It's been a turbulent few years as the world has learnt to cope with the challenges of a global pandemic. For rhinos, lockdowns and travel restrictions have been something of a double-edged sword: poaching declined during the peak of the pandemic, but so did the tourism dollars that help fund conservation efforts. Overall, Africa's rhino populations have decreased by 6% since 2017.

It's not all bad news, however, as some species continue to show signs of recovery. A recent report on the state of the world's rhinos released by the International Rhino Foundation (IRF) on the eve of World Rhino Day (September 22) outlines population estimates and provides an overview of the challenges and conservation successes relating to the world's five rhino species. Here's what you need to know:

Greater one-horned rhinos

Let's kick things off with some positive news. Greater one-horned rhinos – those single-spiked, armoured 'tanks' that skulk in the grasslands and forests of the subcontinent – continue to experience an increase in population numbers as a result of habitat creation and anti-poaching initiatives. There are now over 4,000 of these animals in India, Nepal and Bhutan, which is a conservation win considering there were fewer than a 100 individuals in the early 1900s. Much of this success is down to the effectiveness of poaching prevention strategies. In the first half of the year, India and Nepal lost just one rhino each to poachers.

Black rhinos

It's also good news for black rhinos – the smaller, but more aggressive cousins of the white rhino – whose populations have increased by an estimated 12% in recent years from approximately 5,500 individuals in 2017 to over 6,000 today raising hope for the critically endangered species. Despite the upward trend, black rhino numbers still remain critically low, and nowhere near their historic highs. Between 1970 and 1993, the population decreased by 96% from around 65,000 to just 2,300. Anti-poaching efforts and strategic translocations have helped the numbers recover to some extent but poaching still looms as a significant threat. 

A recent rhino relocation initiative saw several black rhinos reintroduced to Mozambique's Zinave National Park as part of continuing efforts to build viable rhino populations across the continent. Elsewhere in Africa, Rwanda's Akagera National Park has not reported a high-level poaching incident in the past 11 years, while Namibia experienced something of a surge in June 2022 with 11 rhino carcasses found. South Africa, a country that is home to almost 70% of Africa's rhinos, continues to fight a scourge of poaching having lost 210 rhinos in the first half of the year. Arrest rates for rhino poaching and trafficking offenses in 2022 are worryingly lower than in previous years, however, there is hope that increased coordination between police forces and international collaboration may result in high-level arrests.

Javan Rhinos

Although no Javan rhino deaths have been reported so far in 2022, these animals cling to a precarious existence with only 76 individuals still hiding out in the almost-impenetrable forest thickets of Ujung Kulon National Park on Indonesia's Java island. The remaining rhinos are carefully monitored and tracked – efforts which seem to be paying off as the population remains stable (although frighteningly small). The population only increased by a single animal since the last count was conducted, but conservationists are hopeful that the gradual upward trend will continue into the future, however, more suitable habitat is required if the species is to properly recover. 

Sumatran rhinos

Sumatran rhinos are one of the rarest mammals on earth. Official government estimates put the population at fewer than 80 individuals, however, a recent joint report from the Asian Rhino Specialist Group (AsRSG), the African Rhino Specialist Group and TRAFFIC puts the population number at closer to 34-47, which represents a 13% decline between 2017-2021. Accurately measuring Sumatran rhino numbers in their remote rainforest habitats has proven extremely difficult and this lack of data further complicates conservation efforts.

With only a handful of animals scattered across densely vegetated terrain, it can be difficult for breeding-age animals to find one another. Conservationists and governments are working to develop a successful captive breeding facility where an 'emergency' population of Sumatran rhinos can be created. It's a monumental task that requires considerable collaboration.

White Rhinos

Africa's white rhino population has been the hardest hit of the five species. The population has declined by nearly 12% in the last four years, from around 18,000 individuals to fewer than 16,000 today. Border closures and lockdowns in recent years as a result of the pandemic helped provide a brief respite for the imperilled species, but as the travel industry regains its footing, poaching appears to be on the rise again. Some estimates suggest that the population of white rhinos in South Africa's Kruger National Park – traditionally a safe haven for these animals – has plummeted by as much as 75% in the last ten years.

As for northern white rhinos, a subspecies of white rhino whose population has been reduced to just two females now living at a sanctuary in East Africa, all hope rests on scientific intervention.  Reproductive scientists are working to bring the subspecies back from the brink using eggs harvested from the last remaining females and semen samples collected from now-deceased male rhinos. Some progress has been made in this ambitious endeavour and developed embryos have been cryopreserved and await transfer to southern white rhino female surrogates in the foreseeable future. Whether or not the project is a success remains to be seen.

Top header image: Baron Reznik, Flickr