poached rhino_2014_10_03
393 rhino were poached across South Africa in the first four months of 2015, according to official figures.

South Africa's official rhino poaching statistics for the first four months of 2015 have been announced – and the news is grim. The numbers show poaching levels in the country have hit a record high, with an 18 percent increase in rhinos killed compared to the same period last year. But some groups say the official statistics are not accurate, warning that the real death toll is even higher. 

South Africa's environment minister Edna Molewa made the official announcement at a media conference on Sunday, revealing that 393 rhinos had been lost to poachers across the country, with the majority of poaching incidents (290) occurring in the iconic Kruger National Park (KNP), which is home to the world's largest rhino population. "By last year this time the number of rhino lost to poachers was 331 for the whole of the country and 212 for the KNP," the minister said.

A total of 132 people had been arrested for poaching-related crimes in the same period, with 62 arrests in the Kruger National Park, the minister added. She also outlined progress on various anti-poaching and conservation initiatives, including the translocation of rhinos from poaching hotspots to more secure areas in South Africa and neighbouring countries. "We are pleased to report that the animals have generally integrated well with the resident populations in the areas to which they have been moved."

Molewa's announcement had been expected for some time, with the government coming under fire from NGOs and conservation groups in recent weeks for delaying the release of the poaching statistics for the first quarter. "We cannot keep track of what is happening in places like Kruger National Park without stats being published,” the NGO Save our Rhino told a local media outlet.

While the newly released figures represent a poaching record, some groups fear the real numbers may be even higher. "We are led to believe that the statistics the minister gave of 290 for Kruger National Park were in fact end-of-March stats and not end-of-April stats. Our sources have told us that the figure for KNP now sits at 444 so there is a huge discrepancy," says Allison Thomson, the director of rhino lobby group OSCAP.

And there's a very real possibility that even OSCAP's statistics don't yet reflect the full scale of the losses so far this year. "[We still need to] adjust our poaching statistics to reflect the updated KNP stats as well as an additional 18 rhinos that have been poached in the last 5 days and were reported to us [on Monday], so our stats are already outdated," adds Thomson. 

Top header image: Sascha Wenninger, Flickr