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On a routine patrol in July, monitors from the International Rhino Foundation’s (IRF) partner, the Lowveld Rhino Trust (LRT), spotted a young black rhino calf that appeared to be injured, wandering in the bush of the Bubye Valley Conservancy in Zimbabwe. At 16 months old, the female calf had been orphaned after her mother was killed by poachers, injuring her in the process as well. In some good news, the calf- named “Pumpkin”- has since fully recovered and been released back into the wild.

Pumpkin had been shot with a heavy caliber rifle, causing her severe injuries. After being treated, she was taken to specially constructed rhino bomas to continue to be cared for by LRT staff and to recover in safety.

Natasha Anderson, IRF’s Zimbabwe Monitoring Coordinator, says, “This little girl had enough personality and the fight for three rhinos. Although she was obviously scared without her mother and in considerable pain, the LRT team increasingly became more confident that she would recover from her bullet wounds because she was displaying what a fighter she was.”

After six weeks of care from the LRT team in Zimbabwe, the black rhino calf made a full recovery and it was soon time to release her back into the wild.

During her stay in the boma she had been receiving night visits from a wild rhino named Rocky, a former orphan as well. A few days after Pumpkin was released, LRT rhino monitors found her spoor with Rocky’s. “It is likely that they will join up and live together, both finding the company they craved at last since tragically losing their mothers to poaching,” said Anderson.

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In its State of the Rhino report, the IRF found that in Africa, the black rhino population had a small increase to 5 630 from 5 500 in 2019. While this is a considerable gain from the 2 300 that remained in the early 1990s, it is still a fraction of the 65 000 population level in 1970.

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

Anderson says, “LRT’s monitoring program is crucial. If you don’t know exactly how many rhinos are out there, it’s impossible to determine the level of poaching or its impact on protection efforts.”

Featured image by: Flickr 

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. 

You might also like: World Rhino Day: Two New Javan Rhino Calves Spotted, Bringing Population to 74

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.”

 

Rhino poaching in South Africa fell by 53% in the half of 2020, owing partly to COVID-19 travel restrictions and lockdowns in the country that have hindered poachers and international smuggling rings. 

According to Barbara Creecy, the minister of environment, forestry and fisheries, during the first six months of the year, 166 rhinos were poached in South Africa, compared with 316 in the same period of 2019. Creecy says, “We have been able to arrest the escalation of rhino losses.”

The ministry owes its success to slowing the rate of poaching to a decade of strategies and supply chain disruptions stemming from travel restrictions during the country’s national lockdown from COVID-19. However, the ministry warns that as lockdown restrictions have been gradually eased and game parks reopened, so too has rhino poaching slowly increased. 

From when a lockdown was implemented on March 27 until the end of June, 46 rhinos were killed across the country, according to the ministry. 

South Africa has for years battled rhino poaching. In 2019, poachers killed 594 rhinos and in 2018, 769 rhinos were poached. There is still high demand for their horns in Asia, mostly coming from China and Vietnam, where the horn is used in traditional medicine, an aphrodisiac or a status symbol. It is normally sold in powdered form and is touted as a cure for cancer and other diseases, despite being made of the same substance- keratin- as in human fingernails and hair. 

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The trade of rhino horns may be curbed in Vietnam as the country recently banned the import and trade of wildlife as well as wildlife products, and announced a crackdown on illegal wildlife markets. The country is hoping the ban will reduce the risk of future pandemics such as COVID-19. China also banned the consumption and trade of wildlife in February, however animal parts may still be used in medicine. 

Wildlife authorities in Botswana are investigating the mysterious deaths of over 150 elephants over a three-month period in the Okavango Delta in the northwest of the country, although poaching and poisoning have been ruled out. 

According to reports, the carcasses have been found intact, suggesting that they were not poached. Poisoning by humans and anthrax has also been ruled out, the latter of which is naturally occurring in soil in this region of Botswana and which killed more than 100 elephants in 2019.

Regional Wildlife Coordinator, Dimakatso Ntshebe, says, “We are still awaiting results on the exact cause of death.”

