Poaching crisis in South Africa

For up to date rhino poaching figures, please visit our Poaching – The Statistics page

The South African situation

(A version of this article was originally published in The Horn, spring 2011. Author: Jo Shaw, Programme Officer – Large Mammal Trade, TRAFFIC East/Southern Africa office)

South Africa is viewed as the primary custodian of Africa’s rhinos. With 18,796 white rhinos and 1,916 black rhinos as of last estimates at the end of 2010, this represents approximately 93% and 40% of the total white and black rhino populations respectively. In recent years poaching levels have soared, and the current crisis is creating debates worldwide about the best way to tackle illegal poaching.


The unwavering commitment shown towards rhinoceros conservation and diligent investment in protection and monitoring meant that South Africa largely escaped the first terrifying wave of rhino poaching that occurred throughout the rest of Africa prior to the mid-1990s. The recovery of the white rhino population from somewhere between 20 and 50 individuals in KwaZulu-Natal in the early 1900s to the current global population of over 20,000 animals is one of the great conservation success stories and perhaps partly explains the deep emotional attachment and pride that many South Africans feel for their rhinos.

One of the acknowledged reasons for South Africa’s past rhino conservation success has been the strong alliance between private and public sector players. Indeed, approximately 20-25% of rhinos in South Africa are now privately owned, a larger number than currently persists in the majority of former rhino range states. A significant incentive for private ownership of rhinos has been the potential for income generation via trophy hunting. Sport hunting of white rhino started in 1968 at a time there were only 1,800 animals and has continued with an average of approximately 50 animals hunted per year ever since. Traditionally, white rhino trophy hunts have been sold primarily to international hunting clients from the United States and Europe for roughly £20,000 each.

Sources of rhino horn

However, from the mid-2000s something changed relating to the demand for rhino horn from Asia, which has placed rhinos throughout Africa increasingly under attack. In South Africa, rhino horn has been sourced in at least three ways. One of the first indicators of this change was the increasing number of hunters from Asia taking part in trophy hunts of white rhino, or “pseudo-hunting” as it has become known. As white rhinos in South Africa were placed on the Appendix II listing of CITES in 1994 with special exemption for sport hunting, export of hunting trophies remained a legal mechanism for the international movement of rhino horn. It has been noted that these hunters were generally unskilled and inexperienced and prepared to shoot even young female rhinos as long as they came away with a horn.

Secondly, there have been a spate of thefts and armed robberies of rhino horns from stockpiles on game reserves and museums throughout South Africa and this crime has also shown a dramatic rise in Europe and the US. Since 2007, at least 65 horns have been stolen in South Africa and around 50 internationally.

Rhino poaching

However, the most disturbing trend has been the horrific increase in poaching of rhinos in South Africa. Prior to 2006, illegal killing of rhinos was being maintained at consistently low levels. Since 2008, rhino poaching in South Africa has skyrocketed year on year, culminating in a total of 448 rhinos killed in 2011. The face of rhino poaching has also changed, with trusted wildlife industry professionals adding to the ranks of the more traditional poaching demographic. Unfortunately, there is no indication that the rhino poaching crisis is coming under control, as rhino deaths continue apace despite the government responses to combat poaching, including the deployment of Army personnel along the border between Kruger National Park and Mozambique.


The South African Department of Environmental Affairs has made several legislative changes in response to the threats to rhinos. In July 2008, a National Moratorium was placed on rhino horn sales to try and prevent domestic sales of rhino horn from entering the illegal international market. Stricter regulations on the marking of rhino horn and on trophy hunting of white rhinos were introduced in 2009 to try and clamp down on leakage of rhino horn from South Africa and draft amendments to combat identified loopholes were produced in September 2011.

South African citizens and private owners of rhinos are also developing a range of increasingly innovative approaches to make rhinos less attractive to poachers, including dehorning as well as newer ideas such as introducing dye or even poison into rhino horns. However, these methods have limited applicability and huge cost implications for utilization on the largest and most important populations for conservation. Furthermore, the sad death of a white rhino during the demonstration of the horn dyeing technique at the Rhino and Lion Park in Johannesburg in January 2012 highlights the risks inherent in any activities requiring immobilization.

