Wildlife & Biodiversity

Run-up to World Rhino Day 2023: Poaching, climate change & habitat loss threaten global population

African and Indonesian rhinos are critically endangered and near threatened 

By Himanshu Nitnaware
Published: Thursday 21 September 2023
Representative photo: iStock__

Apart from poaching and habitat loss, climate change-induced droughts have been threatening the rhino population in Africa, pointed out a new report.

On the other hand, climate disruptions in Asia can lead to the deaths of rhinos. Increased precipitation, longer monsoons and seasonal floods are already resulting in stranding, drowning or separation of calves from their mothers among Greater One-horned Rhinos, noted the report State of the Rhino released by the International Rhino Foundation.

The impacts are expected to exacerbate with intensified storms, increasing risks of diseases among humans and, potentially, rhinos. 

Moreover, changes in weather conditions and landscape may lead to the expansion of invasive species and overtaking of rhino food plants, causing habitat degradation. The document also warned about the landscape-level threat of invasive species to Greater One-Horned rhinos. 

The climate crisis has a cascading effect on wildlife as it leads to habitat loss and competition over resources such as water.

Besides, poverty due to crop loss and reduction in livestock may result in increased cases of poaching as a means to earn income. Moreover, dry conditions due to drought increase the possibility of wildfires, causing habitat loss. 

Habitat loss, poaching and climate change continue to threaten the existence of all five rhino species, according to the report.

Across the globe, rhino populations that were once considered less threatened have seemingly become the primary target of poaching efforts, which are orchestrated by highly organised, transnational criminal syndicates.

However, the rhino population in India, Bhutan and Nepal is increasing and is estimated to touch 4,014, noted the report.

After reporting no poaching deaths in 2022, India has recorded two deaths of Greater One-Horned Rhino (Rhinoceros unicornis) until September 2023.

The deaths were reported from Manas National Park and Kaziranga National Park. Nepal also reported two poaching cases from Chitwan National Park in January, resulting in arrests of 15 suspected poachers.

The strict protection and transboundary management have helped to increase the rhino population by 20 per cent in the past decade.

However, the species has been driven from areas where it was commonly sighted and full recovery depends on reintroducing them to spots from where they have disappeared.

A proposed rhino translocation to Manas National Park, scheduled for 2024, is expected to ensure better growth opportunities and increased security and free movement of the population. In 2022, the Assam government sanctioned about 200 square kilometres of land to Orang National Park in north central Assam to expand the protected area by almost double.

The national park is connected to Burhachapori Wildlife Sanctuary in the east, and it can create link across all protected areas that house rhinos — Manas National Park, Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary, Orang National Park, the Laokhowa and Burhachapori Wildlife Sanctuaries and Kaziranga National Park.

The population of black rhinos, described as critically endangered, is increasing, the report noted; the population is estimated at 6,195.

However, populations of white rhinos and Sumatran rhinos are decreasing, estimated to be about 15,942 and 34 to 47.

White rhino is near threatened and the latter is critically endangered. The population of Javan rhinos are estimated to be stable, at around 76.

Around 15 rhinos went missing from Indonesia’s Ujung Kulon National Park over the past three years as they have not been captured in trap cameras, according to the Indonesian government.

“Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry has reported a recently discovered unnatural Javan rhino death that is currently under investigation,” it stated.

The global population of rhinos is estimated to be a little over 26,000. 

Black rhinos or Dicerosbicornis are spread across 12 African countries and once were most common among the other rhino species. It is estimated that the population of over 100,000 in the continent around the 1960s declined due to heavy poaching, reducing them to about 2,300 individuals in the mid-1990s.

However, the intense protection and management efforts have helped to stabilise and increase the population by 28 per cent in the past decade.

White rhinos or Ceratotheriumsimum are estimated to be around 15,942, making them the most populous species found across 11 countries of Africa.

“Historically as a species, white rhinos made an incredible comeback from fewer than 100 individuals in the early 1900s to more than 21,000 at the end of 2012,” the report noted.

It added that over the last decade, the species has become a primary target of poachers who belong to transnational criminal syndicates.

“Since 2012, white rhino numbers have decreased by 24 per cent to an estimated 15,942. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature Species Survival Commission’s African Rhino Specialist Group reports that the species is still in decline today,” the report noted.

Poaching continues to remain the biggest threat to these threatened species. In the first six months of 2023 alone, 231 rhinos were reportedly poached in South Africa, while 448 were killed in 2022. 

Botswana reported 138 cases of poaching in the past five years. Besides, Namibia and Zimbabwe reported 87 and 13 killings, respectively, for the year 2022. 

Regarding Sumatran rhinos, the report observed that the species has four isolated populations and 10 subpopulations. The uncertainty, however, remains as the reclusive species seems to be venturing into deep jungles and sightings and footprints are becoming difficult to trace.

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