THE BLOG
30/11/2016 03:56 GMT | Updated 30/11/2016 03:56 GMT

The Rhino In The Room?

Corruption is a major factor behind the scourge of rhino poaching in South Africa.

Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters
An armed ranger talks on his radio in front of a white rhinoceros at the Imire Rhino and Wildlife Conservation Park near Marondera, east of the capital Harare, September 22, 2014.

The recent reports of State Security Minister David Mahlobo's proposed involvement in rhino horn trafficking in South Africa, has again put the "elephant in the room", corruption, in the spotlight. While allegations against Mahlobo are being investigated by the South African Police Services (SAPS), questions of just how foul the governance system in this country is have resurfaced.

We are all too familiar with allegations of South Africa's political system being fraught with corruption, from top to bottom and back up again, but there have only been hints here and there of how this relates to the current, seemingly uncontrollable rhino poaching crisis in the Kruger National Park. Yes, we have seen how corruption in the game ranching and wildlife capture industry impacted rhinos in private ownership, but something seems amiss when it comes to Kruger.

While the government has thrown millions at the problem in various ways, including investments in more boots on the ground, a more coordinated approach to law enforcement, cooperation with consumer nations to address demand, etc., year on year rhino poaching has escalated. Over the past nine years, we have witnessed a 9,000 per cent increase in poaching of rhinos in South Africa, with a peak of 1,215 animals killed in 2014. There is something horribly wrong with this picture and the allegations against Mahlobo suggest Jacob Bronowski was spot on in suggesting that, "no science is immune to the infection of politics and the corruption of power".

Numerous studies on corruption have shown quite clearly that a two-pronged approach aimed at increasing the benefits of being honest, as well as the costs of being corrupt, thus using a sensible combination of reward and punishment, can lead to reform.

This presents enormous challenges for law enforcement and for those leaders who are committed to stamping out this curse. So how do we get to the bottom of this to mitigate the damage caused to the social and institutional fabric of this country, not to mention the conservation, animal welfare and economic values inherent in the protection of rhinos? I offer the following three considerations.

Numerous studies on corruption have shown quite clearly that a two-pronged approach aimed at increasing the benefits of being honest, as well as the costs of being corrupt, thus using a sensible combination of reward and punishment, can lead to reform. The first consideration here is that civil servants, in this case those involved in fighting this war, should be paid well. One doesn't have to look too far to find a study showing the inverse relationship between salary level and corruption, particularly in the public sector. Whether through a redirection of government funding or using private sector funding to support incentive-based schemes, perhaps it is time to look at how much rangers earn in fighting the fight against poaching.

Then, there has to be much greater transparency in government spending when it comes to fighting the war on poaching. While we hear of millions been thrown at the problem, it is really difficult to discern whether these funds are indeed being used in the public interest, and thus in the interest of rhino conservation. The more transparent the budgetary process, the easier it is to mitigate corruption. Further, bureaucracy has the potential to breed corruption, especially where unnecessary regulations and policies are geared towards a lack of transparency in budgeting and associated allocation of resources. It would be good for South African National Parks (SANParks) to do an audit on bureaucracy as it pertains to protecting rhinos in Kruger.

Lastly, greatly enhanced and strategic data collection, management and analysis can go a long way in winning the war on corruption. It is no longer about boots on the ground alone, but about setting up sophisticated approaches to gathering intelligence, managing data securely, analysing it properly and using it to support law enforcement.

At the end of the day, corruption is a power struggle. If the power of transparency, governance, justice and security can outpace opacity, impotence, injustice and insecurity, the battle can be won. As John Steinbeck so aptly noted, "Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts; perhaps the fear of a loss of power". Let's make the just more powerful in the war against rhino poaching.