In light of the high incidence of rhino poaching in southern Africa, the African rhinoceros might become extinct in the wild in the near future. Scholars from a variety of disciplines have analysed drivers of illegal hunting and poaching behaviour in general terms. Existing scholarship on rhino poaching proffers a simplistic concurrence of interlinked drivers, including the entry of transnational organized crime into wildlife crime, opportunity structures and the endemic poverty facing people living close to protected areas. By engaging with the lived experiences and social worlds of poachers and rural communities, this article reflects on empirical evidence gathered during ethnographic fieldwork with poachers, prisoners and local people living near the Kruger National Park. It is argued that the socio-political and historical context and continued marginalization of local people are significant factors facilitating poaching decisions at the grassroots level. Green land grabs and the systematic exclusion of local people from protected areas, as well as the growing securitization of anti-poaching responses, are aiding the perception that the wild animal is valued more highly than black rural lives. As a consequence, conservationists and law enforcers are viewed with disdain and struggle to obtain cooperation. The article critiques the current fortress conservation paradigm, which assumes conflict-laden relationships between local people and wildlife.