Yolan Friedmann, EWT CEO


A key question we are often asked these days is whether the lockdown has benefitted rhino and reduced poaching in general. With rhino poaching having escalated in recent years, and species like elephant and lions beginning to show worrying poaching trends in South Africa, one would hope that the strict lockdown regulations that crippled our economy and disrupted lives, would have at least benefitted species whose existence is being threatened by the illegal wildlife trade.

The short answer is that yes, to some degree, the poaching of rhino and trade in rhino horn did decrease during the strict lockdown period. According to official figures, rhino poaching in South Africa decreased by around 53% in the first six months of 2020 with only 166 rhino being killed since the beginning of the year, compared to 316 during the first six months of 2019. Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, Barbara Creecy, noted that “…the decline in rhino poaching … was specifically welcome in the Kruger National Park where, during April, no rhino were killed in the Intensive Protection Zone, for the first time in almost ten years.” The Kruger National Park recorded 88 cases of rhino poaching in the first six months of 2020, compared to 153 in the first six months of 2019.

The lockdown did not, however, spell good news for all wildlife, and incidences of poaching for bushmeat using snares and poisons unfortunately increased. The EWT staff, and our associates working in the field, noted a significant increase in the use of snares to catch species such as various antelope, bushpig and birds. Secondary consequences of this scourge include the increase in snaring of threatened species such as Wild Dogs, who are unfortunately prone to being caught in snares set for other animals. Much of this kind of poaching has been attributed to rapidly escalating levels of starving people, and around the country, we noted an increased reliance by many people on wildlife such as hares, birds and small game for food. If successful, this kind of poaching can also assist with income generation in cash-strapped households, and the lockdown has pushed thousands of people to rely on their natural environment for food, income and even medicinals, with plant harvesting also increasing in some areas. Whether or not the relaxed lockdown regulations will result in a reversal of this trend is yet to be seen, and if not, this could spell disaster for many species who will not withstand the impact of rampant countrywide snaring.

But back to rhino: what is clear is that there are indeed actions that can be taken to reduce rhino poaching in the future, and this does not necessarily have to be another severe national lockdown. Visible policing followed by roadblocks (albeit that police may have been looking for alcohol and cigarettes, some roadblocks in fact identified wildlife products in transit) and strict monitoring of vehicles entering and leaving our parks, definitely played a role in reducing poaching. Whilst we want our borders to remain open, it is also evident that consistent and strict monitoring of what goes out and screening of all baggage and cargo for illicit wildlife products can make a difference. Despite many reserves having fewer ranger patrols and less human activity in their reserves (or because of it) poaching of high value, internationally traded species reduced as markets could not be accessed as easily. This is a clear indication of how, if we can control trade routes and reduce the ease of access to markets, one can reduce the incentive to poach.

Going forward, this is a clear indication of where our priorities need to lie in the future and how we can stay ahead of the poaching and illegal wildlife trade scourge before it gets the better of us again. Let there be these positive take-home lessons for conservation into the future and may our rhino continue to enjoy a little more peace for a little bit longer.

Yolan Friedmann