Protecting Africa’s rhinos is monumental and requires courage, persistence, creativity and extraordinary strength of character. No single strategy is sufficient against the scourge of poaching that has annihilated rhinos in their thousands, and conservationists have had to employ a multitude of different interventions in an attempt to stem the tide. However, every intervention comes at a cost: financial, personnel-related, ecological or otherwise. Understanding what interventions have worked and to what extent is essential in forging a path forward. This requires robust statistical analysis and managerial insight based on years of operational experience. A new report from the Greater Kruger region in South Africa offers just that.
South Africa is home to the majority of Africa’s rhinos, and the largest remaining wild population exists in the Kruger National Park and surrounding reserves. High poaching rates and the need for holistic and evidence-based thinking led to the creation of Project FIRE (Framework of Interventions for Effective Rhino Protection Evaluation), bringing together a cross-disciplinary team of reserve managers, ecologists, scientists, and other stakeholders. The collaborative efforts of data analysts, representatives of two state reserves (including the Kruger National Park) and nine private reserves have culminated in a 17-page report evaluating rhino conservation efforts from 2017 to 2021.
They identified and evaluated several intervention areas, including access control to the protected area, camera technologies, K9 units, integrity (polygraph) testing, dehorning, detection zones, air support, ranger training and equipment, rhino monitoring, fences and fence alarms. Evaluating these indices (which could encompass several variables) required identifying exactly how each was expected to help, how its success could be measured and the extent of its limitations. In this manner, the data could be quantified and fed into statistical models for analysis. Naturally, any statistical analysis needs to be interpreted within the context of the situation, particularly in one as complicated as the anti-poaching reality in the Greater Kruger. Thus, the “manager narrative” and insight played an integral role in compiling the final report.
[Editorial note: The authors elected not to include an executive summary of the report to encourage the reader to read the full report and appreciate the results’ complexity, context and nuance. Though we have provided a summary below, we would reiterate the suggestion to read the report to fully understand the intricacies of the issues at play.]
A minimum of ZAR 1.1 billion (USD 61 million) was spent protecting rhinos from 2017–2021, of which ZAR 660 million was spent in the Kruger National Park (USD 37 million). The most costly interventions in the Kruger National Park were access control, air support, security staff and specialised detection technology. Similarly, security was one of the most significant expenses for the other reserves, but fences (maintenance and upgrades) and ranger training and equipment also featured as substantial costs.
One of the report’s primary findings was that dehorning was the only intervention that showed strong statistical evidence for reducing poaching. As such, there is a strong statistical and logical case in favour of dehorning as an effective strategy. However, the authors emphasise that this does not imply that other measures were ineffective, but simply that evidence in their favour was inconclusive with the available data. Furthermore, many security measures, such as K9 teams and aerial support, successfully reacted to poaching incidents and captured poachers, which does not automatically translate to reduced poaching rates.
A lack of variation within the data (as most reserves have implemented most interventions and thus cannot be compared to those without) reduced the statistical power of the analysis. Many interventions may be effective in principle without demonstrating any statistical association with poaching. Furthermore, corruption or internal involvement may result in the circumvention of otherwise effective measures. A reserve may have a high number of poacher arrests, but this will do little to deter future excursions if the criminal justice system (from law enforcement to the courts) does not work successfully to punish the crime, as evidenced by multiple repeat offenders.
The report’s conclusion offers several insights into anti-poaching interventions’ current status and the authors’ analysis results. In particular, it highlights that “most interventions do not directly address, and are at the mercy of, significant external factors such as socioeconomic inequality, entrenched criminal syndicates, corruption and horn demand”. In addition, many of the analysed interventions are reactive (detecting and arresting poachers), and the effectiveness of dehorning may relate in part to the fact that it is a proactive intervention. The report also acknowledges that implementation and competence vary widely across the study region. Poor implementation, rather than the intervention itself, may contribute to its lack of success. They explain that “[e]ffective operation management is essential…It requires strong leadership, strategic planning and the ability to make informed decisions in a dynamic, challenging and ever-changing environment”.
The report concludes with lessons for the future of the conservation of rhinos. The authors emphasise the power of shared learning and the importance of collaboration between scientists, academics and reserve managers. Perhaps the most encouraging words from the report are found in the foreword of the report, offering a message of hope from the custodians of our remaining rhinos: “We will succeed. The cause of protecting these magnificent creatures is too great, and the people dedicated to the cause are too dogged for any other outcome.”
Kuiper, T., Haussmann, S., Whitfield, S., Altwegg, R., Ferreira, S., Shaw, J., Polakow, D., Hofmeyr, M., Pierce, E., Nowak, I., Rowles, C., Zowitsky, H., Oliver, I., Boyd, W., Bird, J., Worth, E., van Tonder, M., Bourn, M., Greef, Z., Hartman, Z. (2023). Evaluating the cost and effectiveness of rhino conservation interventions in the Greater Kruger. A Greater Kruger Environmental Protection Foundation Report.
– Missing the point: A new study suggests that dehorning can negatively impact the social behaviour of black rhinos. Read more here.
– Private rhino: More than half of Africa’s rhino are in private hands. With rising protection costs, what will it take to build a resilient private industry?
– Read the latest update on Kruger’s rhino population numbers.
– The state of Africa’s rhino: Read our analysis of the IUCN report containing the most recent rhino numbers, trends, poaching incidents, conservation measures and trade updates.
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