It’s one of the world’s most iconic and recognizable animals. A member of the famous Big Five in Africa but unfortunately also targeted by poachers for its ivory horn. The rhino is an incredible creature and one that fuels travel around the world as people flock to catch a glimpse of this iconic species in national parks. But rhinos also suffer desperately from the action of mankind. Luckily, there are many dedicated people and organizations working on rhino conservation. And the return of travel after the COVID-19 pandemic should help the situation too! So, read on to find out more about how wild rhino populations are doing in 2023.
Firstly, it’s important to know that there are actually five distinct rhino species. Black and white rhinos are native to east and southern Africa and the greater one-horned rhino lives in India and Nepal. The incredibly rare Javan and Sumatran rhinos live almost exclusively on their namesake islands. And both number fewer than 100 animals in global populations.
Here’s how all five rhino species are doing in 2023, thanks to the most recent analysis by the International Rhino Foundation (data published in September 2022).
Wild population estimate: 15,942 and decreasing
The white rhino is the most common of the five rhino species, although common is the wrong word. It is thought that the wild population has fallen by around 12% in the past four years. Classed as Near Threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), there is no immediate danger that the white rhino is under threat, although the northern white rhino subspecies is extinct in the wild, with just two ageing females kept under armed guard at all times in the Ol Pejeta Reserve in Kenya.
The COVID-19 pandemic, unfortunately, saw a resurgence in poaching, as people struggled to earn a living and tourism to Africa’s national parks collapsed. This was particularly potent in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, once a stronghold for the species. Hopefully, protection and anti-poaching efforts will be re-intensified as travel resumes. After all, an Africa with no rhinos is a poorer Africa for tourists and locals alike. And although white rhino numbers are falling, there is plenty of scope for the species to bounce back.
Wild population estimate: 6,195 and increasing
There is better news for the black rhino, which was brought to the brink of extinction by a poaching epidemic in the 1970s but continues its gradual recovery thanks to extensive rhino conservation. The International Rhino Foundation estimates a 12% population increase in the species over the past few years, up from 5,495 individuals in 2017 to today’s figure. It remains Critically Endangered on the IUCN Conservation Red List, but this population boost is a testament to the work done to protect the species.
In recent years, black rhinos numbers have increased strongly in Zimbabwe after being wiped out historically. A population of 29 individuals was transported to Gonarezhou National Park in July 2021. And this population has grown by 6%, with no poaching recorded. There are now more than 600 black rhinos in Zimbabwe and more than 1,000 white and black rhinos live in the country, the first time this figure has been reached in more than 30 years.
Etosha National Park in Namibia is home to the largest proportion of the world’s black rhinos, and numbers are steadily increasing here too. Poaching remains a threat, however, with 11 carcasses found in June 2022 alone. South Africa has the largest black rhino population in Africa, with more than 2,000 animals, although unfortunately, poaching has also been on the rise here.
Greater one-horned rhino
Wild population estimate: 4,014 and increasing
Perhaps the best news for rhino populations comes from the Greater one-horned rhino. This species continues a remarkable resurgence, having numbered just 100 individuals a century or so ago. The governments of India and Nepal have worked extremely successfully to combat poaching and expand protected areas for rhinos. In Manas National Park, 47 rhinos were recently reintroduced. And not a single animal was poached in Assam state in 2022, down from two rhinos in 2021.
In Nepal, the most recent rhino census in 2021 suggested 752 animals call the country home, an increase of 16% from the 645 individuals counted in 2015. The population of rhinos in Nepal is growing by 3% per year, on average.
In both India and Nepal, there are plans to keep this momentum going. Plans involve the increased expansion of habitat and reintroducing rhinos to areas they once lived. Of course, these efforts also boost the populations of rare creatures such as tigers and gharial crocodiles. This helps in turn to kickstart eco-tourism in destinations such as Chitwan National Park, Nepal’s flagship wildlife reserve. Chitwan is currently home to nearly 700 rhinos.
Wild population estimate: 76 and stable
It isn’t poaching that threatens the Javan rhino today, but a lack of habitat. The entire global population of Javan rhinos lives in Java, an Indonesian island. Specifically, this animal can be found only in Ujung Kulon National Park, having been wiped out from its historic range across Southeast Asia. The population is currently stable. There was one birth in 2022 and zero deaths recorded, meaning the overall population grew by one. The trend over the past 10 years has been positive, with today’s 76 animals up from 50 in a decade. Numbers are low, but crucially are not declining further. In December 2022, two newborn calves were spotted on a camera trap in the park, suggesting the population may have increased further.
To secure the future of the Javan rhino, a second population must be created in a protected area. This would reduce the pressure on the Ujung Kulon National Park population. And it would allow a second population to prosper, reducing the risk of inbreeding and the chance of extinction via a natural disaster such as a tsunami or volcanic eruption. Work is ongoing to create this new habitat. But Ujung Kulon National Park was expanded by 5,100 hectares in 2010, providing more habitat for the rhinos.
Wild population estimate: Fewer than 80 and decreasing
The Sumatran rhino is perhaps the most endangered large mammal on the planet. This elusive creature lives in the jungles of Indonesia and was once widespread across Southeast Asia too. But it has been wiped out from virtually everywhere except Sumatra and a tiny population that clings on in Borneo. Habitat fragmentation rather than poaching is the problem here. There are so few wild rhinos left, and they are spread out over so many tiny fragments of habitat, that they cannot find each other to breed.
However, there is hope. The Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Way Kambas National Park, Sumatra has had some success in captive breeding this critically endangered species, giving hope that if enough habitat can be protected and restored, a viable wild population can be rebuilt. Most recently, in March 2022, a healthy female calf was born at the sanctuary. Every individual rhino is precious. And this little one brings fresh hope for her species and for broader rhino conservation efforts.
There are also attempts underway to find and capture the isolated wild individuals that remain. The plan is to bring them together at the sanctuary in an effort to boost captive breeding and return the species to the wild when there are enough safe protected areas to do so. A new Sumatran rhino sanctuary should also be completed in 2023 in Aceh, Indonesia. This will help to invigorate Sumatran rhino conservation further. Plans are in place to capture wild individuals and transfer them to the sanctuary. Here they will be protected and hopefully breed.
So, it’s a mixed bag for rhino populations in 2023. It’s clear that the pandemic had an impact in allowing poaching to increase unchallenged. By booking a safari to see some of these rhino species, you are helping to conserve them for future generations, funding anti-poaching efforts and rhino conservation work. Simply by being willing to spend your hard-earned money to see these wild animals, you are proving to governments that rhinos are worth protecting! Things are looking difficult for the Javan and Sumatran rhino species. But with people fighting to save them and positive news such as the miracle baby of March 2022, there is always hope!
You can see white and black rhinos in many east and southern African countries with our range of safaris. And our Nepal tours all include a visit to Chitwan National Park to see greater one-horned rhinos in the wild.
With thanks to the International Rhino Foundation for providing this data on wild rhino populations, and for all the work they do to protect rhinos around the world. You can read the full State of the Rhino report here.