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More than half of Africa’s rhinos have private owners

For those wishing to see an African rhinoceros species in the wild, a visit to South Africa would be well advised. This country stewards the largest number of rhinos in Africa, supporting 81 percent of the white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum) and 33 percent of the black rhinos (Diceros bicornis) remaining on the continent. Until the past decade, the largest concentrations of these iconic mammals were found in South Africa’s state-run Kruger National Park. 

However, just as tourists from all over the world visit this park to view the rhinos (among other species), poachers have been drawn there to kill the rhinos for their horns. The Kruger National Park has become a poaching hotspot and has seen devastating decreases in rhino numbers. Figures released in 2021 indicated 76 percent and 68 percent declines in the Park’s white and black rhino populations over the past decade, respectively. 

In order to conserve these impressive species, the governments and conservation authorities in African countries where they occur have had to resort to drastic and innovative measures. Many rhinos have been moved out of national parks and protected areas, such as Kruger, to be rehomed in reserves in neighboring countries, or on privately held game farms. Populations of rhinos on private land, or on community land, have grown and have proved easier to protect from the ravages of poaching. 

In a new review of the importance of private and communal lands to the future conservation of Africa’s rhinoceroses, scientists from the University of Helsinki in Finland, and the Universities of Stellenbosch and Nelson Mandela in South Africa, discuss the sustainability of such an approach in the longer term. In their report, published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, the experts suggest that new strategies for ensuring the protection of these species are urgently needed. 

“Private and communal landowners in several southern and East African countries can generate revenues from wildlife tourism, trophy hunting and trade in live animals, making it financially viable to use their land to conserve wildlife rather than for farming livestock,” said study co-author Dr. Hayley Clements. “The result has been that hundreds of landowners conserve rhinos on their properties.”

Over the past decade, as poaching has increased in national parks, wildlife agencies have become concerned that the species would be extirpated. As rhino numbers in national parks have decreased, the estimated number of rhinos on private land in South Africa has steadily increased. As a result of this shift, the proportion of the country’s white rhinos on private land increased from 25 percent in 2010 to 53 percent in 2021. This means that, collectively, private landholders in South Africa now support the largest number of white rhinos on the continent. 

A similar pattern applies to the black rhinos in the country as well; approximately 25 percent are conserved on privately held lands. Rhinos on private farms, as well as on community-held lands, also represent significant proportions of the total rhino populations in other African countries, such as Namibia, Zimbabwe and Kenya, where poaching in national parks has taken a toll. 

Although this move to conserving rhinos outside the confines of national parks has undoubtedly reduced the damage wrought by poachers, it comes with significant costs that may make it unsustainable in future, unless new policies are adopted. For example, private game farms make an income from wildlife-based tourism and hunting, as well as from selling the meat and trophies from their wild animals. In South Africa, one-quarter of private owners of white rhinos offer trophy hunting, 45 percent trade in live rhinos, and 62 percent undertake wildlife-based tourism. 

If any of these activities was disallowed in future, the private owners would not make enough income to cover the expenses involved in keeping and protecting rhinos. Commonly, private owners need to employ anti-poaching units and other security measures to protect the animals on their properties, and the costs involved have increased in recent years. If economic conditions became tougher, with fuel and salary price hikes, or restrictions on tourists as during the Covid-19 pandemic, rhino conservation on these private or community lands would no longer be financially sustainable. 

The cost-benefit ratio of conserving rhinos is changing, explained study co-author Dr. Dave Balfour. “Accelerating poaching has meant private rhino owners now spend on average US$150,000 per year on security measures. This is far more than state parks are able to spend per rhino or per unit area conserved. Combined with the generally smaller size of private rhino populations (in smaller areas averaging 100 km2), which likely makes them easier to protect than in places like Kruger (with an area of 20,000 km2), this spending on security means private rhino populations have suffered lower poaching rates than in some core state-run parks. But these rising security costs mean many landowners are not willing or able to continue conserving rhinos, with some choosing to sell their rhinos, often at a loss.” 

The study authors state that it is imperative to find new ways of incentivizing the ownership of rhinos by private land owners and on community lands, if this important component of conservation is to continue. 

“The reality is that, at present, rhinos on private and communal lands in range states are the only major complement to state parks,” said the researchers. “It is therefore imperative to consider – in the context of high poaching pressure, a diminished live-rhino trade market, and a wildlife-based tourism industry devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic – how incentives can be structured to achieve rhino conservation objectives as opposed to intensive rhino management or disinvestment.”

“It is important that future policy enables new incentives that compensate for rising security costs, encouraging rhino conservation on private and communal land,” noted study senior author Professor Enrico Di Minin. 

“For example, could landowners that conserve rhinos in extensive systems qualify for a more favorable tax structure? Could they be eligible for carbon or the emerging biodiversity credits, or rhino bonds, given the role of rhinos in carbon cycling? Could they receive certifications for extensive management that increase the value of their wildlife-based tourism and hunting offerings? These are crucial questions that need to be addressed in order to support more sustainable conservation strategies for rhinos.”

Moreover, increased transparency by states about rhino numbers and their management is critical for understanding where and how best to conserve them. Availability of up-to-date information on rhino populations, poaching rates, and security costs can aid in identifying and quantifying long-term trends in rhino populations across land tenure types, inform their conservation, and help raise public awareness and support.

“If additional incentives are not enabled, we risk losing private and communal rhino custodians, and with them, half of the remaining African rhinos,” concluded Dr. Clements.

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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