You are here:

Shock and disappointment at rise in rhino poaching in South Africa

Written by Professor Keith Somerville |

In 2023, 499 rhinos were killed by poachers in South Africa.  This disappointing figure is an increase of 51 on the poaching numbers for 2022, which had shown a rise from the previous year. It is a chilling reminder that the South African government and wildlife authorities have not got poaching under control. Releasing the annual poaching figures, the Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE), Barbara Creecy, said that while poaching had dropped in Kruger National Park, previously the focal point of rhino crime,  “The pressure again has been felt in the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) province with Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park facing the brunt of poaching cases,” with 307 of the 499 killed there.

In Kruger NP, 78 rhino were killed in 2023, compared with 124 in 2022 – a decrease due to improved security, careful vetting of staff in the park to weed out corrupt rangers and other staff and the dehorning of many of the rhinos,  but also because there is a much smaller rhino population due to over a decade of heavy poaching. White rhino numbers in Kruger fell from 10,621 in Kruger in 2011 to 1,988 at the end of 2022 and there is now likely to have been a further fall in 2023 when natural mortality is added to the poaching figures and balanced against births; black rhino down from 415 in 2013 to 208 at the end of 2022.

South Africa rhino poaching statistics:

2007 13
2008 83
2009 122
2010 33
2011 448
2012 668
2013 1004
2014 1215
2015 1175
2016 1054
2017 1028
2018 769
2019 594
2020 394
2021 451
2022 448
2023 499

KZN became the main focus for poaching in 2023 with 307 poached in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi alone, compared with 93 in 2020 and a jump to to 244 in 2022 (228 on reserves and 16 privately-owned).  Pelham Jones of the private Rhino Owners’ Association predicted a level of 282 in 2023 in the province’s reserves (especially Hluhluwe-iMfolozi), a prediction which turned out to be too optimistic with 307 rhino killed in 2023 in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi alone and 325 across the whole province according to DFEE figures. Environment Minister Creecy said the KZN figure for 2023 was the ‘highest poaching loss within this province’ recorded for any one year.

KZN and Hluhluwe-iMfolozi have a number of problems which make poaching easier, now that security has been tightened in Kruger.  Cedric Coetzee, head of rhino protection at Hluhluwe-iMfolozi in KZN, told me when I visited him there in 2016 that while it might take poachers days to track a rhino in Kruger, the high density of animals in the KwaZulu-Natal reserves meant they might only spend two to three hours there before killing a rhino and escaping with its horns. The upsurge in poaching in KZN demonstrates how the accessibility of rhino in reserves like Hluhluwe-iMfolozi exposes them to poaching as gangs moved in.

KZN is a province beset by corruption, and both political and criminal violence, with violent factional struggles within the governing African National Congress Party. Corruption in provincial government, law enforcement and the judiciary is rife. The major example of this has been the investigation and suspension of KZN Regional Court President Eric Nzimande following accusations of corrupt payments, racketeering and receiving bribes to appoint unsuitable candidates as attorneys in cases. 

The Save the Wild NGO had campaigned for Nzimande’s suspension believing him to have been key in obstructive cases against suspected rhino poaching kingpins – kingpins being the term used to describe the leaders of highly organised poaching syndicates, which are often involved, too, in drug dealing, cash-in-transit heists and armed robberies. Nzimande was charged with offences related to corruption and is awaiting trial.  Implicated in his crimes is Z.W. Ngwenya, who represented the suspected rhino poaching kingpin Dumisani Gwala in his court appearances. Gwala was arrested in 2014 on rhino poaching charges.  Over a period of nine years there were 30 postponements of his trial after a series of objections by his defence team.  In July 2023, a magistrate dismissed the case against him, declaring him not guilty on the poaching charges on the basis that evidence presented by the prosecutors was for some reason not admissible, though he did receive a suspended sentence and a small fine for resisting arrest.

The corruption, incompetence and often political interference in cases means that those at the top of the poaching syndicates escape justice or spend years on bail, during which time they can continue directing the poachers on the ground.  With 307 rhinos killed in just one reserve in KZN 2023, KZN recorded only 49 arrests and 13 seizures of illegal weapons, and these were low-level poachers not the gang leaders. Work has been done to end corruption within Kruger staff, with more integrity testing of employees and those applying for park jobs, but ending corruption within Kruger, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi and other parks or reserves is crucial to reducing poaching in the long-term, as 40-70% of Kruger’s anti-poaching and law enforcement staff are thought ‘to be aiding poaching networks or involved in corrupt or criminal activities in some way including high levels of fuel theft’. 

Police and judicial corruption and the role of provincial ANC postholders as godfathers of a diversity of crimes makes this criminal nut a very hard one to crack. The ability of the criminal syndicates not just to frustrate investigations but to kill lead investigators was demonstrated by the assassination of Hawks (an elite organised crime unit of the South African Police) investigator Lt-Col Leroy Brewer in March 2020 – he was a key figure in fighting organised crime. 

Another key figure in rhino protection, Anton Mzimba, a ranger at Timbavati Reserve adjacent to Kruger, was killed in July 2022 in a suspected gangland killing to remove a thorn in the side of poachers. Mzimba was renowned as a committed defender of rhinos and as being incorruptible.  

A worrying picture for rhinos

Dr Jo Shaw, CEO of Save the Rhino International who was previously African Rhino Lead for WWF International, and Senior Manager: Wildlife Portfolio for WWF South Africa, said that the new poaching figures from South Africa paint ‘a worrying picture for rhinos, particularly those in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. Rangers are working tirelessly to protect rhinos on the ground, but to make the necessary impact, the upper echelons of crime networks must be disrupted, and this requires a coordinated multi-agency response. All partners involved urgently need more resources to address the threats at this level…There isn’t an overnight solution, but with a rhino poached every 17 hours in South Africa, we can’t afford to lose any more time.’

The new poaching figures are terrible and a worrying sign that there is a long way to go to bring poaching under control and start to provide sufficient security for rhino numbers to recover, which clearly will not be accomplished quickly or easily.  Anti-poaching measures are important but the major threat is the high level of corruption within the political, law enforcement, wildlife and judicial agencies and, one must not forget, the crushing levels of poverty, unemployment and dire living conditions of millions of South Africans which provides a ready pool of young men desperate to improve their lives who can be tempted by the cash offered to poach by the kingpins, who are able to act with impunity.

Professor Keith Somerville is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, a member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent and teaches at the Centre for Journalism.  He has written a number of books on wildlife and conservation issues such as the ivory trade, human-lion conflict, hyenas, jackals, honey badgers and his study of the history of human exploitation and conservation of African rhinos will be published by January 2025 by Pelagic Books.