For a number of years, Asian markets’ demand for rhino horn – whether as medicine or luxury good – has contributed to transnational illegal wildlife trade that has been pushing rhino populations closer to extinction. One development that apparently had some effect in temporarily reducing rhino poaching in South Africa was the COVID-19 pandemic. The number of rhinos poached in South Africa declined by one-third from 594 in 2019 to 394 in 2020. But as the South African government eased COVID lockdown restrictions in late 2020, rhino poaching reportedly began to rise sharply, especially in late 2021.
A recent report by the South African Ministry of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment confirmed this trend. According to the Ministry, 451 rhinos were poached in the country in 2021. This represents a 14 percent increase over the 2020 total of rhinos poached. The Ministry noted that the 451 rhinos poached represented a 24 percent decrease compared to 2019, and that the 209 rhinos poached in South African national parks represented a 15 percent decline from 2020. At the same time, the Ministry recognized that there had been an increase in poaching on private properties in South Africa.
The Ministry also reported that in 2021 there had been 189 arrests in connection with poaching activities and 61 convictions of accused rhino poachers and traffickers. In a number of successful prosecutions, sentences ranged from 16 years’ to 85 years’ imprisonment.
Nonetheless, the unabated demand for rhino horn, coupled with the lingering effect of COVID in discouraging tourism, is likely to generate still further increases in rhino poaching in South Africa. South African authorities are vitally dependent on tourism dollars to fund their anti-poaching efforts. If tourism continues to lag behind the surge in poaching, and poachers continue to stalk rhinos in private properties, South Africa may again find itself facing a crisis in trying to protect its dwindling rhino populations.