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How many rhinos are there in the Kruger National Park?

What is the truth? How many rhinos are there now in the Kruger Park, the home of most of South Africa’s rhinos? It seems to be a very simple question. What is the response of independent experts to the official statistics from the government? 

Contradictory statistics

When an official survey reported a population of over 8 000 rhinos in the KNP in 2014, the well-respected wildlife vet Dr Kobus du Toit expressed his belief that the true number was probably already much lower than 3 000.  

Outraged South African Citizens Against Rhino Poaching (OSCAP) has been claiming for years that the population figures issued annually by the DEFF (formerly the Department of Environmental Affairs) were greatly exaggerated. In 2018 the director of OSCAP expressed the conviction that the number of white rhinos in the KNP was below 3 000. At that time DEA was claiming a population of about 5 600, and two years earlier had published a figure of over 7 000. 

An article in Conservation (10 October 2017) reported an official census for 2016 of between 6 600 and 7 800 rhinos. 

The confusion caused by the lack of reliable information continued under the new Minister. The Citizen reported on 22 June 2020:

Activists and the Department of the Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF) are at loggerheads over what the actual rhino poaching numbers might be during lockdown, since the numbers were released by the Department in February.

Nica Richards
Premium Journalist 

As difficult as it is to establish reliably how many rhinos there are in the Kruger, it’s not made any easier by the Ministry’s habitual subterfuge: delays in publication of statistics, contradictory information, and suspicions about census technologies. From the mist of disinformation, however, one conclusion emerges clearly: Suddenly, after a year or three in which poaching figures have declined markedly, the admitted rhino population in KNP is mysteriously smaller – much smaller. 

Save the Rhino reported online on 28 January 2021 that a recent SANParks report numbered KNP rhinos at 3 529, admitting a population decrease since 2013 of 59%. 

The numbers just don’t add up. They have failed to add up for more than ten years. 

Poaching of rhino horn is not the only problem

What would have been the point of lying about the number of rhinos in the Kruger? Put plainly, to disguise the fact that many rhinos that should have been there were not; that some of the Kruger’s rhinos were ‘missing’. So where were they? It’s difficult to look beyond illegal sales to ‘rhino farmers’. We know that one of the ways in which the Ministry raises revenue to meet SANParks expenses is by selling over-stocked species to legitimate buyers. The practice is controlled by permits, and is both legal and acceptable; but it doesn’t include selling individuals of an endangered species to highly suspicious buyers. Names with which you will by now be familiar, such as Dawie Groenewald, Hugo Ras and John Hume, come readily to mind.

John Hume

John Hume has a ‘rhino farm’ in North-West Province, home to over 1 500 rhinos. He describes his farm as a place of protection and conservation. He insists that protecting the species as he is doing is the only way to save them from extinction. He de-horns rhinos to deter poachers, and has accumulated a stockpile of six tons of rhino horn. He therefore campaigns for the legalisation of rhino horn sales, arguing that the controlled culling and legalised sale of horns is the only way to control the poaching crisis and to cover the costs of running the farm. 

(By the way: In August 2017 Save the Rhino Foundation published a very disturbing report on the disadvantages of de-horning, which include the fact that rhinos actually need their horns for several behavioural functions, and moreover that the process is dangerous: the anaesthetic used during the de-horning can kill the animal. So much for Hume’s claim to be a conservationist.) 

When a journalist from the Natal Mercury visited John Hume’s farm in September 2016, he found about a hundred rhinos feeding from troughs in an area ‘the size of a soccer pitch’. Hume asserted that the situation was abnormal, brought about by drought conditions. But scientists believe that being in an unnatural environment, such as the overcrowded conditions found on a farm, could be one of the ‘probable reasons’ for the rhino’s reluctance to breed in captivity. 

Hume claimed that 953 of the rhinos on his farm had been born in captivity. The fact is, it’s very difficult indeed to persuade rhinos to breed in captivity, for many probable reasons not fully understood. The San Diego Zoo, generally regarded as the world’s leader in rhino breeding, managed to breed their first black rhino calf forty years after attempts to breed with their first black rhino inhabitant began. Since 1971 when a new adult population of twenty white rhinos from South Africa was introduced into the Zoo, over a period of 48 years, the Zoo’s Conservation and Research for Endangered Species (CRES) Centre, staffed by the cleverest experts available, and after their rhino population has spent generations habituating to the captivity conditions, has managed to breed 94 calves. 