There is a huge groundswell of public concern and support to combat rhino poaching in South Africa. However, with over 150 organizations now actively involved in their own efforts to address this problem, there is concern over lack of integration and duplication of effort, when what is needed is a strategic response.

What next?

In January 2012, the Portfolio Committee on Water and Environmental Affairs called a Parliamentary Hearing in Cape Town to discuss rhino poaching. The meeting was attended by a range of government and provincial representatives as well as NGOs and concerned individuals. There were several common threads, including the need for better communication and collaboration between government departments and improved permitting and database systems for live rhinos and rhino horn stockpiles. Although there have been a number of recent breakthroughs, there is also a need for increased number of arrests, prosecutions and stiffer sentencing, preferably mandatory imprisonment for rhino crimes. Many of the participants expressed concerns about capacity shortages and constraints to achieve the above and combat the poaching threat. However, the issue of whether to legalise international trade in rhino horn took centre stage.

Some were against any form of sustainable utilization of wildlife, including sale of any rhinos by National Parks, and called for all rhino horn stockpiles to be destroyed or proposed the donation of rhino horn stockpiles in South Africa to Asia. Others, including the private sector but also state representatives such as EKZNW, wanted the government to push for the opening of international trade in rhino horn. The debate about whether legalizing international trade in rhino horn could be part of the solution to rhino poaching in South Africa is growing in intensity and becoming increasingly emotional and polarized between strong pro- and anti-factions. Whether the South Africa government will decide that it can convince the international community at CITES and submit a proposal for legal trade for the next Conference of the Parties in Bangkok in March 2013 remains to be seen. However, such debates should not detract from what is the most immediate issue at hand – stemming the increasing tide of illegal killing of rhinos in the world.

Graph credit TRAFFIC

53 thoughts on “Poaching crisis in South Africa

  1. i design car stickers for a living and i have noticed that car stickers are becoming more trendy and vogue among south african motorists,so i have designed cute rubber rhino shaped car stickers,to raise more awareness on anti rhino poaching and am looking for anti rhino poaching organisations/individuals who might be interested i could make more stickers for them if they want
    my number is0832187223

  2. I’m doing my second year in nature conservation and I think its just sad that our future generations may not see what a Rhino looked like. More awareness should be raised…

  3. When you cant sleep at night with full moon, when you fear to open your newspaper or email, this is what effect it has on me. Now what about the rhino, what pain does it go through. Please God, let this stop

  4. We should definitely save the rhinos!!! I love rhinos!!! My favorite player from the LA Rhinos is Kobe Bryant!! Basketball is my fav!! GO L.A. RHINOS!!! WOO KOBE NUMBA 1!!

  5. Is it too costly to use drones to track the poacher’s movements? More public awareness is needed both here and worldwide, especially in Asia? People need to be educated! Rhino horn does not cure cancer.

  6. Anonymous commenter from January 27, 2014. Kobe Bryant does not play for the L.A. rhinos, he def plays for the Wisconsin Wombats, so plz get your facts straight before you sound stupid. #KobeFoLyf

  7. Would it not be better to put all the stock piles of ivory from various countries into the market for sale. Surely this would stop the employing of poaches to butcher animals for their horns.

  8. Okay, so Rhino horns consist of mainly hair and keratin, the same material that your fingernails are made of. A Rhino horn technically is not a horn. Horns are connected to an animal by blood vessels, and antlers are not. The Rhino horn is more like an antler because if it is cut off it doesn’t cause extreme pain or excessive bleeding. So in response to the crisis in South Africa, I think that if people were more educated on that they would know that they don’t necessarily have to kill the Rhino to acquire it’s “”horn””.

  9. wow rhino horns are really consist of hair and keratin.I am doing a debate at school for orals about rhinos.Thanks for the info!

  10. Hi,I am a Fine Arts student and did several paintings on Rhino poaching,its my way of motivating my fellow peers to take interest in this shamefull topic if anyone like,you can check out my pictures on my facebook…my number is 0724441840

  11. 2 ideas that could help…dogs able to sniff out horn and ivory at transports points internationally. A campaign (in countries who are driving demand ) to “”shame”” for lack of a better word in much the same way fur has become les socially acceptable

  12. This is such a sad & terrible tragedy, as the years go by it just keeps getting worse. These beautiful wild animals don’t deserve to be treated like this. It is just absolutely disgusting. I reckon they will all be wiped in the next few months/years to come,but if the South African Government can keep with their current ongoing laws and give the poachers what they deserve. A lot more security is needed around National Parks and Wildlife Conservation facilities where many rhinos maybe grazing around & this can be a good target for these sick minded people. I could probably go and on, but I will say this: Please everyone, get behind this worthy cause and join to help put and end to illegal rhino poaching.

