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South Africa is starting to save rhinos from poaching by taking on international crime networks

Rhino horn killings decrease as arrests of poachers increase in South Africa
Reuters/Siegfried Modola
A comforting hand and a strong strategy.
  • Lynsey Chutel
By Lynsey Chutel


Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

After years of carnage, the number of rhinos killed by poachers is decreasing in South Africa. The dip is thanks to the sharp increase in arrests, according to the Dept. of Environmental Affairs’ Feb. 27 statistics update.

The intensity with which the department approached rhino poaching is turning into something of a master class in how to fight complex crime webs.

In a multi-pronged approach, the department is using an anti-poaching air wing and a canine unit. They have established an Environmental Crime Investigation unit within the police, and trained elite ranger units. They also trained 905 border officials spotting the trafficking of endangered species.


Diplomacy also came into play. South Africa’s most significant park, the Kruger National Park, stretches across the Mozambican border into the Parque Nacional do Limpopo. The two countries are collaborating on a number of broad social programs, including training young people who live near the parks in conservation.

Most of the rhino horn obtained in southern Africa is shipped to Asia and Vietnam is one of the main markets. Pretoria is working hard to convince Hanoi to introduce stronger penalties for illegal possession of the horn, according to the minister’s statement.

Along with human trackers, dogs and international neighbors, the department also turned to technology. For several years now, rhino horns have been fitted with GPS microchips and in 2016 the department also began sending in drones fitted with thermal-imaging cameras to search parks for poachers.

And as anyone who’s worked in a large organization knows, you can’t get anything done without your colleagues down the hall. The department has enlisted the help of their colleagues in

  • the national parks service
  • the defense department the military
  • the police and their priority crime investigation unit known as the Hawks,
  • the justice department, and
  • the South African Revenue Service

Rhino populations are still struggling though. As many as 465 endangered black rhino live in the Kruger, one of Africa’s largest parks, an estimated increase of just 12. At most, there are 7 830 white grass-grazing rhino live in the park, a decrease from the maximum estimate of 9337 in 2015, according to the department’s statistics.

As optimistic as the numbers seem, they still mean that three rhinos are killed a day, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Rhino populations still remain at a “tipping point,” especially that of the endangered black rhino. That would require a genuine international effort.

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