The International Rhino Foundation (IRF) released its 2020 State of the Rhino report in mid-September that outlines current conservation trends of the world’s five species, including the impacts of COVID-19 on rhino poaching.

There has been a decrease in the number of rhino poaching incidents during the first half of the year, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Borders around the world closed and international and domestic travel was restricted. Additionally, there has been increased military and police presence, regular checkpoints enacted, and government parks and private reserves shuttered to all outside visitors, thwarting opportunities for would-be poachers. International travel restrictions have closed wildlife trafficking routes to China and Vietnam, the largest black markets for rhino horn.

However, as COVID-19 lockdown restrictions begin to ease in many countries, poaching is on the rise again and with widespread economic losses, more people may be pushed into rhino poaching. 

Africa

While planned rhino census operations have been postponed, the black rhino population in Africa has seen a small increase to 5 630 from 5 500 in 2019. Zimbabwe’s Bubye Valley saw a 13.8% population growth during the first half of 2020. However, overall, this is no cause for celebration as the population was 65 000 in 1970. 

The white rhino population in Africa has been facing declines over the last two years due to poaching. The population is estimated to be around 18 000 animals and is likely to continue to drop this year.

900 rhinos were killed in 2018, nearly 1 every 10 hours. South Africa reported a drop in rhino poaching  from 319 animals in the first half of 2019 to 166 in the first half of 2020, presumably due to COVID-19 restrictions. The Kruger National Park’s Intensive Protection Zone reported zero poaching incidents in April, the first since 2007. 

Private reserves rely on tourism income and have had to make tough budget cuts due to the pandemic. There are worries that essential staff may have to be removed from the field. In response to emergency needs, the IRF established the Reserve Relief Fund to provide gap funding for salaries and equipment. More than USD$200 000 in grants have been awarded so far.

Asia

In Indonesia, fewer than 80 Sumatran rhinos remain, having experienced declines of more than 70% in the past 30 years. Three small, isolated populations exist on Indonesia’s Sumatra Island, plus a handful of animals in Kalimantan. The last Sumatran rhino in Malaysia, Iman, died in late 2019. 

The government of Indonesia developed an Emergency Action Plan for Sumatran rhinos  in 2017. Going into its third year, the Sumatran Rhino Rescue project, formed by IRF and partners, has initiated surveys in Way Kambas, Bukit Barisan Selatan and Gunung Leuser National Parks, as well as in Kalimantan in Indonesian Borneo to identify isolated rhinos. The activities are part of plans to rescue rhinos and bring those with reproductive potential into large, semi-natural breeding and research facilities like the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Way Kambas to increase population numbers.

The Javan rhino population, another species in Indonesia, increased slightly 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 the park in more than 20 years. 

Illegal fishing and lobster trapping in the protected waters of Ujung Kulon represent both a threat to habitat and the potential that poachers may make their way to the beaches of the park which are frequented by rhinos. To prevent this, a marine patrol was launched in January. In the first six months of operations, the two marine patrol units apprehended 45 boats and 218 people illegally encroaching in the park.

As the Javan rhino population increases, expanding their habitat will be a major concern. Habitat management projects are ongoing in the Javan Rhino Study and Conservation Area of Ujung Kulon, including the removal of the ubiquitous Arenga palm, which opens up corridors for rhinos to move to different areas of the park and promotes new growth of food sources.

In India, two greater one-horned rhinos were translocated to Manas National Park in March before COVID-19 lockdowns were in place. The transfer was part of the India Rhino Vision 2020 (IRV2020) program established in 2009, bringing the population in Manas to 41 animals. Unfortunately, the final translocation planned for late spring was postponed. IRV2020 was scheduled to wrap up this year, but review and planning meetings have been pushed back. The greater one-horned population has been steadily increasing to more than 3 600 in India and Nepal from 100 animals in the early 1900s. Nepal has postponed a census of their rhinos to 2021.

Strict protection by government authorities and forestry officials in India has resulted in several years of poaching declines. There were only three recorded losses in Assam in 2019 and just two incidents so far this year. However, the monsoon season this year in Assam brought intense floods to the Kaziranga National Park (KNP). 18 rhinos died and hundreds of other wildlife perished during the floods. In response to the widespread devastation and loss, a proposal to build more artificial highlands in KNP has been pushed forward by the government. 

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Assisted Reproduction Technology Advancements

In August 2019 a team of scientists in Germany harvested eggs from the two remaining female northern white rhinoceros, artificially inseminated those using frozen sperm from deceased males and created two viable northern white rhino embryos. With support from the Kenyan Government, the procedure was repeated in December 2019, and was able to create new embryos at Avantea Laboratories in Italy. This significantly increases the chances of successfully producing offspring.

The research is part of an effort to save the subspecies from extinction, as well as advance the science of assisted reproduction technology (ART) as a tool in conservation. Preparations for the next steps are underway with the plan to select a group of southern white rhinos at Ol Pejeta Conservancy from which a female could serve as surrogate mother for the northern white rhino embryo.

Recommendations

The report outlines the following priorities for all five species of rhinos:

  1.   Bolster anti-poaching activities
  2.   Maintain intensive monitoring and active management of wild populations in the face of revenue losses, employing conservation breeding where needed
  3.   Work with local communities to ensure they are active participants in wildlife conservation and receive economic incentives that improve livelihoods
  4.   Governments must commit to enforcing their wildlife crime laws and commitments to international treaties to foster more effective international collaboration on investigations to address the entire criminal supply chain, particularly in Asia

Poaching remains the largest threat to rhinos’ survival. A decline in the price for rhino horn, trending downward since 2015, has unfortunately not disincentivised poachers.

Nina Fascione, executive director at IRF, says, “Declines in poaching during the global pandemic, gives us hope that a stronger commitment by governments in enforcing wildlife crime laws can break up large criminal syndicates involved in poaching, allowing rhinos to maintain steady populations gains. Together, we can ensure these marvelous creatures can thrive for future generations.”