Over the last decade, over ten thousand rhinos have been lost to poaching across Africa.
With both white and black rhinoceroses already endangered, these catastrophic losses have pushed both species even closer to extinction.
In South Africa alone, 451 rhinos were lost during 2021. Although the general trend over the last few years has been a decrease in numbers lost each year, which looks positive (although 2021 was the first time in 6 years that the number went up again), the harsh reality is that these numbers may just as equally reflect the much lower numbers of rhinos left to poach as they do the increase in anti-poaching efforts across the continent.
With increasing pressure on declining rhino populations that are being squeezed into smaller and smaller areas, the focus of poaching has seen a dramatic spike in private reserves over the last year. Although well-trained, well-armed anti-poaching teams are operational on most private reserves in the region that boast rhino numbers, the staggering and ever-increasing value of rhino horn on the international market has meant that no deterrents seem too great, and rhinos continue to be lost.
More and more lodges and reserves are falling back on the last-resort solution of dehorning their rhinos. By removing the very thing the poachers are after, the hope is that rhinos lives will be spared.
This tactic has proved successful in many areas, although some conservationists hesitate before implementing it as a practical solution because of its potential impact on the rhinos themselves. Although the removal of the horn doesn’t cause the individual rhino any harm (it will grow back after a few years), it is still a functional part of their anatomy, and it is still unsure what long-term repercussions might be felt in dehorned populations with males left without their main weapon that they use to defend territories.
The problem with dehorning in the private reserve sector (or solution, depending on which way you look at it) is that it’s becoming more and more of an all-or-nothing affair, in that every reserve needs to buy in, or none. Since effective conservation is largely a function of space, many operators have dropped fences between them and their neighbours to create larger contiguous ecosystems for wildlife, but the free-roaming nature of rhino populations in reserves like these means that de-horning operations need to be reserve-wide.
If one reserve opts to dehorn their rhinos but its neighbours don’t, the population with horns intact will naturally become the target for poachers; all reserves/lodges therefore need to be in agreement.
The three-reserve system of the Sabi Sand, Sabie Game Reserve and Mala Mala, near the Kruger Park, are the latest high profile group of reserves to dehorn their rhinos, with an extensive period of a 25 days being allotted to the operation.
The entire reserve’s population was dehorned as well as ear-notched, which not only dramatically reduces the poaching threat but through the notching will allow closer monitoring of individual rhinos. The decision to dehorn was not an easy one for the reserves to take, but with over 400% increase in poaching across the protected area in the last two years, reserve management and lodge owners alike felt that it was the best step to take.
Despite the dehorning hopefully buying a reprieve for the area’s beleaguered rhinos, all three reserves continue to increase their security efforts through added technology and inter-reserve communication.
Let us hope that the dehorning initiative will prove as effective in this, one of South Africa’s flagship conservation areas, as it has been in other parts of the country.