Although illegal hunting only impacted 0.2% of white rhinos in 2005, poaching has increased over 3,000% and is beginning to threaten the sustainability of the species.
Until recently, poaching of white rhinos has not had a serious impact on overall population numbers, with poaching losses being surpassed by encouraging growth rates. The annual average poaching incidents during 2003 to 2005 represented just 0.2% of the total number of white rhinos at the end of 2005. However, poaching levels have increased dramatically in recent years.
In recent years, poaching levels have escalated dramatically in major range states South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Kenya in response to significant increases in black market prices for horn. Swaziland also recently lost its first rhino to poaching since December 1992.
For example, the total numbers of rhinos poached annually in the major range state, South Africa, has increased from 13, to 83, 122, 333, and 480 over the period 2007-2011. 232 individuals were arrested for poaching activities in 2011. While still less than the net growth in numbers, due to breeding, the continued escalation in poaching threatens to soon reverse the gains achieved. If current trends continue, numbers in South Africa could start to decline.
As a proportion of total numbers, poaching levels in the major range states have been highest in Zimbabwe.
The significantly increased and escalating poaching, increased protection costs, declining live sale prices and reduced incentives are leading to increasing numbers of private owners in South Africa seeking to get rid of their rhino. If this worrying trend continues, this threatens to reverse the expansion of range and has the potential to also significantly reduce conservation budgets due to declining live sales.