The startling impact of coronavirus on rhino conservation across Africa

To mark World Rhino Day 2020, we speak to wildlife veterinarian Dr Andre Uys in South Africa about how recent restrictions on movement and a decrease in tourism revenue have affected conservation across Africa — and what the future may hold.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020,
By Angela Locatelli
A rhino at Marataba.

To mark World Rhino Day, which falls on 22 September each year, we catch up with noted wildlife veterinarian Andre Uys on the front line of southern Africa's ongoing battle to save the rhino. 

Photograph by Marataba Conservation Camps

Usually teeming with wide-eyed travellers, Africa’s vast expanses of wilderness have experienced an unusual quietude in recent months. With international tourism to national parks, private game reserves and conservancies grinding to a standstill due to the coronavirus pandemic, Africa's black and white rhino species face new challenges. Among them, a concerning expansion in the illegal marketing of rhino horn as medicine in areas of Asia: according to some reports, rhino horn — which is made of keratin, the same protein found in human hair and fingernails — is being falsely touted on social media as a cure for Covid-19. 

While the pandemic heralds many new concerns for conservationists, there are some reasons to celebrate: rhino killings in South Africa (which is home to nearly 80% of the world's rhino population) fell by 53% in the first half of the year, as restrictions to movement and disruption to international flights hindered poaching syndicates. 

Marataba, a privately managed section of Marakele National Park in South Africa's Limpopo province, is responsible for conserving a healthy population of African rhinos in a biodiversity hotspot. To mark World Rhino Day (22 September), we caught up with Marataba’s general manager, Dr Andre Uys, a seasoned wildlife veterinarian responsible for the successful reestablishment of black rhino populations in five range states, for a view from the frontline of rhino conservation. 

Dr Andre Uys was in private veterinary practice for 12 years, focusing on restocking depleted and defunct areas across some 14 African countries. He is responsible for the successful reestablishment of black rhino populations in five range states.

Photograph by Marataba Conservation Camps

How has the lack of tourism revenue affected conservation work?

I think the shortfalls of the tourism-funded conservation sector have been laid bare, and there’s no doubt that we’ll need to add new layers to financial models for funding conservation down the line. Marataba has private shareholders who regard it primarily as a conservation project, so we’ve been extremely fortunate that the project has continued to receive the required resources. But I think many areas across Africa that are completely dependent on contributions from tourism operators suddenly found themselves unable to continue any conservation effort.

“In the 1950s and ’60s there were more than 60,000 rhinos in a country like Zambia on its own. Today, there’s a total global population of less than 25,000.”

by Andre Uys

What does this mean for rhino conservation?

As far as I’m aware, there are no free-roaming rhinos left outside of protected areas, privately-owned game farms or ranches or other private land. They’re facing imminent extinction with the current rate of poaching. Just to put it in perspective, back in the 1950s and ’60s there were more than 60,000 rhinos in a country like Zambia on its own. Today, there’s a total global population of certainly less than 25,000, but maybe as low as 15,000 — and declining. Without conservation, without the national parks system, without protected areas that are managed appropriately and with adequate law enforcement, there’s no doubt that rhinos would become extinct.

Have the nationwide lockdowns reduced the number of rhinos killed by poachers?

The number of rhinos poached isn’t a measure of poaching pressure — it’s that number as a percentage of a population that’s significant. Countries like Botswana have seen a massive increase in poaching pressure during the pandemic, whether it’s directly related I’m not sure. But in South Africa, certainly in the Marataba context, we’ve actually seen a decline. I think the only reason is that, because of the hard lockdown rules implemented by the South African government, it’s been more difficult for the poaching syndicates to be out and active in the public arena as they get detected much easier. Now that the lockdown regulations are relaxing again, we’re certainly expecting an increase in poaching activity.

What interventions are most needed?

That’s an extremely complex and difficult question to answer. There are multiple publications already that suggest that law enforcement is inadequate in stemming commercial rhino poaching on its own. I think we need a much more holistic approach. In the interim, until a solution is found, there’s no doubt that there’s going to be a long-term funding requirement to maintain the intensity of effort required to protect rhinos.

The view from Fish Eagle Dam in Marataba, a privately managed section of Marakele National Park, in South Africa’s Limpopo province.

Photograph by Marataba Conservation Camps

There have been reports of rhino horns being touted as a cure for coronavirus. Is that worrying?

Yes, but I don’t think we should always be so critical of other cultures’ socio-cultural beliefs. Some things, like traditional Chinese medicine, have been ingrained for tens of thousands of years. That’s why I say we need to examine both the supply and the demand, as well as law enforcement and conservation techniques, to come up with a lasting solution. I fear if it’s a single approach, it’s probably doomed to failure.

Tell us more about Rhino Week and what you hope to achieve.

Rhino Week is an opportunity to create awareness. I think that Covid-19 has created a rise in consciousness, and travellers are interested to know where their money is being spent. This is conservation work that we would normally do, but we’ve now decided we will give people the opportunity of participating.

Our hope is that everyone leaves Marataba with a much clearer understanding of what is required to conserve a species: we get out there and physically monitor, identify and track individual rhinos, which enables us to identify very small changes in population trends over time. Each and every one of us has a responsibility to look after the remaining protected areas, which are all under pressure from us as humans. I think that’s one of the big shifts that is going to have to take place globally.

There are five remaining rhino species: the white rhino and black rhino are found in Africa, while the greater one-horned rhino, the Sumatran rhino and the Javan rhino are found in Asia. 

Photograph by Maratba Conservation Camps

As well as playing a leading role in five crucial black rhino repopulations, Dr Andre Uys formed part of a pioneering team that has undertaken some of the largest — and longest — elephant translocations in Africa, including Malawi’s 500 Elephants project. He’s currently general manager of Marataba, which offers Luxury Lodges and Conservation Camps in South Africa's Marakele National Park.

For more information on World Rhino Day and Rhino Week (21-27 September 2020), and to find out how to support rhino populations, visit WWF and Save the Rhino

You can donate to a National Geographic Society-supported initiative to save the critically endangered Sumatran rhino here.

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