by Bruce McDonald
South Africa accounts for about half of the total black rhino population on the African continent and is also home to the world’s largest population of white rhinos, which continue to be threatened by poaching and the illegal wildlife trade.
Whilst we await the verified figures from the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment on the total number of rhino poached in South Africa in 2022, we chatted to the Southern African Wildlife College’s pilot Bruce McDonald who often has a birds-eye when doing his job to help counter poaching. Bruce is a highly-experienced wildlife pilot who has clocked over 10 000 hours of flying time in a Savannah Light Aircraft – the most of any pilot in the world.
“South Africa still has by far the largest population of rhinos in the world and is an incredibly important country for rhino conservation.” With this statement in mind, he counts himself as truly blessed to be able to live his dream as a conservation pilot in one of the last remaining strongholds for rhino conservation in Africa – the Greater Kruger National Park.
“Being a conservation pilot was never a choice but a calling – I was born to do this.“
Bruce goes on to explain that he has witnessed poaching escalate year on year and now considers it to be a full-blown war.
Of all cases reported across Africa between 2018 and 2021, the IUCN reports that 90% took place in South Africa, predominantly affecting white rhinos in Kruger National Park (KNP). According to figures released, and despite back-breaking work and the dedication shown in the fight against poaching, numbers have plummeted with only 2 607 white rhinos and only 202 black remaining in the KNP. This represents a population decline of 75% for white rhinos since 2011 and 51% for black rhino since 2013. An even steeper decline in rhino populations in the park than previously reported.
And whilst SANParks officials say that population estimates in such a big area i.e. the KNP carry inherent uncertainty, the numbers quoted are still within the broader ballpark as estimated.
As someone who flies in this area and who is faced with the horrors of poaching frequently, Bruce lends a first-hand perspective of what it is really like to face the realities of poaching. “I don’t think I have words to describe it. It’s a feeling I will never get used to, with enormous emotions of anger, aggression and continued disbelief. One tries to disconnect emotionally to be able to handle the savage brutality that we witness on a daily basis and no matter how hard I try; I don’t think I will ever understand or make sense of it.” For him, this rhino war has become personal, each poached carcass has become a frustrating and grisly reminder of failure.
Even though it may seem all ‘doom and gloom’ there is some positive news to be taken. South Africa is continuing to try and boost efforts to arrest and prosecute poaching criminals. Putting a stop to corruption and speeding up the prosecution process remains of critical importance to truly try and end this illegal trade as does collaboration with organisations across the globe who are focused on bringing the illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife products to an end.
There has also been a decline in overall poaching number since the peak in 2015. “The overall decline in poaching of rhinos is encouraging, yet this remains an acute threat to the survival of these iconic animals,” said Sam Ferreira, Scientific Officer with the IUCN SSC African Rhino Specialist Group.
Contributing to the decline is the fact that there is less rhino to poach so they are harder to find. Further impacting numbers are other positive measures such as dehorning and canine capacity. However, the sobering thought that lingers is the figure released in the International Rhino Foundations Annual Report stating that across the five remaining species, only a total of about 27,000 rhinos are left on earth.
Bruce ends off by saying that, that underpins the fact that more focus needs to be placed on those fighting this relentless scourge, rather than lamenting on a war being lost. “There is a core of dedicated, loyal and passionate people that will continue to try and save this iconic species from extinction. To those dedicated few – I salute you.”