A white rhinoceros mother and calf at a waterhole in the Ongava Game Reserve in northwestern Namibia in 2019. Wolfgang Kaehler / LightRocket via Getty Images

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Just in time for World Rhino Day (September 22), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) announced that the white rhino population has increased for the first time since 2012. Although the increase is promising, experts warn that poaching still threatens the species.

According to the IUCN, the white rhino count at the end of 2022 was around 16,803, a 5.6% increase compared to 2021.

“With this good news, we can take a sigh of relief for the first time in a decade,” Michael Knight, chair of the IUCN’s African Rhino Specialist Group, said in a statement. “However, it is imperative to further consolidate and build upon this positive development and not drop our guard.”

Although the white rhino is the only rhino species that is not endangered, it is classified as Near Threatened, World Wildlife Fund reported. However, white rhinos are divided into two subspecies, northern white rhinos and southern white rhinos. The northern white rhino subspecies has only two remaining individuals left, both female; one of these two white rhinos was retired from the assisted breeding program in 2021.

The report also tallied 6,487 black rhinos in 2022, an increase of 4.2% from 2021. Experts attribute this increase to increased conservation efforts and biological management. The population has been slowly increasing from 1995 to now, and from 2012 to 2018, the black rhino population had an annual growth rate of around 2.5%. But this species is considered critically endangered, and poaching is the biggest threat to all rhino species. 

About 11,000 rhinos were poached in Africa from just 2008 to 2021, WWF reported. Rhinos are vulnerable to poaching, because their horns are considered valuable. Historically, the horns have been used as an ingredient in traditional medicines, although they have been swapped for herbal ingredients as alternatives in more recent years. But some people still seek out the rhino horns just for the perceived financial value, using them as a display of wealth, Save the Rhino explained on its website.

IUCN’s report found that in 2022, 561 rhinos were poached across the continent, with most poachings (448) occurring in South Africa. Aside from poaching, rhinos face many challenges, including habitat loss, fragmented populations and disease. 

IUCN shared its findings in a livestream event, Rhinos: charging forward?, during which researchers shared updates on the five rhino species. In addition to the white rhino and black rhino populations that increased in 2022, the greater one-horned rhino population has increased from 2008 to now and remains around 4,000. The javan rhino population is estimated to be at just 76 individuals, and the Sumatran rhino population is estimated to be fewer than 80.

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