Changing Planet

Zimbabwe’s Elephants Are Dying, But Its Rhinos Are Doing Better

By Oscar Nkala

The number of rhinos killed by poachers in Zimbabwe spiked to 164 in 2008. In 2014, poachers killed 15 rhinos in Zimbabwe—including five black rhinos in Save Valley and one white rhino in Bubye Valley.

This year, fewer than ten have been killed for their horns, sold illegally in Vietnam and other Asian countries for their imagined medicinal and other powers.

Zimbabwe’s rhino population, estimated at 766 in 2014, is the continent’s fourth largest after South Africa, Kenya, and Namibia. (Some 2,200 rhinos roamed Zimbabwe in 1999.)

The dramatic reduction in the killings is because 90 percent of the country’s rhinos have been removed from high-risk poaching areas to Intensive Conservation Zones, says Johnny Rodriguez , chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force. These secure zones are essentially protected breeding areas in selected game reserves.

The protected breeding areas are in Matobo, Bubye Valley, Save Valley, Hwange (Sinamatella Camp), Sebakwe, Chivero, Malilangwe, and Imire Conservancies.

Conservation groups, alarmed about the decimation of the country’s rhinos, stepped up the relocation of the surviving animals from high-risk poaching areas to safe zones.

“High security has drastically reduced poaching,” Rodriguez says. “More births are still being recorded.”

Fatalities dropped from 66 in 2012 to 20 in 2013 and only six in 2014. Eight rhinos have been poached since January 2015—far fewer than the new births recorded at the country’s main breeding centers, in Save and Bubye Valley Conservancies.

Both sanctuaries are run by the Lowveld Rhino Trust (LRT), a local conservation group that now protects 90 percent of Zimbabwean rhinos in partnership with the U.S.-based International Rhino Fund (IRF).

In a recent statement, the IRF said the lowveld rhino program owes its success to translocation, tracking, monitoring and anti-poaching efforts, as well as the treatment and rehabilitation of rhinos.

According to the IRF, 100 rhinos had been born in Bubye Valley Conservancy by 2012, and the birth rate has been growing at 5 to 10 percent a year since then. In 2012, 82 black rhinos were introduced into the protected breeding area, and at least 100 more births are expected by 2020.

More Births Than Deaths

By 2014, births outweighed poaching death rates in the protected breeding areas, according to the IRF. The organization said that during that year, 16 black rhinos and three white rhinos were born in the Save Valley Conservancy. In the Bubye Valley Conservancy, 25 black rhinos and three white rhinos were born.

It’s a similarly positive story in the Motobo breeding area. Last year was the first in the past 15 that no rhinos were poached there, says James Burton, chairman of the Matobo Rhino Protection Initiative. “As a result, an increased rhino birth rate has been recorded in the last two years.”

And at Hwange National Park, where poachers have killed 62 elephants with cyanide poisoning in recent months, rhino poaching is declining.

“The poaching of both the black and white rhino species has remained low within the park’s estate,” says Caroline Washayo-Moyo, spokeswoman for the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority. But, she added, there’s been an increase outside the park.

Protecting the rhinos inside Hwange is crucial because the park now holds only ten, down from 90 a decade ago, according to the Victoria Falls-based rhino conservation group Bhejane Trust.

Trevor Lane, the trust’s cofounder, says that the Sinamatella Intensive Protection Zone in Hwange has kept the remaining rhinos safe.

“We now have a permanent monitoring team on the ground in Sinamatella, comprising the Bhejane Trust team leader and selected, dedicated parks rangers,” Lane says. “This team is in the field at all times, checking for illegal activity and collecting data on the remaining rhino to establish the status and viability of the population.”

The trust has proposed setting up two Rhino Conservation Areas, one in Sinamatella and another in Zambezi National Park, at Victoria Falls, Lane says. The Sinamatella area would be stocked with animals from the surrounding lands, while the Zambezi area would primariy be dedicated to fundraising and education.

Meanwhile, transferring rhinos from Zimbabwe to Botswana—a safe haven for wildlife—has yielded benefits. In June, a calf was born to one of the eight black rhinos moved to Moremi Game Reserve. And under a bilaterial agreement signed in May 2011, 12 more rhinos will be have yet to be rrelocated to the Okavango Delta.

If Zimbabwe continues to focus on protecting its rhinos, there’s reason to believe that its target population of 550 black rhinos and 370 white rhinos by 2016 is within reach.

Oscar Nkala is a Zimbabwean journalist based in Gaborone, Botswana. He specializes in African defense and aerospace news in addition to investigations of poaching crimes in southern Africa. He is featured as an investigator and consultant in the award-winning film When Giants Fall, by Matriarch Films.

  • Raoul du Toit

    Regrettably, this article is based upon outdated information. Zimbabwe’s rhinos have in fact suffered from an upsurge in poaching in 2015, despite significant conservation efforts by the private conservancies that strive to protect the majority of Zimbabwe’s rhino population. See this web page:

  • alexia abnett

    Most perturbed that exact locations have been identified
    Given Zimbabwes record of poaching and corruption I see this as blatant advertising.. Good news, however. What are the Zimbabweans doing to protect their rhino besides relocating? What methods are they using to ward off would be poachers? My interest in knowing this is because other countries might be very interested in using the same methods. We all know Botswana has a shoot to kill policy, hence countries such a South Africa and Zimbabwe send rhino there for safe haven. Having said this, why would Zimbabwe want to keep sending rhino to Botswana, if they are having such a successful time at saving their rhino?

  • Gaetano Bonaviri

    “A significant surge in rhino poaching in Zimbabwe in 2015 saw at least 50 rhino poached, more than double the figure lost the previous year, a conservation group has reported. Forty-two of the rhino lost last year were black rhino, said the Lowveld Rhino Trust in a statement. Only around 20 rhino were lost to poachers in Zimbabwe in 2014, according to the trust. Although there were some rhino births recorded in 2014, the increase in deaths mean that Zimbabwe’s total population of white and black rhino has dropped to around 800 from just above 800 in 2014. ”

About the Blog

Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

Opinions are those of the blogger and/or the blogger’s organization, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Posters of blogs and comments are required to observe National Geographic’s community rules and other terms of service.

Voices director: David Braun (

Social Media