The Rhino Wars – Lessons From Zimbabwe

21 Jan 2015

Of the four original recognized subspecies of Black Rhinoceros, Diceros bicornis, only three remain and are all listed as critically endangered by the IUCN (the International Union for Conservation of Nature). Once inhabiting the savannas of Central-West Africa Diceros bicornis ssp. longipes is now considered extinct.

Black RhinoBlack Rhino once thrived throughout virtually the entire Sub-Saharan region of the African continent, so much so that early European settlers regularly reported seeing a dozen or more daily. Unfortunately these settlers brought with them a frenzied hunting culture that decimated wildlife populations, including those of the Black Rhino, throughout the continent. Despite this unprecedented onslaught, estimates put the Black Rhino population at between 60000-70000 at the close of the 1960’s.

The 1970’s ushered in a new and deadly threat to Africa’s rhinos in the form of an unrelenting poaching epidemic, fuelled both by vanity and ignorance. Young Yemeni men would stop at nothing to acquire a ceremonial dagger (jambiya) with a handle carved from rhino horn. Asinine ignorance in Far Eastern cultures led to the belief that ground rhino horn could reduce fever – a belief still widespread despite being contradicted by science!

Black Rhino

The Rhino Wars began in earnest in Central and East Africa, the marauding poachers simply moving southwards as they wiped out local rhino populations. The high value of rhino horn on the black market sustained the poachers’ campaigns. By 1992 fewer than 2600 Black Rhino remained on the continent – a massive drop in numbers of 96%!

Despite enduring a long guerrilla war leading up to independence, Zimbabwe was home to some 3000 Black Rhino in 1980. This was the largest surviving African population at the time with the Zambezi Valley containing the biggest concentration of these magnificent animals. Having virtually wiped out their own Black Rhino population, Zambian poachers turned their attention to this ‘Valley of Eden’ in 1980 and, seven short years later, the Valley had lost its most famous inhabitants!


Zimbabwe’s conservation authorities began relocating the last remaining Black Rhino (some 120 animals) on state land to Intensive Protection Zones (IPZ’s) on private Conservancies. By 1994 barely 300 Black Rhino survived in the country, perilously close to regional extinction. The sterling efforts by the military, conservation personnel and international organizations had failed to turn the tide against the poachers. A comprehensive dehorning program too yielded no tangible results – so high were black market prices for rhino horn that poachers targeted de-horned rhino for the remaining stump! Corruption, racism and inappropriate government social upliftment policies merely fanned the flames of the Rhino War. Black Rhino in Zimbabwe appeared doomed.

Whether the IPZ initiative will succeed in bringing the Black Rhino back from the brink remains to be seen – a Natal Parks Board initiative in South Africa succeeded with the Southern White Rhino in the early twentieth century. The Save Valley Conservancy in South Eastern Zimbabwe has become home to the largest rhino population in Zimbabwe – all hope rests on these conservancies right now.

2010 saw a massive escalation in the poaching of rhino in South Africa as the poachers once again headed south, with the Kruger National Park, the country’s largest wildlife preserve, bearing the brunt of the war. Ironically, Kruger itself was originally restocked with rhino from the successful Natal Parks! How does South Africa avoid becoming something of a Zambezi Valley déjà vu? Perhaps only if we can draw on the experiences of the Zimbabwe Rhino Wars. So intense is the current onslaught that rhino are not totally safe even on smaller, private ranches and reserves – Kariega and Aquila, to name but two, have both suffered rhino losses. Arrests have been few and far between, but they have revealed that corruption, as in Zimbabwe, has been a factor as so-called wildlife protectors too are implicated in poaching. Kruger has borne roughly half of all rhino losses – testament to either the difficulties of protecting species on large tracts of state land or to the relative safety of smaller, private reserves.

Black Rhino

The current South African government appears totally lost as to how to deal with the situation. It will surely be private initiatives that rescue the day, if at all - rhino horn prices of $60000+ on the black market are far too alluring to an administration with a penchant for self-enrichment. Critics of the Zimbabwe lessons may well point to the fact that the Natal Parks Board achieved much success with government involvement – this is indeed true but state conservation agencies at that time were staffed and run by motivated, dedicated wildlife enthusiasts, not deployed political cadres. Small and private is the only way to go – that is the Zimbabwe lesson.