Sixty seven percent. That's how much the southern white rhino population declined in South Africa's Kruger National Park between 2011 and 2019. A report from South African National Parks (SANParks) released earlier this year puts the number of wild-ranging rhinos still living in the country's flagship reserve at just 3,549 in 2019, a third of what it once was only eight years earlier. That's just one of the often-grim statistics that emerged from 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). The report outlines population estimates and provides an overview of the challenges and conservation successes relating to the world's five rhino species. Here's your 2021 World Rhino Day rundown:

Greater one-horned rhinos

Let's start with the good news. India's greater one-horned rhinos – those armoured, single-horned beasts that roam pockets of grassland and forest on the subcontinent – are gradually making a comeback. Numbering fewer than 100 individuals in the early 1900s, the species has made a substantial recovery and current estimates put the latest population figures at around 3,700. This is largely thanks to strict protection by government and strong enforcement by forestry officials in India and Nepal. Last year saw just two rhinos lost to poaching in the state of Assam – an area that's home to the largest population of Indian rhinos. 

“The continued growth of the greater one-horned rhino population is encouraging and the result of tremendous collaboration between the governments of India and Nepal, local and international organizations and the local communities that value their rhinos and other wildlife as national treasures,” said Nina Fascione, executive director of IRF. “With ongoing combined efforts, we can expect to see continued growth of existing populations as well as the potential to introduce rhinos to additional habitats they once called home.”

Sumatran rhinos

With fewer than 80 individuals living in fragmented habitat in Southeast Asia, the Sumatran rhino is one of the rarest mammals on earth. Although few poaching incidents have been reported in recent years, demand for Sumatran rhino horn has played a large role in the decline of the species, leaving significant challenges to their recovery. The global pandemic has further hampered efforts by conservationists working on vital operations to save the species.

Teams from Sumatran Rhino Rescue hope to capture wild rhinos from the dense forests in which they dwell and relocate them to breeding facilities where they can get to work creating a source population from which animals can eventually be reintroduced into the wild. It's a monumental task made more difficult by mounting economic and health challenges resulting from COVID-19. Currently, populations are continuing to decline.

Javan Rhinos

Hiding out in the almost-impenetrable forest thickets of Ujung Kulon National Park on Indonesia's Java island, a fragmented population of Javan rhinos cling to a precarious existence. The latest estimates put the number of Javan rhinos left in the wild at just 75. While the figure is frighteningly low, it has increased from fewer than 50 individuals ten years ago. In the first half of this year,  Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry announced four Javan rhino births, showing an encouraging upward trend that conservationists hope will continue into the future. 

“IRF [International Rhino Foundation] welcomes and celebrates these new Javan rhino calves,” said Fascione. “The new births and continued population increase of this critically endangered species are the result of the commitment of the Government of Indonesia and Ujung Kulon National Park officials to the protection of the Javan rhino and its habitat.”

White Rhinos

And now for the not-so-good news. Africa's white rhino population continues to suffer declines as a result of rampant poaching. Southern white rhino numbers have dropped by around 12% in the past decade with South Africa's Kruger National Park taking the biggest hit. After a brief respite in the number of rhinos killed last year – a decline attributed to border closures and lockdowns as a result of the pandemic – poaching appears to be on the rise again. In South Africa, poaching stats from the first half of the year are certainly higher than last year, however the numbers are still lower than those seen over the same period in 2019. Any decline in poaching in the Kruger Park is cause for celebration, but these reduced levels of poaching may actually have a worrisome explanation: rhinos are becoming harder for poachers to come by.

Thankfully, it's not all grim news. The Skukuza Court located in the Kruger National Park was reopened in April this year allowing rangers to testify against suspected poachers without having to travel far from their posts in the field where they are desperately needed. This bodes well for future convictions for those found guilty of rhino poaching.

As for northern white rhinos, their potential future rests in the hands of reproductive scientists who 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. It's a long shot and this sort of science is still in its infancy when it comes to rhinos, but conservationists are hopeful that the animals can one day be returned to the wild.

Black rhinos

Black rhinos – the smaller, less common but more aggressive cousins of the white rhino – have shown a population increase of 16-17% in the last decade raising hope for the critically endangered species. A recent rhino relocation initiative has seen the return of the species to Zimbabwe's Gonarezhou National Park for the first time in 30 years, while Namibia remains a stronghold for the southwestern subspecies of black rhinos where numbers are steadily increasing. Although Namibia has suffered fewer poaching incidents than neighbouring South Africa, illegal killing still remains a significant threat and the rhino's future depends on maintaining high standards of protection.

In Kenya, where all black rhinos live in protected, fenced sanctuaries on government and private land, no rhino poaching incidents were reported during 2020 – the first zero-poaching year the country has seen in 21 years. Despite this, Kenya's rhino still remain at risk. “The global pandemic has led to a loss in tourism revenue and corresponding budget cuts for the Kenya Wildlife Service and its partners, resulting in growing threats to wildlife,” said Dean. “It is our hope that Kenya can weather these challenges and continue the progress it has made for rhinos.”

Top header image: Baron Reznik, Flickr