Poachers slaughtered more than 1,000 rhinos in South Africa for the third year in a row.
That’s a reason for optimism, the country’s environment minister, Edna Molewa, said during a press conference Thursday.
“For the first time in a decade, the poaching situation has stabilized,” she said. “Considering that this is despite escalating poaching pressure, and in the face of an increased and relentless rise of poaching activity into protected areas—this is very, very good news.”
Poachers killed 1,175 South African rhinos in 2015, forty fewer than the record 1,215 lost in 2014. Molewa credited ramped-up enforcement, which led to a record 317 arrests last year, for helping stem the poaching epidemic.
Conservationists, however, warn the decline in South African rhino deaths is no reason to celebrate. Rhino deaths in neighboring Namibia jumped from 24 in 2014 to 80 last year, and Zimbabwe reported that at least 50 rhinos were poached in 2015, up from 12 the previous year, according to wildlife trade monitoring group TRAFFIC.
“The very slight decrease we’re seeing in South Africa really shows the poaching pressure is just shifting to regions with the least path of resistance,” said Leigh Henry, a World Wildlife Fund senior policy adviser. “Poachers will take rhinos where they can get them.”
Around 25,500 rhinos are left in Africa, including about 20,000 white rhinos and 5,000 endangered black rhinos, with 95 percent of the animals living in South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. Poachers killed roughly 14 percent of the rhino population over the past three years, just about matching the species’ reproduction rate. If poaching increases, the scales will tip toward a declining rhino population in Africa.
“As long as the demand exists for rhino horn in Vietnam and China and countries like Mozambique operate as a trade facilitator of the product, poaching isn’t going to go away,” Henry said.
Last year 70 percent of poaching occurred in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, which Molewa calls the “epicenter of the poaching crisis.” Most poachers enter the park from Mozambique to kill rhinos and chop off their horns before crossing back over the border. From there, rhino horns are smuggled to Asia, where per ounce they are worth more than gold.
But South Africa’s efforts to stem poaching could be short-lived. On Wednesday, a South African court upheld a ruling that ends a seven-year ban on trade in rhino horns. The judge held that government officials failed to adequately consult the public before implementing the ban.
The decision spells bad news for rhino conservation, said Cathy Dean of Save the Rhino International.
“There is no consumer market within South Africa for rhino horn,” Dean said. She noted that that smugglers could use the legal domestic trade to mask rhino horns destined for international markets. A domestic trade would also allow for the sale of rhino horn stockpiles—similar to the seized elephant ivory stockpiles sold legally in Hong Kong—and open a market for “sustainably” harvested horns from live rhinos.
An international ban on rhino horn trade has been in place since 1977. But South Africa is expected to propose that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species discuss revoking the ban at its September meeting.
“We can only assume that investors wish to buy up rhino horn in the event that CITES will eventually—whether this year or at a future meeting—legalize the international trade in rhino horn,” Dean said. “If CITES rejects a South African proposal, then what will these investors do with their newly acquired horns? Many conservationists suspect that there will be further ‘leakage’ of horns into the illegal trade.”