John Hume began the development of his ‘rhino breeding and protection crusade’ in the late 1990s. He claims to have bred almost a thousand calves since then. If this is true, he is the most successful captivity-breeder of rhinos in history. So where are the publications? Where does he share the science? Where does he claim credit? 

If, on the other hand, as is probable, he didn’t breed most of his stock, where did they come from? See above, at the paragraph beginning ‘What would have been the point …’. And read on for Dawie Groenewald’s interview with Julian Rademeyer.

John Hume’s rhino horn auction

At the top of this newsletter I urged you not to be persuaded by assertions backed by flimsy or no evidence. So from where comes the evidence to back up my assertions of wrongdoing? If there was irrefutable evidence, criminal proceedings would be simple, and the evidence is not irrefutable. But there is much that raises suspicion.

In August 2017 Hume held an on-line auction after the government lifted (why did they?) a moratorium on domestic rhino horn trade. Remember that he has spoken out against international trade of rhino horns, in conformity to a treaty adopted in 1975 that bans the international trade of endangered species: the IUCN’s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). All member states of the United Nations are party to the treaty, with a handful of exceptions, including North Korea and South Sudan (a fact that tells its own story) and an obscure island in the middle of nowhere called Kiribati, smaller than the American city of Dallas, TX, with a population one-tenth the size of that of Dallas. CITES is respected universally, by every major national authority, and by almost every minor one. (Including South Africa – at least officially.) So … 

… consider the implications of this: on John Hume’s auction website, there were translation buttons into Mandarin Chinese and Vietnamese. For a South African domestic auction? Inevitable question: Are his politically correct public pronouncements against international trade in rhino horns sincere? 

Hume’s entire argument for the legalisation of trade in rhino horn was debunked point-by-point by Dr Simon Morgan, co-founder of Wildlife ACT, in Wildlife ACT News on 18 August 2017.

Dawie Groenewald

Dawie Groenewald has a ‘rhino farm’ in Messina. He insists vehemently that he is not a poacher. That’s probably true, but it doesn’t make what he is and what he does any more acceptable. He sells rhinos for hunting. 

Julian Rademeyer, author of Killing for Profit, interviewed Groenewald in June 2011. At that time there were already court cases pending on 1 736 counts (the figure is disputed – it has also been reported as 1 872) against Groenewald and associates in the ‘Groenewald gang’, covering racketeering, money-laundering, fraud, intimidation, illegal hunting and dealing in rhino horns, none of which has yet come to a conclusion. That’s after ten years. 

The interview revealed the following:

  • In 2008 SANParks made R 22 million from sales of rhinos to private buyers. Many of the buyers were known to be organisers of rhino hunts for overseas clients, most specifically Vietnamese who actually are (in Groenewald’s own words) ‘not there to hunt … They are just here to get the horn … But we make them shoot, so they are doing it all legally.’ (Not sure how that logic works. He said it, not me.)  
  • Groenewald claimed to have bought dozens of rhinos on auction from SANParks. 
  • Groenewald blames ‘the system’: ‘We are forced to shoot them because that’s the only way trophies can be sold and exported. You have to kill the animal to sell its horn.’ 
  • Groenewald sees nothing wrong with what he is doing. He told Rademeyer: ‘What does it matter who shoots a rhino …? You go with whoever can pay the most money. It’s not my problem what they do with the horn over there.’ 

Groenewald (and nine others) were originally arrested in September2010 after the carcasses of 26 rhinos were found buried on his farm Prachtig, all de-horned. In June 2017 he was arrested by an Interpol task team executing an international warrant of arrest issued by the United States Department of Justice. A week later he was released on bail. He has managed to stave off prosecution ever since. 

The private game farm scam

I wrote above: What would have been the point of lying about the number of rhinos in the Kruger? … to disguise the fact that … some of the Kruger’s rhinos were ‘missing’. So where were they? It’s difficult to look beyond illegal sales to ‘rhino farmers’. But there’s more. Read on.

