When a debate is heated and becomes politicised, there is a danger that one loses sight of the critical issues. Recently, reports in the media have turned the fight against wildlife poaching and trafficking into a highly-charged argument on whether the private sector or state was doing better and who was losing the most rhino?

There is no question that arguments intensify when the pressure rises – pressure to solve problems on the ground, pressure for positive results, and pressure for more co-operation between all sectors and parties. But in the rush to score immediate points, whether political or to demonstrate effective use of funds or human deployment, a great deal is lost.

First, wildlife poaching, trafficking and illegal trade are a collective problem and second, there is, in fact, a great deal of co-operation and effective partnering between the Greater Kruger private reserves and the Kruger National Park and other provincial reserves. Managers collaborate and communicate constantly, Field rangers in both sectors, whose task it is to ‘protect and engage,’ risk their lives daily. These rangers are trained, up-skilled and supported by both sectors working in co-operation to achieve a collective best result.

The ‘800 pound gorilla in the room’ is the role of organised crime in the chain, and the level of corruption we face. We will never make progress when the fight rests with boots on the ground. The extraordinary effort and amount of funding poured into this first line of defence is to no avail if the efforts are not matched by more strategic action and interventions that tackle the higher echelons in the criminal chain.  In 2021 we collectively lost 450 rhino in South Africa, 300+ from National and Provincial reserves. What we should count is the 900 horns poached. Our collective heritage, our collective problem.

We need to ask the tougher questions: How are rhino horns transported?

How do they move from the reserves to the “trade centres” and how do they leave the country? Who is complicit in this chain? In 2021, there were two highly publicised busts involving rhino horn involving 32 and 17 horns respectively. Were these stolen from stockpiles or confiscated from a cache of illegally harvested horn?

Tackling the problem of organised crime, corruption and state and private sector culpability is the crucial tasking facing all of us in conservation. We will ‘protect and serve’ to our utmost capabilities but if we are to survive and thrive, we must tackle the head of the beast.