  13. its seems most of the rhino poaching is done in the Kruger National Park.
    I feel the answer is to set up one or two small army bases in the park, of the tourist track so that response to these attacks can be immediate.
    1 it will deter these poachers
    2 give our paid defense force members something constructive to do.

  14. Maybe we could do something like this to put a stop to rhino poaching in South Africa?

    Zakouma National Park in Chad is especially renowned for its free roaming herds of African elephants. The population was greatly reduced by a frenzy of poaching between 2000-2010, but their numbers are now on the rise again. Thanks to an overhaul of anti-poaching strategy, there has not been a single elephant killed inside the 19,000-square-mile park for nearly three years.

    In December 2013, 21 new elephant calves were sighted in the park, marking a turning point for Zakouma’s besieged elephants.

    The remaining key species in the park are stable or on the increase and in general the ecosystem is healthy with the water buffalo population in particular showing a huge recovery from an estimated 220 in 1986 to just over 10,000 in 2014.

    The relationship between the park and local communities is better than it has ever been as local people are reaping the benefits from extensive law enforcement patrols in their areas, according to AfricanParks.org.

    In 2013 a toll-free cell phone number was set up to provide a means by which people can easily and anonymously transmit information regarding potential poaching threats to Chad’s elephant populations. Additionally village radios were installed in 16 villages in Zakouma’s periphery, providing a reliable means of reporting suspicious activity concerning the security of both the local population and the elephants. These radios enable the villages to be in 24-hour radio communication with our control room in Zakouma.

  15. I make an Oath to Conservation of Our Rhinos . The wildlife animals deserve a greater way of conservation as they mark a heritage adventure. Rhinos are part of our Natural Habitat ; The change will be made soon “” Man in the mirror”” Am gonna make a change once in My life.

    Save Rhino , Save Rhino , Save our Rhino For an upcoming generation to see our Natural beauty of Africa .

    The dignity of our wildlife animals is in our hands; Killing of Rhinos doesn’t serve as a great history .
    Looking after and making a difference with Rhino poaching for a better Conservation serves the right way to make a difference.

    Make a difference , Make a way to Salvation please!! Please!!! Stop, Stop Rhino Poaching , Embrace Nature as a Habitat of a Human Spirit.

    Stop the mass killing , “” Save our Rhino””

    I am going To make a difference.

    Kind regards:
    Itumeleng Manamela. “””” Save our Rhinos , Make a difference Make a difference.

  16. I continue to be astounded at the ignorance of purchasing rhino horn for any medicinal or aphrodisiac purposes. Please send Asia and the Far East tonnes of Viagra and Cialis to countries in the rhino horn trade. There should be a campaign throughout Asia on erectile dysfunction the ED advertised on television, is ED especially prevalent in some Far East countries? Will some countries, including the United States, never learn that all resources on Earth are finite. Oh, they could start selling their kidneys!

  17. There’s a facebook photo of three men with automatic weapons “”bodyguarding”” a white Rhino and the caption says they are guarding the last 6-living White Rhinos alive. Is that truthful.

    I understood that a species needs a breeding hurt of at least 12 to continue the species. Is this the end of the White Rhino?

    You have not stated WHY Asians want Rhino horn. I assume Chinese medicine for imagined healing or improved libido but I’d like your answer.

    Friends want this information and want to thank you and the guards for your efforts.

  18. Stephen

    That photo – by Brent Stirton – is of the 3 (the 4th died in 2014) Northern white rhinos at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. You can read more about the NWRs here:
    See here for information on why rhinos are being killed for their horns:
    Explore our website – you’ll find lots of interesting info about rhinos and ways that you can help

  19. Pains me to hear about this. I’m sure many people will disagree but the best way to destroy the illegal market seems to be to legalise the trade and therefore dramatically reduce the selling price and profit from poaching. The harder it is to supply rhino horn, the larger the price Asia will pay and the more attractive it is to poachers. If we can practically give rhino horn away in a sustainable way to these complete idiots who want it for some imaginary benefit, we can dramatically reduce the profit from the illegal trade of it and the costs will outweigh the benefits. Revenue generated can be used to further protect wildlife and grow the population.