The anti-poaching / rhino protection organisation with which we have identified ourselves, and to which we contribute financially, has hard evidence to prove that what follows is true.

A number of politically well-placed individuals own private ‘game farms’ that need to be stocked, and constantly re-stocked as the animal populations are shot out. This is how it works:

  1. KNP plans the (perfectly legitimate) translocation of a group of animals to other SANParks reserves, to bolster and balance populations; for the sake of this example, a hundred head of buffalo.
  2. Ten buffalo are sent to each of nine other game reserves.  
  3. The balance of ten simply ‘disappear’ – the paper work becomes confusing, administrative procedures are obstructed and delayed, personnel are transferred, documentation is ‘lost’, and the trail of the ten lost buffalo quickly goes cold. 
  4. But they’re not lost, of course. They have ended up on a private game farms owned by a favoured individual. The new owners have not paid for the animals, nor would they have been allowed to acquire them at all, even if they had wanted to buy them, because they are not licensed buyers.

Buffalo, eland, impala, zebra, kudu, rhino, … The KNP and its animals, an incredibly valuable national asset and part of a larger proclaimed UNESCO International Man and the Biosphere Reserve, is a rich source of personal income for politically well-connected individuals, and for the corrupt officials involved in the scheme.

The process is further obfuscated by published statements such as this, which contains just enough truth to give it credibility, but which conceals the full story behind the admirable notion of social upliftment (which, of course, benefits only the already-wealthy members of the community and is therefore completely useless as a social transformation strategy):

As a state entity, SANParks is also responsible for contributing to transformation in the country generally and, particularly, of the wildlife economy and for supporting participation by black people. Through SANParks’ wildlife economy progamme, 719 animals were loaned or donated to emerging game farmers and local communities during the 2018/2019 financial year. 

Fundisile Mketeni

CEO: SANParks

SANParks Annual Report 2018/2019

The Kruger National Park is part of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park (GLFP), the seventh-largest national park in the world. Most of the national parks larger than the Kruger are marine reserves, known predominantly for their coral reefs and marine life. The Kruger is the largest park in the world that attracts visitors specifically to discover its birds (500 species) and land mammals (147 species).

The Kruger Park has more than 1,5 million visitors a year. That’s over four thousand visitors every day. Many are overseas visitors, who pay a premium conservation fee on entry to the Park. When the visitors stop visiting because there’s not much left to see, the Kruger Park will die, and what’s left of its animals will die with it. The warnings from people like Jamie Joseph (founder of Saving the Wild), Kim Da Ribeira (director of OSCAP) and many others are very clear: South Africa’s wild animal population, particularly in the Kruger National Park, is at severe risk. Too many people refuse to believe this, or perhaps refuse to care. 

It’s easy to blame poachers, rhino-horn agents and the Vietnamese end-market. Of course these are factors; but the major culprit is the South African government, which allows the poaching system to survive and thrive. 

Legendary Sotho singer/songwriter Vusi Mahlasela, known as ‘The Voice’ of South Africa, has stated it very plainly: 

Countless families in South Africa’s rural communities rely on wildlife tourism for their livelihoods. And nature, like music, binds all people. We cannot let corruption erode the very fabric of humanity. If we have a voice, we should use it for those who do not. 

So, back to where we started: How many rhinos are there in the Kruger Park? 

Too much is made of the difficulties surrounding animal censuses. Of course it’s difficult to count impala, and buffalo, and elephant, because they move all the time. But if you speak to any Park ranger, he’ll tell you in detail about the animals in his region: which lion prides have had cubs and how many, where the wild dogs are, where this leopard’s territory ends and the next leopard’s territory begins, and how big each buffalo herd is. We are told that many of the KNP’s rhinos are tracked and monitored by protective armed guards. It’s inconceivable that the Park management can’t gather population statistics from its rangers. 

We know what the authorities are telling us, but as discussed, the statistics are wildly contradictory. So for now, the answer to the question ‘How many rhinos are there in the Kruger Park?’ is ‘We don’t know.’ Think about that. How ridiculous is it? We don’t know.

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