For nearly 90 years, nations around the world have sought, with varying degrees of success, to combat illegal wildlife trade. Yet even after the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) entered into force in 1975, wildlife crime remains a blight for many countries. The U.S. Department of Justice even declared that illegal trafficking in wildlife, plants and timber, and marine creatures “has reached epidemic proportions.”
Several species that have been especially heavily targeted by poachers, because of the heavy demand for their use in traditional Chinese medicine, are African and Asian rhino. From the start of the 20th century to 1970, the African and Asian rhino population plummeted from 500,000 to 70,000, and in just the last decade, nearly 9,900 African rhinos have been lost to poaching.
An August 22 report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the NGO Traffic seeks to strike a cautiously positive note. The report, which covers the period 2018 through 2021, states that “[o]verall rhino poaching rates have declined since 2018, and trade data suggests the lowest annual estimate of rhino horns entering illegal trade markets since 2013.” One significant variable that evidently affected rhino poaching rates was the COVID pandemic. According to the report, “global lockdowns and restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic saw several African countries experience dramatically reduced poaching rates in 2020 compared to previous years.” But “as COVID-19 travel restrictions lifted, some range states reported new increases in poaching activities – for example, South Africa reported 451 and Kenya six poached rhinos in 2021. However, these numbers are still significantly lower than during the [poaching] peak in 2015.”
At the same time, the report cautioned that threats to rhinos “are at a global – transnational scale, and include environmental change and social drivers”, and that “[t]he risks of these additional threats to global rhino conservation outcomes is unclear.” It also noted that “illegal trade in rhino horn is still considered the primary threat to the persistence of rhinos.”
Government officials and corporate compliance teams whose mandates include wildlife crime and corruption should read the report closely, while recognizing that several variables may well contribute to an increased incidence of rhino poaching later in 2022 and beyond. For example, the reportedly lower incidence of COVID in Africa and Asia may contribute to increased travel and tourism to those regions, including an upsurge in poaching. In addition, South Africa, which can boast the world’s largest rhino population, is set to see an increase in rhinos killed for the second straight year, as poachers have shifted their focus to the country’s KwaZulu-Natal province. Faced with these disturbing trends, all of the 184 CITES signatory nations will need to redouble their efforts to sustain the decline in rhino poaching.