Protecting Rhinos in the Face of a Pandemic

The crisis was building. COVID-19 had brought tourism to a halt and game reserves that depend on that income to protect rhinos from poaching were facing difficult decisions that could put them at even greater risk.

Responding to urgent requests from game reserves and parks facing severe budget shortfalls in southern Africa, the International Rhino Foundation (IRF) acted quickly to establish the Reserve Relief Fund and awarded emergency grants totaling nearly $150,000 to six organizations in the first month alone.

A white rhino at Mkhaya Game Reserve, Eswatini.

The two species of African rhinos and other wildlife that reside in game reserves are dependent on protection and monitoring personnel for their continued safety. With travel halted and emergency shutdowns enacted to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, reserves are struggling to keep team members employed and have been forced to ask staff to work for reduced pay. Reduced income also means that health and safety equipment protecting against the virus are often not available to staff.

It’s critical that monitoring, protection, and intelligence activities continue uninterrupted to ensure the safety of rhinos in southern Africa. IRF recognized the economic crisis would impact our partners’ ability to maintain operations and acted quickly to raise funds for emergency support.

The Reserve Relief Fund was established in May with $250,000 coming from long time IRF supporters Daniel Maltz and Constellation Brands and with a grant from the Wildlife Conservation Network. IRF moved its annual “Cinco de Rhino,” a party for a purpose fundraiser, online this year. The one-day event raised more than $30,000 for the Reserve Relief Fund, from virtual happy hours and additional individual donations.

Team Rhino turned out in a big way, recognizing the critical need to help offset the loss of tourism income, which has had dire consequences on the economy and businesses which provide the bulk of funding for local communities and wildlife protection.

The fund is making grants on a rolling monthly basis to organizations to help pay staff salaries, purchase health and safety equipment, and keep rangers and monitors in the field where they are needed.

The first grants from the fund were made to six organizations:

  1. Mkhaya Game Reserve, managed by Big Game Parks in Eswatini received $25,000 to fill gaps in salary funding for reserve staff for the next six months.
  2. Chishakwe on behalf of four ranches of the Save Valley Conservancy in Zimbabwe received $25,000 to fund equipment and consumables to enable ongoing patrolling, particularly to respond to a spike in nighttime incursions. 
  3. Phinda Private Game Reserve in South Africa received $25,000 to dehorn 30 animals to reduce poaching incentive, as well as funding for salary and fuel allowance gaps for three key conservation staff.
  4. Kwandwe Joint Rhino Protection Unit of the Kwandwe Private Game Reserve in South Africa received $25,000 to support continued interventions against poaching networks targeting the Eastern Cape through proactive risk management work and equipment.
  5. Addo Elephant National Park near Port Elizabeth, South Africa received $24,864 for equipment, supplies, and standby pay for enforcement personnel.

In addition, support was provided for the security network in Zimbabwe’s Lowveld region that involves private rhino custodians working together across that landscape, in liaison with law-enforcement officials, to tackle rhino poaching.

A previous delivery of critical supplies to rangers at Addo Elephant National Park, made possible by International Rhino Foundation,, and their supporters.

“I have no words. This has come at such an important time for us and we are truly grateful that you have chosen our [region]. [This kind of] funding is so difficult to find and is the single most important thing for us. Without [it] we don’t catch poachers. As simple as that. You can be assured this will go to good use and help save many rhinos. The poaching threat has picked up lately due to more unemployment but I do feel we have made huge headway in the last year. With your support this will continue.”

– Reserve Relief Fund Grantee

IRF received more applications than we can fund, but we are determined to help as many reserves as possible. Applications will be reviewed on a monthly basis and awards will be made for as long as funding allows. We fear that poaching incursions, far fewer over the lockdown period, could increase as COVID-related travel restrictions are lifted.

The demand for rhino horn in illegal markets is always a threat to wild rhinos and maintaining protection and monitoring activities is essential for their survival. IRF will continue to seek additional funding to respond to the changing emergency needs in Africa in these uncertain times.

Learn more or contribute to the Reserve Relief Fund at:

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