhino. During the second half of the 20th century, under sustained levels of indiscriminate hunting of rhino for their horn, which took place in all range states, continental numbers crashed from an estimated 65,000 to 2,500 in 1992. Their numbers have since recovered to 5,500 black rhino in Africa, of which about 35% to 40% are in South Africa. 

Following a two-decade hiatus in poaching which ended in 2008, the past 13 years has been a period in which rhino have again experienced significant poaching pressure. More than 8,000 rhino, the bulk of which were white rhino, were killed in South Africa alone. The situation is very serious, and whether we like it or not, the fate of Africa’s rhino will depend to a significant extent on decisions and actions that we take as a country – the next five to 10 years is going to be a critical period. 

Once the number of white rhino had recovered to around 650 individuals in the 1970s, measures were taken to expand their range out of iMfolozi Game Reserve. Founder populations were placed in other state-protected areas, including Kruger National Park (KNP), and subsequently on to private properties. Promulgation of the Game Theft Act in 1991 made provision for private ownership of rhinos. This meant that rhinos could be legally traded and, along with other wildlife, a rhino economy was established as individual rhinos acquired financial value. During the hiatus in poaching, many property owners, estimated to be over 300 at the peak, saw opportunities to buy and maintain small populations of rhino.

Since the resurgence in poaching, rhino losses have not been evenly spread. State-run protected areas, notably KNP and Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, have experienced the bulk of the poaching and the number of white rhinos has declined alarmingly. We estimate that more than 50% of white rhino are currently privately owned.

The fivefold increase in security costs over the past decade has resulted in many private owners divesting in rhinos and a concomitant 75% decline in the auction price for a rhino. Others have used this opportunity to buy rhinos, leading to consolidation of private rhino ownership. These “rhino investors” now own an estimated 45% or more of all privately owned white rhino in South Africa. 

Security remains a significant challenge for these properties and there is an associated tendency towards higher densities of rhino being kept on many of the properties. Under these conditions, there is commonly not sufficient natural grazing and rhinos are provided supplementary feed as well as additional veterinary care. In the absence of a meaningful market for rhinos, many private owners have for a long time been advocating for the opening of formal channels to trade legally in rhino horn in order to cover their costs. 

This brings us back to the draft policy position that we opened with. With respect to rhino management, the draft policy proposes, among others, reversal of the domestication and intensification of management of rhino. In relation to trade-related issues, it proposes, among others, that South Africa implement the recommendations of a 2014 Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on rhino horn trade. The recommendations relate to security, community empowerment, biological management, responsive legislative provisions and demand management, and to finding a mechanism to sustainably fund the future of rhino conservation. 

Reimagining rhino conservation in South Africa

In this context, instead of asking how we can fund current rhino conservation efforts, we propose that we should be using the crisis to step back and ask how we can conserve rhino in a manner that best advances current and anticipated future national environmental, social and political landscapes. This requires that we set out a bold vision for rhino conservation, for which we then set about identifying appropriate interventions and figuring out how to fund them. 

As a contribution to taking this debate forward, we propose South Africa should re-envision itself as home to thriving populations of both species of rhino, with ownership shared between state, private and community actors, and which contribute to our cultural and natural heritages and to the economic wellbeing of their custodians and the country. In our efforts, we should seek to work with other range states.

Three important challenges to overcome in achieving this vision in the short to medium terms are, first, to agree on and implement models for the more equitable sharing of ownership and management of rhino. Second, we need to secure sufficient expansive parcels of land for each subspecies, populated with large enough populations of each subspecies of rhino to satisfy their demographic, ecological, behavioural and population genetic requirements. Third, we need to sustainably finance the capital and operational costs of the new sites. 

We believe these game-changing interventions will put South Africa firmly in the driving seat of reviving thriving wild rhino populations with inclusive ownership across the country.

Conservation in general, and rhino conservation in particular, continues to be seen as untransformed and the preserve of the few in South Africa. Currently, fewer than 10 properties have rhino in which community members have full or partial ownership. Considering the national imperative to transform participation and ownership patterns, clear and material steps need to be taken to increase access to wildlife ownership and participation in conservation by those previously disenfranchised, particularly rural communities.

