The Changing Landscape of Rhino Conservation in Africa: From State Parks to Private Lands

By Ellyanne Chlystun-Githae and Charles B. Chilufya, S.J.


Today, on World Environment Day, we stand in the shadow of an escalating environmental crisis fueled by degradation and climate change. We know that this year the focus is on beating plastic pollution. However, there is another concern that we have that we would like to bring to your attention on this day we commemorate the beauty, inspiration and wonder of nature, the fate of the rhinoceros.

I am Ellyanne, an ardent voice from Children with Nature, and alongside Fr Charlie B. Chilufya, Director of the Jesuit Justice and Ecology Network – Africa (JENA), we bring to you our co-authored exploration titled, “The Changing Landscape of Rhino Conservation in Africa: From State Parks to Private Lands.” Together, we blend our unique perspectives and commitments—my youthful vigour and fervour for nature, and Fr Charlie’s profound wisdom and steadfast dedication to ecological justice. My journey, while brief, has been marked by a relentless pursuit of ecosystem restoration and conservation across Africa. Yet, accompanying this dedication is a dread—an escalating fear that future generations might be denied the awe-inspiring encounters with Africa’s iconic wildlife, such as the rhinoceros.

As I have noted, as we commemorate World Environment Day, my attention is especially drawn to this majestic creature, the rhioceros. The rhinoceros, emblematic of Africa’s rich biodiversity, represents the heart-rending realities of our ongoing environmental crisis. In our article, we delve into the evolving terrain of rhino conservation, tracing its journey from state parks to private lands—a transition teeming with both complexities and potentials.

Echoing the wisdom of Laudato Si’, we understand that “everything is interconnected,” and so the plight of the rhinoceros reverberates through the web of life, touching us all. In the spirit of this profound insight, we hope that our piece serves not just as an exploration of an issue, but also as a call to action, reminding us all of our shared responsibility in stewarding this beautiful planet. After all, every creature, including the magnificent rhinoceros, has an inherent worth and a rightful place in our common home. Let this World Environment Day serve as a reminder of our collective responsibility to preserve and cherish our natural world.

Alarming Shift in Rhino Populations

African rhino numbers are dwindling at alarming rates in state-run parks, with the result being that over half of the remaining rhinos on the continent are now located on private lands. This shift is particularly evident in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, a government-run entity previously home to the largest rhino population. Over the past decade, the park’s white and black rhino populations have seen declines of 76% and 68%, respectively.

Rise of Private Landowners

Contrarily, private landowners, especially in South Africa, have seen a steady rise in white rhino populations. As a result, private and communal lands have now become the guardians of at least half of Africa’s remaining rhinos, marking a significant shift in conservation strategies.In stark contrast, private landowners, especially in South Africa, have seen a steady rise in their white rhino populations. Consequently, private and communal lands have emerged as the primary protectors of Africa’s remaining rhinos, marking a significant shift in conservation strategies. Recognizing the financial viability of wildlife tourism, trophy hunting, and the trade in live animals, landowners have increasingly chosen to preserve rhinos on their properties, providing an alternative to traditional livestock farming.

A Comprehensive Approach for Rhino Preservation

A recent study featured in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, conducted by researchers from the University of Helsinki in Finland and the Universities of Stellenbosch and Nelson Mandela in South Africa, explores this transition. They’ve analysed publicly accessible rhino population data and considered the implications of rhino conservation shifting from state to private and communal lands. Their research suggests a new, comprehensive approach for rhino preservation.

As per Dr Hayley Clements, one of the authors of the study, wildlife tourism, trophy hunting, and the trade in live animals can provide revenue for private and communal landowners in various Southern and East African countries. This financial viability offers an alternative to livestock farming, leading to a rise in landowners choosing to preserve rhinos on their properties.

Evolving Cost Dynamics

However, the cost dynamics of rhino conservation are evolving. With the surge in poaching, Africa Geographic estimates that private rhino owners now spend an average of US$100,000 annually on security measures, significantly more than state parks can allocate. Despite these security measures leading to lower poaching rates on private lands, the rising costs are discouraging many landowners from maintaining their conservation efforts, with some even choosing to sell their rhinos, often at a loss.

Balancing Conservation and Financial Sustainability

Recently, the Conservation reported that private ranches in South Africa lost only 0.5% of their rhinos to poaching in 2020, likely due to these security measures. Yet, escalating security costs are causing a reduction in the benefits of rhino ownership, especially for those not motivated by profit. At the beginning of this year,  Alison Bosman, an staff writer reported that in 2018, it was estimated that 28% of private rhino owners in South Africa were disinvesting due to these growing costs, while 57% were maintaining their status quo, and 15% were investing in more rhinos. The Guardian Weekly reported a prominent example of rhino breeder, John Hume, who in April 2023 was forced to auction his 2,000 white rhinos due to the escalating costs of rhino conservation, though the auction failed to find any bidders.

