Australian author Tony Park is known for action-packed books set in the wilds of Africa. Wild caught up with him to discuss his latest novel, conservation and life in the wilderness. By Arnold Ras

For his 15th novel set in Africa, Captive, author Tony Park pits a wildlife vet against the dark world of poaching and a corrupt politician. But even among the charities and philanthropists fighting to preserve the animals, things are not what they appear.

Wild sat down with Tony to find out more about his deep-seated love for the Kruger National Park, passion for conservation and crippling fear of snakes.

How did your love affair with Africa start?

[In 1995, Tony’s wife, Nicole, convinced her unenthusiastic husband to visit Africa. It was his first visit to the continent, his first time in South Africa and his first trip to the iconic Kruger.]

I was completely unprepared. The first place we went to from OR Tambo was the Kruger National Park. We rented a car and I had no idea where I was going. I was driving at 120 kilometres per hour – we don’t do that in Australia. And within five hours, we were driving through the Kruger’s gates. I was blown away. It was the combination of landscape, wildlife, excitement, the unpredictability, you know. It was unlike any other holiday we’d been on before.

Every minute of every day was different. Within a few days, we were hooked. And like an addiction, the more you get, the more you want. Within the first week, we had already planned our next trip. And for the past 20 years we’ve come to Kruger every year – except when I was serving in Afghanistan. Now, we live half of our lives here.

How did Captive come about?

The idea for Captive came from a couple of things. When I start a new book, I have no idea what the plot is going to be. All I start with is a premise. Then I heard elephant poaching was seeing an increase in Kruger and it came to life. Once I started talking to people involved in the broader conservation effort, I heard about the good work people do. And I want to say upfront: I don’t dispute this. There’s so much good will and worth. But what was coming through in my research was that there’s a lot of conflict within these charitable organisations.

There’s conflict over a shrinking pool of money from donor funds and people have many different ideas, approaches about how to save a species. With rhinos, it’s the classic example of pro-trading versus anti-trading in horn. You have a situation where everybody wants to do the right thing yet people have diametrically opposed solutions.

Did you feel somewhat wary about giving poaching a fictional treatment?

I think fiction is a way of exposing the problem to a wider audience around the world. By using fictitious poachers and their motivations, I wanted to highlight how we oversimplify poachers. We say it’s an evil or poor person killing a rhino. Our reactions are very emotional. What I tried to do was to show that there’s a human element. I’m not sympathetic towards poachers, I’m not, but it’s all too easy, depending on your point of view, to say they’re evil.

By taking a mature view, we start thinking about the type of resources we need. The answer is not to summarily execute every poacher or to feed every poacher and give them a better life. We have to attack two things: the people behind the problem who are motivated by money, and demand. Through fiction I want to show how complex the problem is. I think NGOs working in countries like Vietnam to curb demand, deserve more support. Some wars can’t be fought with only guns and bullets, they also have to be fought in people’s minds.

My view, hand on heart, is that South African National Parks’ rangers, the police, military and other anti-poaching units here are the best in the world. The fact that there are rhinos left, is a testament to them. – Tony Park

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You and Nicole have bought a house on the border of Kruger?

Since the first book came out in 2004, we’ve been living half of the year here and half in Australia. The decision to buy property was probably inevitable, but it was emotional too. We increasingly felt that Kruger wat not just a tourist destination, but a second home. Why here? Probably because Kruger’s lowveld area was the first place we visited, so there’s that connection. We are part of a community of likeminded people. I like the idea of living somewhere where people and wildlife can co-exist.

I read that you have a profound fear of snakes…

Oh, I’m terrified. Friends tried to get me to snake handling courses, but yeah, I’m terrified. I don’t know what it is. And we’ve got them all… mambas, puff adder, boomslang. You name it, we’ve got it. I have nightmares about snakes. I’ve never been bitten. The ironic thing – I will never get close enough to a snake to be harmed. I’ll run!

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Other favourite conservation areas in South Africa?

Definitely. I’m heading back to the Kgalagadi in a couple of weeks. I’m going to set a book there. I love it. I can’t wait. I’m a big fan of SANParks and what I really like is how they keep pace with how popular the park has become. Some of the smaller parks, like Marakele and Bontebok, are also stunning. And oh, Mapungubwe… You cannot help but be moved by that landscape. It is just so moving, isn’t it?

Win a copy!

Wild is giving away two copies of Captive. To stand a chance to win, send an email to [email protected] (subject line: Captive) before 23 July 2018 at 12:00. Remember to include your full names, contact details and postal address. Wild will randomly select the winners. Winners will be notified via email.

Winners: Meryl Burgess and Evan Dold

Avid Tony Park fans can look forward to more adventures from his pen. His new book, Scent of Fear, highlights anti-poaching sniffer dogs and is due out in December 2018. By the sounds of it, we are in for yet another gripping read.

Pictures courtesy of Tony Park