While Africa’s overall elephant population is declining, Botswana is a conservation success story. Thanks to well managed reserves in the country, elephant numbers have increased from 80 000 in the late 1990s to 130 000 today. Botswana is home to almost a third of Africa’s elephants. 

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Why are elephants dying in Botswana? 

However, as the population grows, so too have conflicts grown between elephants and farmers; they are considered pests to farmers, whose crops have been destroyed by roaming elephants and in 2017, nine stray elephants were accidentally electrocuted after one elephant bumped into a telephone pole and a power line fell on them. 

Last year, President Mokgweetsi Masisi lifted a five-year ban on big game hunting imposed by the previous administration, but the COVID-19 outbreak meant that the hunting season in April was unsuccessful as hunters from badly-hit countries could not enter Botswana. 

Officials have warned local villagers not to consume the dead animals’ meat and are burning the carcasses. They expect more animals to die over the coming weeks. 

Ntshebe says, “We are still experiencing elephants dying in the Okavango Panhandle. We also see elephants that show that they are sick and are on the verge of dying.” 

An international wildlife watchdog says that poaching on endangered species could rebound as authorities divert attention to enforcing COVID-19 lockdown measures, and reports stockpiling of ivory and other animal products. 

The Wildlife Justice Commission says that a ban on the sale of wild animals in China is causing backlogs in smuggling networks of pangolin scales and ivory across Southeast Asia and warned that gangs and syndicates are adapting to tighter border controls amid the pandemic.

The WJC has reported stockpiles of ivory in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. In Vietnam, smugglers had access to 22 tonnes of pangolin scales. 

The pangolin is one of the most trafficked animals on the planet, their scales desired for their medicinal qualities in many Asian countries. Several studies have suggested that the emergence of COVID-19 in China was from the virus passing to humans from pangolins, prompting authorities in Beijing to ban the trade and sale of wild animal products.

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Sarah Stoner, WJC’s director of intelligence, says, “Brokers intend on returning their operations to previous levels as soon as possible. The stockpiling of huge quantities of wildlife products in many of the key countries concerned presents investigative opportunities for law enforcement.”

Tate, former Marine and the founder of VetPaw, a group of American military veterans who fight poachers in a remote private reserve in South Africa, says “poaching doesn’t stop just because there’s a virus- if anything, it picks up.” 

Stoner echoes this view, saying that she expects high-value wildlife smuggling and poaching to rebound when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. 

A global lockdown has meant that authorities and resources are being diverted to law enforcement and medical aid to help those affected with the virus. This has left a pocket of opportunity for criminal syndicates to take advantage of the reduced surveillance of protected areas and park closures, leading to several seizures of illegal wild animal trades across Asia and Africa.

There have been several major busts of illicit animal products across Asia and Africa following most of the world going into lockdown, including the seizure of more than six tonnes of pangolin scales in Malaysia at the end of April. 

Stoner warns that governments need to enforce stricter border controls. She says, “additional resources should be allocated to this problem and not merely diverting current resources to focus on the markets and leave organised crime a free hand.” 

Africa has always been a hotspot for poaching, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, poachers have encroached on land that they normally wouldn’t visit in tourist hot spots, which are now empty of visitors and safari guides. 

Botswana officials are evacuating black rhinos in the Okavango Delta, after a surge of rhino killings by poachers in March that left at least six animals dead. They consider the evacuation necessary because they’re increasingly concerned that poachers are encouraged by the absence of safari tourists in the region during the pandemic. Reduced human presence allows poachers to move around more freely and last month, six poachers were killed by law enforcement, according to Botswana’s Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism.

The Botswana government released a statement saying that it has been intensifying anti-poaching surveillance efforts in the past month. 

Further aggravating the issue is that people working in tourism are being laid off and national parks that provide wildlife with a safe haven are losing revenue. All three national parks in Rwanda have temporarily closed, along with Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Kruger National Park in South Africa. 

As the virus harms African economies and raises unemployment levels, people may become desperate for income, turning to poaching to make a living 

Poaching threatens to send black and white rhinos, elephants and other African wildlife into extinction over the next few decades. Since 1960, the black rhino population has dropped 97.6%. In the last 21 years, the lion population has dropped 42%, according to the World Wildlife Fund. At least 35 000 African elephants are killed each year. 

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