Senior author Prof. Enrico Di Minin advocates for future policies that incentivize rhino conservation to counteract these rising costs. Such incentives could include favorable tax structures, eligibility for carbon or biodiversity credits, and certifications that enhance the value of wildlife-based tourism and hunting services. Without these, there’s a risk of losing private and communal rhino custodians, leading to a loss of half of the remaining African rhinos, warns Dr. Clements.

Future Directors for Rhino Conservation in Africa

Transparency about rhino numbers and management strategies from states is crucial to determine the best conservation strategies. Comprehensive and current data on rhino populations, poaching rates, and security costs can help identify long-term trends, inform conservation strategies, and boost public awareness and support.

The financial struggles of private rhino custodians signal the rising costs of supporting rhinos. Possible future directions for these rhinos could include finding a buyer for the operation, relocating the animals to parks in South Africa or other sub-Saharan countries, or moving them abroad, beyond their historical range.

Ultimately, diverse models and a common vision are required to conserve thriving populations of rhinos across state, private, and community lands. Beyond trophy hunting and ecotourism, alternative revenue streams such as rhino credits or impact bonds. Local custodians, carrying the burden of protecting these globally valued animals, should also be supported through tax incentives and even other non-economic instruments.

Rhinos play an essential role in their ecosystems, and their decline causes significant emotional responses worldwide. Given the critical situation for rhinos, there’s an urgent need for more inclusive, equitable, and innovative solutions to support their conservation.

Conclusion (Ellyanne’s Appeal):

As we commemorate World Environment Day, my heart is heavy with concern for the future of our planet and the incredible creatures that inhabit it. I, Ellyanne, as one of the authors of this article and a passionate advocate for environmental conservation, fear that children like myself will be denied the joy of witnessing and living in a world where precious creatures like the rhinoceros roam freely.

The decline in the rhinoceros population across state-run parks in Africa is a distressing reality that cannot be ignored. These majestic creatures, with their ancient lineage and awe-inspiring presence, represent the beauty and diversity of our natural world. Yet, their numbers continue to dwindle at an alarming rate, pushing them dangerously close to the brink of extinction.

But it’s not just the loss of biodiversity that should concern us; it’s the loss of wonder and inspiration that these creatures bring. The rhinoceros has captured the imaginations of people for generations, embodying strength, resilience, and a sense of ancient wisdom. Denying future generations the opportunity to witness their magnificence is to rob them of an essential connection to the natural world.

Today, on World Environment Day, let us heed this urgent call to action. Together, we can join hands with organizations like the Jesuit Justice and Ecology Network – Africa (JENA), drawing strength from the teachings of Laudato Si and the timeless wisdom of Catholic social teaching. We must tirelessly work towards the protection and restoration of Africa’s diverse ecosystems.

By safeguarding the habitats that sustain these precious creatures, implementing robust anti-poaching measures, and promoting sustainable practices, we can pave the way for a brighter future. A future where our children, and their children, can marvel at the rhinoceros and other magnificent species that make our planet a truly awe-inspiring place.

On this World Environment Day, let us commit ourselves to the preservation of our natural heritage and the well-being of all living beings. Together, we have the power to ensure that the world we pass on is not devoid of the wonders that have enchanted humanity for centuries. The time to act is now, for the sake of the rhinoceros, for the sake of our children, and for the sake of our planet.

Ellyanne Chlystun-Githae, at just 13-years old, is celebrated as Africa’s Youngest Climate Finance & Biodiversity Champion. Her recent study unveiled the intricate relationships between poverty, violence against children, livestock mortality due to drought, FGM, and Climate Change & Food Security, primarily impacting ASAL communities. Ellyanne’s dedication and advocacy work has drawn local and international media attention, with a robust social media presence inspiring audiences across platforms like Twitter (@EllyanneCGithae), Instagram (@EllyanneCG), and Facebook (Ellyanne Wanjiku Githae Chlystun). In addition, she is associated with Children With Nature (CWN), an organization fostering children’s connection to nature, also active on Twitter (@CWN_ORG), Instagram (CWN_ORG), and Facebook (Children With Nature).

Charles B. Chilufya, S.J. is the director of the Jesuit Justice and Ecology Network – Africa (JENA), based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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