As highlighted in the CoI recommendations, community empowerment is an important consideration for any future conservation initiative. It is also important to define models for community ownership that do not set the recipients up to fail by supplying rhinos without the necessary infrastructure, expertise, security and financial resources to manage them. At the same time, we need to seek ways to minimise the pitfalls of elite capture by new players.

We need to build on our strengths and minimise our weaknesses. There is little doubt that private rhino owners have contributed significantly to increasing the numbers of rhino in South Africa and should be encouraged to continue playing a role in the conservation of these animals in future. The question is, how? Rhino need large land parcels in which they are able to graze naturally in the veld and select their own mates. They must be able to do what rhino do naturally, without being killed unnecessarily.

Knowing this, and recognising the high degree of compartmentalisation, unnatural densities and commonly skewed sex ratios with limited mate choice that exist, it is clear that there is currently a degree of suboptimal conservation management taking place in the sphere of private rhino ownership. In other words, conservation is more than simply a numbers game and this needs to be addressed. 

It is also important to bear in mind that, contrary to popular opinion, owning rhino is not necessarily lucrative any more. There was a two-decade “bubble” in which poaching levels were low and space to expand rhino numbers was plenty, and some made money. These conditions no longer exist, and we should not rely on such conditions prevailing again in future. 

The National Protected Area Expansion Strategy (Npaes) provides a possible mechanism for identifying and securing land that meets the need for protecting priority areas, while at the same time promoting partnerships between the state and private or communal landowners. The Npaes encourages the use of the Biodiversity Stewardship Programme (BSP) for this purpose. The BSP is structured to enable private or community landowners to partner with the state by declaring their land as contractual national parks or nature reserves.

We should be using these established tools and seeking opportunities to meet both protected area expansion priorities and rhino conservation needs, while at the same time contributing to a national transformation imperative by increasing access to wildlife ownership and participation in conservation. 

It is likely that not all suitable land for protected area expansion and rhino conservation will coincide with community land, or that communities will elect not to declare a portion of their land. In these instances, where community land is not contributed to as part of a partnership, it will still be important to consider issues of participation and ownership in wildlife conservation, and contractual arrangements, which distinguish between land ownership and wildlife ownership, can be explored. If carefully thought through, and honestly brokered, this may enable community ownership in wildlife and rhino conservation, even where they do not have land equity in a protected area.

Importantly, it will contribute to increasing access to the wildlife economy in a manner that embraces and strengthens sound conservation biology, and this will bode well for the future. The experiences of innovation in this regard in Namibia, Zimbabwe and Kenya, as well as other countries, can provide lessons to guide our decision-making. 

While we do not have easy solutions to the financing problem, we propose that we should be looking far more actively at a range of options. These include philanthropy, public-private-community partnerships, social impact bonds for communities adjacent to national parks, tax incentives and other innovative approaches to securing a national herd of each subspecies of rhino.

Although the future of ecotourism is uncertain in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, there is little doubt that it can play a role in future revenue streams. Influential global sentiment is increasingly unsupportive of hunting and trade in rhino horn, and will likely influence our decisions.

Once the management of populations of all three subspecies of rhino has been stabilised, and we as a nation can reliably account for them, there may be opportunities for revenue to be generated by legally trading in the horn that is collected from natural rhino mortalities and from ecologically appropriate and well-managed hunting operations – but we should not rely on this being an option. 

To conclude 

There are many details to be thought through and many hurdles to navigate, but we are arguing that we should not allow the current crisis to leave us locked into a narrow set of options at this time. 

By using conservation biology, leveraging partnerships between the state, the private sector, communities and NGOs, and attending to national imperatives for transformation and protected area expansion, we can be bold in our vision that most South Africans recognise value and feel a sense of ownership over what is uniquely ours: our landscapes, cultural heritage and our biodiversity, including its wildlife.

As we enter into a world that is increasingly stressed from the climate crisis, habitat loss and biodiversity loss, and as we increasingly rapidly learn that our ecosystems are not external to our economy but are integral to our wellbeing, we need to increase the value that every citizen places on our biodiversity and natural heritage, including rhino – this can only happen if ownership and access are more equitably shared. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Pat Pillai says:

    An insightful and useful article. Thank you.
    Much to think about…

  • Antonette Rowland says:

    Granted conservation of specific species like rhinos is essential, but a holistic approach to conservation, protecting biodiversity and ecotourism should include all species, e.g. pangolins which reported to be the most trafficking animals in Asia and Africa.

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