Field Ranger celebrations in the Eastern Cape and
Bull elephant sends students scrambling
This week’s Real Safari Newsletter has two separate but related stories about significant events linked to game ranger training. Both of these events took place in the last week. My colleague, Sue Maclennan wrote an encouraging account about a group of trainees who graduated from their field-ranger course run in the Eastern Cape. The second part, I put together about a terrifying incident that took place when field guide training went wrong in the Limpopo Province.
Not in the Eastern Cape
By Sue Maclennan
Field Rangers in the 15 reserves managed by the Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency protect some of the province’s most valuable biodiversity assets. On Friday 26 November the Agency held its annual event to honour the 300 men and women who do this important and challenging work.
Brave and adaptable, the Eastern Cape’s Rangers are skilled problem solvers and before the awards were announced, Cecilia Mangana and Thembelani Bungani, from Formosa and Thomas Baines reserves, spoke from the heart about the life of a ranger.
“We are the front line of the organisation, said Mangana. “We do the work of a ranger and it can be very dangerous. But we’re also educators, social workers, wellness officers and more.”
Covid made their job even tougher – something ECPTA Board Chair Tracey Putzier acknowledged in her address.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has amplified the challenges that these heroes and heroines had to confront, as opportunists took advantage of the lockdown restrictions to encroach on land adjacent to parks, commit environmental crimes such as illegal hunting and harvesting resources without the necessary permits, etc. The field rangers were at the coal-face.”
Putzier acknowledged the socio-economic pressures on communities that contribute to poaching and emphasized the importance of community involvement in conservation efforts.
“As communities we share the same space with our wildlife. Therefore, without community involvement, there will be no conservation.”
Putzier said it would be naïve to deny the potential for corruption fuelled by large amounts of cash offered by poaching syndicates. But while in the six months January through June 2021 249 rhinos were poached in South Africa, none of these were in the Eastern Cape.
CEO Vuyani Dayimani earlier noted that the conviction and sentencing of the Ndlovu rhino-poaching trio, no rhinos had been poached in the Eastern Cape.
“Not in the Eastern Cape” was the slogan the conservation community adopted. “You got that message across,” he told the Rangers.
Putzier said, “Without these unsung heroes and heroines there would be no conservation. They need our respect and proper support.”
Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency’s Field Ranger of the Year is Nosabelo Mcunukelwa, from Mkambati Reserve. Bravery Ranger of the Year is Nokuzola Labatala, Team of the Year is Silaka Nature Reserve and the CEO Special Award went to Fish River Reserve Ranger Sebenzile Rwexu.
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Field guide trainees run for their lives
By Steven Lang
An elephant bull charged an EcoTraining vehicle carrying trainee field guides in the Selati Game Reserve on Sunday. Ears flapping, the enraged bull rammed the vehicle and violently shoved it more than ninety degrees to the side as terrified students spilled out and ran for their lives to a second vehicle.
A routine training drive was engulfed in fear and panic within seconds. The experienced instructors did their best to remain calm and a brave man returned to the battered vehicle while it was still under attack to help a young trainee to safety.
Both game vehicles were transporting trainee field guides under the supervision of experienced mentors.
As it happened, nobody was harmed in the melee, although the same cannot be said for the vehicle. It was a wreck. Selati Game Reserve, General Manager, Bryan Havemann, said, “although the vehicle was damaged, thankfully none of the people on the vehicle were injured.”
People in both game vehicles recorded the incident and soon video material was prominent all over social media and mainstream news sites. Naturally enough, a stream of opinions from wildlife experts and armchair game rangers rapidly swept through the internet. Many commented on the irony of the situation that took place in a field guide training environment where students are supposed to learn how to avoid such confrontations.
When the open vehicles approached the elephants, there was loud trumpeting and it was clear that the breeding herd was under some stress. An online observer remarked, “Something had obviously spooked them already”.
The correct thing to do was to stop the vehicle. Some people said the drivers should have switched off their engines. I don’t know if I would have had the courage to do that, but I would definitely have stopped.
Instead, for some unknown reason, both drivers began inching forward and facing up to the herd. In effect, the lead vehicle challenged the bull who was in musth.
Bulls in musth have high testosterone levels making them aggressive and notoriously unpredictable.
Another online comment, “Terribly handled. For a training school, unacceptable. Clear as daylight the herd was upset and tense. To continue forward is complacent and arrogant”.
Selati Game Reserve perspective
The EcoTraining incident provides a valuable learning experience showing viewers what not to do and why you shouldn’t do it.
The company has a good reputation for field guide training and it is likely that this unfortunate incident was an aberration.
The 27,000-ha Selati Game Reserve, situated in Limpopo Province in the northern part of South Africa, is a respected site for scientific wildlife research.
It is not surprising that EcoTraining and Selati both scrambled to protect their respective reputations after it had been ascertained that there were no injuries. The Selati press release was however quite comical when it described the occurrence. It said, the bull elephant “made contact with the game drive vehicle and displaced it off the road. Once the vehicle had come to a standstill, the trainees were moved to the second vehicle that was parked in close proximity”.