For the first time since 2008, South Africa has seen a decrease in rhino poaching. Last year, 1,175 rhinos were poached—40 fewer than in 2014 but still significantly higher than the 13 killed in 2007.
“Considering that this is...in the face of an increased and relentless rise of poaching activity into protected areas—this is very, very good news,” said Edna Molewa, the minister of South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs, who announced the statistics Thursday morning.
But poaching in Kruger National Park, which is home to somewhere between 8,400 and 9,300 rhinos, has been on the rise. Molewa said 202 poachers were arrested in the park last year, and another 115 were arrested just outside it. South Africa is home to an estimated 19,700 rhinos, about 80 percent of the world’s population.
Despite the dip in rhino killings, the numbers remain unacceptably high, conservationists say.
“As governments like South Africa continue to ramp up efforts to stop wildlife poaching, these numbers remind us of the urgency to swiftly address this crisis across all fronts,” said World Wildlife Fund’s Ginette Hemley in a press release.
The slight dip in South Africa is offset by increasing rhino poaching in neighboring Zimbabwe and Namibia. TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring group, estimates continent-wide rhino poaching deaths to be at least 1,305 in 2015.
“For Africa as a whole, this is the worst year in decades for rhino poaching,” said TRAFFIC’s Tom Milliken in a press release.
The growth in poaching over the last few years has been driven largely by demand for rhino horn in Vietnam, where some believe the horn holds medicinal properties.
Lifting the Ban on Rhino Horn Trade?
While cross-border trade in rhino horn is illegal, South Africa used to allow domestic trade. Over concerns that the legal domestic trade helped feed the illegal international trade and thus encouraged poaching, South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs implemented a moratorium on rhino horn trade in 2009.
But two South African rhino farmers—who between them have stockpiled hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of horn—sued the government, and in December 2015 a court ruled the moratorium invalid. Minister Molewa applied to appeal the ruling, but just yesterday, South Africa’s High Court in Pretoria denied her leave to appeal. That means the lower court’s ruling stands, and the moratorium is no longer in place.
During the press conference on rhino poaching statistics, Molewa referred to the lawsuit. She said that her legal team will now go to the Supreme Court of Appeal. Once they’ve filed their application to appeal, the moratorium will go back into effect.
UPDATE: On April 5, 2017, the government's final application to appeal was denied, exhausting appeal options. The domestic trade will be legalized. Read more here.
This story was produced by National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit, which focuses on wildlife crime and is made possible by grants from the BAND Foundation and the Woodtiger Fund. Read more stories from the SIU on Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.