By the turn of the century, the uncontrolled killing of southern white rhinos for sport or for their horns had reduced the population down to only 20 animals located in the Umfolozi Game Reserve in KwaZulu/Natal. These thrived under the protection of the Natal Parks Board, and by 1961 there were enough to allow translocation (moving rhinos from one area to another) of white rhinos to new reserves. Known as "Operation Rhino", more than 3 500 white rhinos have since been moved to other areas within their former range and elsewhere in the world. The increase in population that followed "Operation Rhino" resulted in the white rhino being removed from the IUCN's Red Data Book of threatened species. Today, surplus animals are sought after by hunters as trophy animals.

Today, white rhino numbers are still increasing, largely because more than 90% of the animals are found in South Africa where a relatively effective infrastructure (e.g. policing, legislation, communications), and sound conservation management are able to control poaching and provide conditions suitable for breeding.


The recent history of the black rhino is rather different. In 1970 there were approximately 65 000 black rhinos in Africa. Today there are less than 2 500, with numbers decreasing. Although formerly widespread throughout South Africa, by 1930 only 100 - 150 black rhinos remained in the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi and Mkuzi Game Reserves. As with the white rhinos, numbers increased under protection, so that by 1962 the Natal Parks Board was able to translocate animals to reserves within its former range. By the end of 1992, almost 200 black rhinos had been relocated to eight other reserves and onto private land. While black rhino numbers in South Africa have increased steadily in recent years, the overall African population has decreased by 83% since 1980!


Poaching for horn is largely responsible for this massive decline. The southern African countries of Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, where 90% of Africa's remaining black rhinos and white rhinos are conserved, are coming under increasing pressure. These animals provide the only means of satisfying the illegal trade in rhino horn, which now appears to be driven by stockpiling for investment purposes in addition to the traditional demands of eastern medicine and Yemeni dagger handles.

The first substantial poaching in Zimbabwe was recorded in 1985, and since then the numbers have declined from about 1 950 to 674 animals in 1992. Namibia experienced increased poaching in the late 1980s, but this is now under control. More recently, during 1991 and 1992 Swaziland lost 45 white rhinos to poaching.


Rhino horn is highly valued in certain parts of the world for medicinal and cultural reasons. In the Far East, especially China, people believe the powdered horn can be used as medicine to reduce fever. In Yemen, the curved dagger, or jambia, epitomises manhood. Rhino horn is the most sought after type of handle for this dagger and many people are prepared to pay the high price (US$ 580 for new, and US$ 1200 for antique rhino horn) it fetches. Alternative dagger handles are water buffalo horn (US$ 8), and amber-coloured plastic (US$ 5).


* International pressure is being applied to a number of consumer countries to control the illegal importation and subsequent sale of rhino products.

* Yemen has agreed to stop importing rhino horn, however, there is no internal prohibition, i.e. ownership and trading in rhino horn within the borders of Yemen is legal.

* Chemical tests on rhino horn have shown that it may have some fever-reducing properties, but only at far higher dosages than are found in current medicines. Alternative medicines are being promoted in countries of the Far East to reduce the demand for rhino horn, and hopefully the value of the horn will fall and remove the incentive to poach. Unfortunately the current high prices paid for rhino horn encourage an illegal trade.

* South African reserves practise intensive conservation management programmes which include anti-poaching patrol and intelligence activities, rhino population monitoring, translocation and maintaining genetic diversity.

* South Africa currently provides the chairman for the IUCN's (World Conservation Union) African Rhino Specialist Group, and has followed this group's recommendation that all countries with more than 100 rhinos draw up a national plan to direct rhino conservation efforts.

* A special police unit, the Endangered Species Protection Unit, investigates illegal activities (such as poaching and trading) relating to endangered species, including rhino.

* A TRAFFIC (Trade Records Analysis of Flora and Fauna in Commerce) office was recently established in South Africa. The object of the international TRAFFIC network is the conservation of wildlife by monitoring and reporting on trade in wild animals and plants.


* Rhino horn is made of a mass of fibres attached to the skin of the rhino's snout. The fibres consist of a protein called keratin, which also forms the basis of human hair and fingernails, and the hooves of horses.

* In South Africa the penalty for anyone caught poaching rhino is R100 000 or 10 years in prison, or both. All cases of poaching in KwaZulu/Natal in the last two years have resulted in the offenders being brought to trial.

* In 1992 the Natal Parks Board sold 5 black rhino for R2,4 million!

* South Africa has about 819 black rhinos and 5297 white rhinos. This represents 74% of Africa's total rhino population.

* CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna) lists black rhinos and white rhino on Appendix I. This means that trade in rhino products is illegal.


* Why bother conserving rhinos? What value do these animals have?

* Some people argue that trade in rhino horn should be legal. They maintain that this would encourage people to protect, or even breed rhino and sell the horn, thus removing the pressure of wild populations, and increasing rhino numbers. With increased supply of rhino horn, the price would probably drop, and the incentive for poaching would be removed. In addition, legal trade would be easier to control than illegal trade. Funds derived from sales could be ploughed back into rhino conservation programmes. What is your view?


* Report any signs of illegal trade in rhino horn to your local conservation agency, the National Parks Board or the Endangered Species Unit, addresses below.

* Support a conservation organisation concerned with rhinos.


RHINO EXPLOITATION. E. Martin. WWF, Hong Kong, 1983.

RHINOS - ENDANGERED SPECIES. M. Penny. Christopher Helm Publishers, United Kingdom, 1987.

RUN RHINO RUN. E. Martin. Chatto and Windus, London, 1982. Rhino. D. Balfour. Struik, Cape Town, 1991.

All books are available from Russel Friedman Books, PO Box 73, Halfway House 1685. Tel. 011-7022300/1.


Rhino and Elephant Foundation. PO Box 381, Bedfordveiw, 2008. Tel. 011-882 0606.

Endangered Wildlife Trust. P/Bag X11, Parkview, 2122. Tel. 011-4861102.

Natal Parks Board. PO Box 662, Pietermaritzburg, 3200. Tel. 0331-471961.

National Parks Board. PO Box 787, Pretoria, 0001.

TRAFFIC. P/Bag X11, Parkview, 2122. Tel. 011-486 1102.

Endangered Species Protection Unit. P/Bag X302, Pretoria, 0001. Tel. 012-370 3735.

Created and maintained by: Jocelyn Collins
Last Updated: Thursday, February 01, 2001