African rhinos have reached record numbers for the first time in decades, but the northern white rhino, Ceratotherium simum cottoni, is on the brink of extinction. The figures, compiled by the IUCN species survival commission (SSC) African rhino specialist group, show there are now more than 21,000 African rhinos. According to the results, the white rhino, Ceratotherium simum, has increased from 14,540 in 2005 to 17,480 in 2007. It is listed as near threatened on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™, but one of its two subspecies, the northern white rhino, is listed as critically endangered and is on the brink of extinction.
It is restricted in the wild to Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the only remaining population was reduced by poaching from 30 in April 2003 to only four confirmed animals by August 2006. "Worryingly, recent fieldwork has so far failed to find any presence of these four remaining rhinos," says Dr Martin Brooks, chair of the IUCN SSC African rhino specialist group. "Unless animals are found during the intensive surveys that are planned under the direction of the African Parks Foundation, the subspecies may be doomed to extinction."
In contrast, the other subspecies, the southern white rhino, Ceratotherium simum simum, is listed as near threatened on the IUCN Red List and continues to increase in numbers and range. Similarly, the population of African black rhino, Diceros bicornis, has increased from 3,730 in 2005 to 4,180 in 2007, although it still remains critically endangered on the IUCN Red List. In the last two years alone, numbers have risen by about 450 animals, with several new populations being founded or enhanced through translocation, such as in North Luangwa National Park, Zambia.
"This is fantastic news for the African black rhino," says Dr Richard Emslie, scientific officer of the IUCN SSC African rhino specialist group. "However, these magnificent creatures are not out of the woods yet. They are still classed as critically endangered and face increasing threats of poaching and civil unrest. There is no room for complacency." The majority of African black rhino can be found in just four countries – Zimbabwe, South Africa, Namibia and Kenya – but with increasing numbers in a number of other range states. All countries with breeding populations have recorded increases, except Zimbabwe, whose numbers are slightly down.
Poaching for rhino horn remains the rhino's Achilles heel, and while under control in many countries it has been responsible for significant losses in both the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe. In South Africa, a recent increase in rhino poaching incidents has elevated the issue on the national conservation agenda with environmental affairs and tourism minister, Marthinus van Schalkwyk reinforcing that government needs to stringently enforce legislation.
"Although we have had tremendous successes in protecting and expanding our conservation areas, over the past two years there has been a dramatic increase in the illegal trade of rhino horn and in the hunting of white rhino. He said there could be no question that without enforcement of compliance, environmental legislation was worth no more than the paper on which it's written. Van Schalkwyk said the trade in rhino and their product was regulated internationally to ensure sustainable utilisation of the species, and that the indiscriminate illegal trade in rhino is directly linked to organised crime.
Almost 30 rhino, mostly white, have been poached in and around the Kruger National Park (KNP), including adjacent areas in Mozambique, since October last year and there has been a definite increase in incidents in other parts of the country. "SANParks has therefore stepped up the protection of high value herbivores such as rhino, buffalo and elephant in our parks. "During the course of investigating rhino horn deals, it has been established that prospective hunters applied for permits to hunt rhino in various provinces. Permits for these hunts were subsequently issued.
"On closer investigation it was determined that some of these hunts never took place and the relevant authorities were never informed. "This allowed the permit holder to legally export illegally obtained individual horn as hunting trophies," said the minister. Illegal poaching of white rhino was occurring because the relevant permit issuing authorities were not properly supervising all rhino hunts.In some provinces, he said, rhino are still on exemption permits, meaning that the landowner does not require an individual permit for the hunting of the rhino.
"Even though protection from poaching is critical, effective rhino conservation must also include intensive monitoring and biological management to ensure annual growth rates of at least five percent a year so that surplus rhinos are made available to create new populations," says Dr Martin Brooks. At its recent meeting at Lake Manyara, opened by Tanzania's minister for national resources and tourism, Shamsa Mwangunga, and sponsored by US Fish and Wildlife Service, WWF's African rhino programme, and the Tanzanian government, delegates from 14 countries were exposed to a wide variety of management strategies, programmes and techniques designed to improve rhino management.
"One of the highlights", says Dr Brooks, "was the first ever introduction of a significant founder population of black rhino to community land in South Africa, made possible through the WWF/Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife's range expansion project, and hopefully this approach can be applied elsewhere to enhance rhino ownership by rural communities". Workshops were also held to identify conservation priorities and to address challenges relating to legal and illegal trade.