How Covid-19 turned out to be good news for rhinos

15 September 2020 - 18:18 By Ernest Mabuza
Border closures during the Covid-19 pandemic have resulted in a decline in poaching, says the International Rhino Foundation. Stock photo.
Border closures during the Covid-19 pandemic have resulted in a decline in poaching, says the International Rhino Foundation. Stock photo.
Image: 123RF/Jacoba Susanna Maria Swanepoel

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought an unexpected benefit to rhinos and other wildlife — a decrease in poaching during the first half of the year.

The International Rhino Foundation said this on Tuesday when it released the 2020 state of the rhino report outlining current conservation trends, including the effect of the global pandemic on the world’s five species of rhinoceros.

It said that, in response to the pandemic, countries around the world closed borders and restricted international and domestic travel. With an increased military and police presence, regular checkpoints enacted and government parks and private reserves closed to outside visitors, local poaching gangs found it risky to move people without raising suspicions, the foundation said.

International travel restrictions closed wildlife trafficking routes to China and Vietnam, the largest black markets for rhino horn.

The foundation said as lockdown restrictions started to ease in many countries, poaching was on the rise again, increasing concerns that the devastation of local economies and widespread job losses caused by the pandemic could push more people into rhino poaching.

The foundation said that in Africa, the black rhino population increased slightly, to 5,630 from 5,500 in 2019.

“The species remains critically endangered and at a fraction of the 65,000 historical population level in 1970. Only about 2,300 remained in the early 1990s, and the population is forecast to continue to make small gains,” the foundation said.

The foundation said in some local areas, gains may be higher than expected. It said Zimbabwe’s Bubye Valley reported 13.8% population growth during the first six months of 2020.

Africa’s other species, the white rhino, has been facing declines over the past two years because of intensive poaching.

“The population is estimated to be hovering around 18,000 animals. Concerns remain that the species will continue to face declines this year.”

The foundation said 900 rhinos were killed by criminals in Africa in 2018, nearly one every 10 hours.

SA recently reported that poaching dropped from 319 animals in the first half of 2019 to 166 in the first half of 2020.

“The two species of African rhinos and other wildlife that reside in game reserves are dependent on protection and monitoring personnel for their continued safety,” said the foundation's executive director Nina Fascione.

She said state reserves had maintained salaries for rangers, but cut many critical operational expenses, including fuel purchases and overtime pay.

“Private reserves are dependent on tourism income and have had to make tough budget decisions. There is a growing fear that entire ranger teams may become ill or be forced to quarantine due to exposure to the coronavirus, removing essential staff from the field,” Fascione said, adding that as poaching increased, it was critical that protection and monitoring activities were maintained.

The foundation said in Indonesia, fewer than 80 Sumatran rhinos remain. It said the species was likely the most endangered large mammal on earth, with declines of more than 70% in the past 30 years.

Indonesia’s other species, the Javan rhino, made a small gain to 72 from 68 the previous year. Javan rhinos are found only in Indonesia’s Ujung Kulon National Park, where they are heavily protected. There has been no poaching in Ujung Kulon in more than 20 years.