Efforts to curb rhino poaching in the Kruger National Park are facing the threat of being deemed futile by the high unemployment rates in the communities surrounding one of the country's national treasures.
This is seen as the root cause of the sprouting poaching syndicates.
The park’s chief ranger, Ben Maggs, said unemployment in the surrounding communities needed to be addressed.
“People are driven to desperation,” Maggs warned, saying residents from these communities could start blocking tourists travelling to the park in order to send a message.
“That’s going to have a big impact. Why? Because they are not getting service delivery.
"We are their neighbours and they are looking at us. They will say ‘guys, you need to deliver a service here. At least give us jobs'. We (the park) only have 3000 jobs, but there are 2million people outside here."
Maggs said the syndicates arose from novices who were recruited, but then turned to running their own operations.
But the park’s more than 500 rangers are making some headway in the poaching battle with a reduction in the number of rhinos poached in the past two years. In 2017, 504 rhinos were killed - down from 662 in 2016.
“A young guy wakes up. He hasn’t been employed for a year, there's no light at the end of the tunnel. What is he going to do? And then a poacher drives past in a big luxury 4x4 to a double-storey house and has all the money.
"So what does this (unemployed) young guy do? He’s easily subverted into that way of life (poaching)."
Maggs said his team’s operations were yielding results and that it was partly because of co-operation between the park, the Hawks and the SANDF.
“There are nightly (poaching) activity and incursions. The relentless poaching operations are of such a nature that today I’m a novice and I join you How long do you think it will take before I do it on my own?" he asked.
"At the rate they come in and operate, maybe a month or two and then they get their own groups going," Maggs pointed out.
“It’s frightening. We don’t always have the answers, but one thing we will say is that while we are here and it’s on our watch, we’ll do everything we can,” said Maggs.
"They shouldn’t question our ability to try to resolve this," he said, adding that it was not easy to infiltrate and neutralise a syndicate.
“Organised crime is a beast, and to get to grips with it, you really have to go the extra mile. It takes a lot of effort.
“There are units engaged to do this, but it’s a drawn-out process. You have to get evidence and prove beyond reasonable doubt in order to get them convicted.”