Uncertainty For African Rhinos Likely To Continue Into 2021

December 15, 2020

Loss of tourism revenue continues to impact Addo Elephant Park and surrounding communities

The International Rhino Foundation made more than $260,000 in emergency grants in 2020 to fill funding gaps for protection of rhinos

Strasburg, Va – 2020 has been an unprecedented year in many ways. For rhinos, country-wide lockdowns in response to the global pandemic brought a standstill in poaching in many areas, while jeopardizing the jobs of the rangers on the frontlines who protect them.

The situation could have developed into a crisis as travel slowly opens up again. However, protections remain in place to respond to new threats as a result of cost cutting decisions by parks and reserves and emergency funding provided by the International Rhino Foundation.

IRF established the Reserve Relief Fund in May, responding to urgent requests from game reserves and parks facing severe budget shortfalls as the result of the loss of tourism income in Southern Africa. The Fund has awarded more than $260,000 in grants to help pay staff salaries and overtime, purchase health and safety equipment, and keep rhino protection units in the field where they are needed.

Funding was awarded to Addo Elephant National Park, a diverse wildlife conservation park situated close to Port Elizabeth in South Africa that is one of the country’s 20 national parks. It currently ranks third in size after Kruger National Park and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. The park is also home to one of the largest populations of black rhinos in Africa.

Addo is part of the South Africa National Parks system with 80% of their support coming from tourism. On March 29th, the park was closed and remained so for 4 months. Acting quickly, the park made budget cuts in some areas in order to keep protection units on the ground.

“There was lots of fear, not just am I going to get COVID, but also am I going to keep my job,” said Catherine Dreyer, Conservation Manager of Addo Elephant Park.

Dreyer has more than 22 years of conservation experience and has been at Addo for just over a year. She was worried that gaps in funding for overtime and travel allowances as well as basic equipment for ranger would dampen spirits. “If you are putting in all these hours and not receiving compensation, well, it lowers your morale,” she explained.

During the highest level of lockdowns in South Africa, essential staff stayed in the park. “Being away from their families was tough and they were concerned for the safety of their loved ones,” said Dreyer.

The grant from IRF was used to fund the gaps in overtime pay and purchase equipment that rangers were preparing to do without. “It is often simple things, a good pair of boots or buying tires for a vehicle,” said Dreyer. “Providing the right tools and equipment was a huge morale booster.”

“It’s critical that monitoring, protection, and intelligence activities continue uninterrupted to ensure the safety of rhinos in southern Africa,” said Nina Fascione, IRF’s executive director. “There is a huge concern that poaching will rise with income and job losses.”

Addo supports local businesses and the local economy by attracting tourists from around the world that come to see its wildlife. The park normally runs at 90% capacity. The park is open again, but only at 40% capacity, and there are increased costs for personal protective equipment and increased cleaning protocols to keep guests safe.

“It will likely take 2 to 3 years for us to fully recover,” said Dreyer. International travel is slowly opening up, but there is still much uncertainty as to what level will return. “We want to tell our visitors to please come back. We are taking steps to keep everyone safe.”

Within 2 weeks of the park closure, wildlife had reclaimed some areas. Nocturnal species, like the brown hyena, were seen at all hours. “Young elephants born during the lockdown had never seen a car before, and they were very curious when visitors first returned,” chuckled Dreyer.

“Rhinos and other wildlife are facing uncertain times ahead,” said Fascione. “Tourism revenue will not rebound quickly. It is critical that we continue to support the women and men who keep rhinos safe every day.”

Dryer is concerned as well. “We normally see an increase in poaching at this time of year, as people want and need money. Need has likely increased because of the pandemic.”

The black rhino population had a small increase to 5,630 from 5,500 in 2019. The species remains critically endangered and at a fraction of the 65,000 historical population level in 1970. Small population gains are forecasted over the next few years.

“Amongst the doom and gloom, there is hope,” said Fascione. “That is because of people like Cathy and her team at Addo Elephant Park, and others all over the world who keep rhinos alive and thriving in the wild.”