White rhinos lived in abundance alongside the indigenous people of southern Africa. The Zulus did not regard their flesh as edible and so did not hunt them. Only when white adventurers arrived with guns, and rhino hide and horns became a trade commodity, did the situation change. Animals were easily found waiting in the dry season for puddles, so some hunters killed nearly 100 in a single year.
Within about 50 years the southern subspecies were reduced to the verge of extinction. The last animals were shot in Botswana in the late 1870s and in Zimbabwe in 1893. Small numbers of white rhinos who survived near Umfolozi in South Africa gained legal protection when the Umfolozi GR was proclaimed in 1897.
Some individuals persisted in a remote area of Mozambique until the 1930s when the last individuals were shot. Rookmaaker (2002) suggests that there were never less than 200 white rhinos in Zululand before 1929. However, a founding remnant of 20–50 animals at the beginning of the 20th century would be consistent with the increase in the population of the next.
All surviving white rhinos of the southern subspecies derive from this remnant. Under protection the White Rhino population it increased to about 550 in 1948 and to about 1,800 in 1968 Concerned about the risks associated with this one population, the Natal Parks Board began live capture trials on the use of drug darts in 1961. By 1970 a total of 730 White Rhino was recorded.
They were moved to other parks, but 2,000 animals remained. The immediate management’s response was an accelerated takeover and takeover program, aimed at reducing the population below this high level, restocking the species through its former range, and supplying animals to various zoos.
The objective was to allow the center of the population to naturally adapt to changes in food resources by providing a safe outlet within the fenced perimeter. This policy was eventually put into effect in 1985, but following several adjustments to the sink locations only became properly effective in 1998.
In December 2010, the number of southern white rhinos stood estimated at 20,160, 6,784 in 1993, 7,532 in 1995, 8,441 in 1997, 10,377 in 1999, 11,640 in 2001, 11,320 in 2003, 14,550 in 2005 and 17,475 in 2007. The slight drop between 2001 and 2003 does not reflect a real drop in the number.
As of December 2010, South Africa held 93% (18,796) of the wild white rhino population, primarily in Kruger N.P. (10,500 animals) and Hluhluwe–iMfolozi Park (2312). While the state-run conservation agencies continue to manage most
white rhinos in Africa 72%, the private sector also manages a significant proportion (5,504, 27%) with probably more than 5,000 white rhinos on private land in South Africa.
From 1960 to 62, Garamba N. P. and surrounding reserves to the NEDR Congo contained more than 1,200 Northern White Rhinos, before armed rebels and others reduced the population to 100–200 during the rebellion following independence.
White Rhinos increased again to about 500 in 1976. The Garamba Project was started in 1984, supported by a coalition
of donors, and under protection the remnant population doubled to 30 by 1992 (0.015/km²), but following an upsurge in poaching in mid-2003 (11 carcasses were found during the March-May 2004 alone), the polls counted only four individuals in the park and up to four more in an adjacent hunting area.
Given the critical situation and unsustainable levels of poaching, an emergency plan to temporarily translocate five animals to a Kenyan sanctuary was developed, but it was not implemented for internal policy reasons. A survey in 2006 only counted two rhinos with another two different animals being seen subsequently. In the past years, there have been no signs or sightings of animals (one carcass was found in 2008), and it is feared this population is now extinct.
Until the 1970s, White Rhinos were reportedly seen by hunters in the Central African Republic and S. Chad, but their continued existence there seems unlikely. Fewer than 300 were estimated to occur in S Sudan in 1981, but this population also seems now extirpated.
The species became extinct in Uganda in 1982 (CITES has downlisted South Africa’s, and more recently Swaziland’s, White Rhinos from Appendix I to Appendix II, allowing limited trade in live animals although not in products like horns. Hunting is permitted under strictly controlled conditions.
Whether international trade in rhino horns should be allowed to raise funds to conserve this and other rhino species effectively remains highly contentious, especially in the context of the huge escalation of the illegal trade in 2009-2012, due to the increase in demand, particularly in Vietnam.
In 2011 alone, an estimated,450 people were killed by poachers, about half in Kruger N.P. Unless an effective response is implemented, a further escalation of the killings could lead to a down-turn in the population trend of the species and reverse the conservation gains of the past.
Although captive breeding of southern white rhinos has happened in 2006, particularly when a number of animals were kept in large enclosures, the captive breeding of northern white rhinos was less so.
The last birth among nine individuals held in two zoos had taken place In 1989. At the time of going to press, the last four potential breeding animals from Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic had been introduced to a private reserve in Kenya. The animals are all related and are very old, and the best that probably can be hoped for is to conserve some adaptive genes of the northern white rhinoceros by crossing the southern subspecies.
As of December 2005, there were more than 750 of the southern subspecies in zoos worldwide. Nowadays more than 1,000 are present in the zoos.