Last week the country was shocked by fresh news of a further 18 rhinos killed by poachers in Letaba Ranch. Letaba is one of the parks managed by the Limpopo province. The 18 rhinos come on top of a total of 261 rhinos poached to date this year, a dramatic increase on the total of 122 killed last year, and 83 the year before. Poaching appears to be escalating out of control, driven by criminal syndicates in SA and the far east. But the story has another side to it.

Rhinos are a good indicator of conservation management, and their successful conservation in SA has for many years been raised as evidence of our excellent conservation standards – we manage approximately 90% of Africa's remaining rhinos. This latest revelation points to a worrying reversal, which will undermine SA's global reputation. Importantly the carcasses that were found were not recent. Reports vary, but it appears that most of the rhinos had been killed over the last few years, and for a protracted period the killings went undetected. This indicates that on the ground conservation monitoring at Letaba is not taking place. Large animals such as rhinos need dedicated and regular monitoring. This is usually done by means of inspections, remote tracking and occasionally aerial surveys. The national Department of Environmental Affairs cites on the ground monitoring through foot patrols as the foundation of government's strategy for cracking down on poaching. This is in addition to working with local communities, dealing with criminal syndicates in the cities, SADC regional cooperation and working through Interpol to track cross-border crime and illegal goods.

What is clear from a number of reports is that bread and butter conservation management functions are not being performed at Letaba Ranch. There are too few staff, who are poorly motivated, with inadequate budgets and declining capital infrastructure. There is no management plan for Letaba. Highly placed conservation officials have simply admitted that "there is no conservation management at Letaba Ranch".

This is symptomatic of the broader collapse of conservation management across all of the 35 nature reserves managed by the Limpopo Province. Last year the management of Limpopo's parks was taken away from the Limpopo Tourism and Parks Board because of mismanagement. The parks now sit with the Limpopo Department of Economic Development, Environment and Tourism (LEDET), which is itself under-resourced and understaffed. Conservation has been seriously underfunded in the province for many years, with funds going to politically far more important health, welfare and education. This is compounded by financial mismanagement in the Department, with R450 000 unauthorised and wasteful expenditure in the previous financial year, leading the Auditor General to issue a disclaimer (the strongest possible sanction from the AG!).

There are also serious staffing problems. The Department has a 48% vacancy rate in its environmental division, and a very high attrition rate of 30% of filled posts. At the same time staff expenditure makes up 82% of their budget. There is little funding left for maintaining fences, vehicles or park facilities – all crucial for well run parks. The Department can provide very little information about the status of protected areas and their management plans, indicative of poor monitoring and conservation planning.

In all there are serious concerns about the state of conservation management in the province. Conservation experts point to a steady erosion of performance and collapse of critical conservation functions. In terms of a recent review of conservation effectiveness across all South Africa's parks, Limpopo scored the lowest in terms of HR capacity, generation of own income and law enforcement. Clearly there is something seriously amiss in the Department. But does this matter? How important are the parks in Limpopo?

In fact Limpopo's parks are an extremely valuable part of the overall conservation estate in SA. The northern Drakensberg escarpment contains some unique grasslands and indigenous forests, with rare plant and animal species found nowhere else. It is a strategically important water catchment which feeds the farms and ecosystems of the lowveld, and is important for climate change adaptation. The Wolkberg and parks like it are unique wilderness areas that support the province's tourism industry. The Limpopo parks include 29 different ecosystems, many of which have been identified as vulnerable and threatened.

As a country we simply cannot afford to lose such an important part of our conservation estate. There is a clear case for national intervention to save these reserves and protect what biodiversity is left.

Part of the problem is that we have too complex a conservation system, inherited from the apartheid era separation into state forests, mountain catchments, national, provincial and local reserves. Today we have 15 different conservation management agencies operating in South Africa. A recent management review found that four of these management authorities are seriously underperforming. A further four management authorities are showing signs of severe distress. The lack of effective conservation in these areas means that we are at risk of losing the nature reserves managed by them. Only five management authorities can be said to be performing adequately to well, and even these are showing some signs of distress.

So the problems of Letaba Ranch are in fact symptomatic of the broader state conservation sector (despite some excellent examples such as SANParks, Cape Nature and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife). This poses serious questions and challenges to our environmental authorities. How do we fix such a pervasive set of management and financial problems? And what can be done now to limit the scale of the potential loss? One answer seems glaringly obvious. The country simply cannot afford the existing number of conservation agencies – both in terms of their financial overheads, as well as the demands of separate management systems. Underperforming Provinces and government departments are particularly ill suited to conservation functions. Government should seriously consider rationalising these into fewer agencies, with the attendant economies of scale, less fragmented biodiversity management and increased presence and influence. There are many successful examples of single national agencies in Africa, as well as in the US and Latin America – we should give a single agency serious consideration.

At the same time there are some fairly simple remedies that can make a big difference – for instance allow parks agencies to retain the revenue they earn, creating an effective incentive to build own revenue and decrease reliance on the state. We must also recognise the value of properly funding conservation. Without adequate management and funding we reduce the immediate benefits of clean air, water and species diversity that parks provide. And we will have little to pass on to future generations, whose natural world is already seriously threatened by climate change. The time for decisive action to fix the system is now.

by Crispian Olver, November 2010, Director of Linkd Environmental Services