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Private, communal landholders need more support to protect rhinos
Author: Corporate Communication & Marketing / Korporatiewe Kommunikasie & Bemarking [Alec Basson]
Published: 15/02/2023

​Rhino numbers in key state-run parks in South Africa, notably the Kruger National Park, have declined dramatically because of poaching. Losses on private and communal lands have been less and this has led to a situation where at least half of the remaining rhinos in Africa are being conserved on private or communal lands. Given the rising cost of protecting them, we need adaptive policies to support private and communal rhino custodians in their conservation efforts.

This is according to a new study published recently in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

“We aggregated African rhino population data, highlighting the growing role of private and community rhino custodians, who likely now conserve about 50% of Africa's rhinos," says lead author Dr Hayley Clements from Stellenbosch University's Centre​ for Sustainability Transitions and the University of Helsinki. She conducted the study with Dr Dave Balfour from Nelson Mandela University and Prof Enrico Di Minin from the University of Helsinki and the University of KwaZulu-Natal. They contextualised the decline in rhino numbers in the Kruger National Park by analysing publicly available data on rhino populations in state-run parks and private and communal lands in South Africa and other African countries.

Rhino numbers

The researchers point out that although South Africa still stewards the largest number of remaining rhinos in Africa — 81% of the white rhinos and 33% of the black rhinos — populations of the most poached species, the white rhino, have been declining unsustainably, making for depressing reading.

“Until the past decade, by far the largest populations of South Africa's rhinos were found in the state-run Kruger National Park. The park has, however, become a poaching hotspot, with figures released in 2021 signalling 76% and 68% declines in the white rhino and black rhino populations over the past decade respectively. A further 14,7% decline in white rhino numbers was estimated during 2021.

“Over the same decade, the estimated number of white rhinos on private land in South Africa has steadily increased. As a result of these divergent rhino population trends on state and private lands, the proportion of the country's white rhinos on private land increased from 25% in 2010 to 53% in 2021. This means that, collectively, private landholders in South Africa now support the largest number of white rhinos on the continent. A lower but still substantial proportion (about 25% over the past decade) of South Africa's black rhinos are conserved on private lands."

The researchers add that currently, there are relatively few rhinos on communal land in South Africa (an estimated 1% and 6% of white rhino and black rhino populations, respectively). They say the relative contribution of private and communal landholders to national rhino numbers is similarly important in countries like Zimbabwe, Namibia and Kenya.

“As of 2018, 88% and 76% of Zimbabwe's black rhino and white rhino populations, respectively, were conserved on private lands, as were 27% and 75% of Namibia's black rhino and white rhino populations, respectively; incidentally, 7% of Namibia's black rhino population lives in community conservancies. Likewise, as of 2016, 45% and 72% of Kenya's black rhino and white rhino populations were conserved by private landholders."

However, these landholders could struggle to keep up their conservation efforts as costs associated with protecting rhinos skyrocket and revenue-generating options become insufficient, according to the researchers.

“If an effective means of sustainably financing rhino conservation does not materialize, further disinvestment in rhinos by private landholders seems likely. It is also unclear how communities will be able to cover such high rhino protection costs in the absence of increased donor or partner funding or other revenue streams, therefore limiting the potential to create and sustain more inclusive conservation systems."

Policy changes

The researchers emphasise the need for policies that can ensure an enabling environment for rhinos on private and communal lands, with incentives that are greater than the costs of rhino conservation. This requires responsive policy and context-specific decision-making around rhino trade, hunting, and management.

Regarding adaptive policies, the researchers draw attention to the international ban on rhino-horn trade under the auspices of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and concerns about the intensive production of white rhinos on private land in South Africa.

​“It has been proposed that a more appropriate first measure for conserving threatened species could be the development of context-appropriate conservation programmes in partnership with local people, as opposed to the 'blunt instrument' top-down approach of an international trade ban.

“Rather than only restricting intensification, it is imperative that future policy enables new incentives that encourage rhino conservation on private and communal lands. These could include, among others, a more favourable tax structure for landholders, carbon credits (financial payments linked to carbon sequestration) or other innovative financial mechanisms such as 'rhino bonds' (a 'pay-for-results' impact investment that shifts the risk of funding rhino conservation from donors to impact investors by making financial performance conditional on conservation performance), crowdfunding, or certifications for extensive management that increase the value of their wildlife-based tourism and hunting offerings."

The researchers say increased transparency by states and the availability of up-to-date data about rhino numbers, 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.

  • SOURCE: Clements, HS; Balfour, D & Di Minin, E 2023. Importance of private and communal lands to sustainable conservation of Africa's rhinoceroses. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. doi:10.1002/fee.2593