  20. Why don’t all parties involved with this hunting of a black rhino do this. Let Corey Knowlton shoot the endangered black rhino with a tranquilizer dart, and then donate the black rhino to a zoo. With the stipulation that when the black rhino dies Mr. Knowlton gets the dead black rhino to do with has he wishes. Mr. Knowlton would still give Namibia the $350,000.00, and a zoo wanting a black rhino gets one. It could only bring in more people, and money to the lucky zoo. The Namibian Government still get’s it $350,000.00, and Mr. Knowlton still gets to shoot the black rhino. Everybody wins! Mr. Knowlton will just have to be satisfied with watching the black rhino slowly fall to the ground, while the tranquiler takes effect, instead of having it drop immediately. That is if his first shot would have actually killed the majestic animal. I’m sure with the amount of money Mr. Knowlton must have, he can even visit the lucky zoo that gets the black rhino, and he can admire it while it’s still alive. All the while thinking, “”When that beautiful black rhino dies, I’m going to have it stuffed, and put it in with the menagerie of other endangered wildlife I’ve taken from this planet””. Problem Solved: Timothy Longhi

  21. I dislike people who hunt especially exotic animals and for sexual tonics. Exercise is probably the best thing for boosting your sex drive. F off you rich jerks with your ivory belongings to those who have already passed in America and those living in China. If you get diabetes or high blood pressure you could lose your weeny and then your considered a mutilated nomad from Africa.

  22. Greetings, I would like to to say that humanity has lost there humanity and like stars from Holly come here to adopt our children why can’t they buy a Rhino. If they personally owned they cannot be poached. ?????? Then its stealing what belongs to someone else. Obviously bought with main objectve is to keep them safe. Conditions is the Rhino stay in Africa. Merley a thought!!!

  23. I have been watching africam.com webcams and for several nights in a row, I have seen a rhino in a particular location. I worry that the poachers are watching too and will anticipate the rhino’s returning another night. How can people around the world help stop the poachers? Can we set up, or is there already, an alert system so when rhino are spotted, patrols can be notified and the particular rhinos protected?

  24. Good god, are the Chinese actually that stupid? I think they know that it doesn’t do anything. the people who buy it from them are most likely the idiots. But, smart or not, that’s still Evil.

  25. For background info on this problem, read Killing for profit by Julian Rademeyer, Zebra Press 2012.
    It exposes the poachers, con men, gunrunners, diplomats, RSA government officials and crime bosses behind the slaughter of rhinos.

  26. The solution, we believe is at an international level, creating awareness through education by travelling the world. Funding is a massive problem as the gap between local funding and support is growing in favour of the illegal syndicates (cowards) which is making the fight on the ground more difficult. Part of our international campaign is to raise money in hard currency and capitalize off the poor exchange rate. I could go on all day about the crisis. Please have a look at our link and support .https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/rhino-ocean-warriors#/

  27. hi guys its me coliholio I have a great idea. What is it you might ask?

    what if we gave the rhinos a tracking device where it can detect if its hurt. We send helicopters and other vehicles where the rhino is being poached

  28. Thanks for your query. The SA organization is not related to us in any way and has engaged in some very unprofessional fundraising practices. We have made contact to ask them to change their name – no joy – and we have sent a dossier of information on complaints about http://www.savetherhino.org.za’s behaviour to the South African Police Service, but we have not seen any action taken yet.

    If you want to support a South African rhino organization, then we would recommend WWF-South Africa, stoprhinopoaching.com and the Endangered Wildlife Trust, all of whom we have partnered with on various projects.

  29. How many poachers have we shot and killed. For every Rhino we need to shoot to kill. By 2025 we will have no more Rhinos in the wild. I dont believe we have the politcial will and only once we have that can anything be done. Till then more and more will die. I dont subscribe to putting my R10,00 in a tin standing in shop as I dont know where that money ends up so right now I am all words and no actions. I wish to change that but there are no sites which suggest how we the lay man can help.

  30. Instead of burning the confiscated poached tusks, wouldn’t it make sense to flood the market with them, thereby bringing the value down

Leave a Reply