By Melissa Wray and Gavin Olivier
In Kruger National Park
At just past 08h00 Punda Maria section ranger Thomas Mbokota called together his team of field rangers. A helicopter pilot had sighted a bakkie in the bush in their section. The driver of the bakkie opened fire on the chopper when it made a fly-by. Immediate investigation was necessary.
Together the Punda team travelled to the vicinity of the incident, knowing they were hot on the bakkie's trail when they found vehicle tracks veering off the road. Following the spoor, they ventured into the veld, working together so that the trackers' backs were always covered. Their tracking skills located spent firearm cartridges, a coke bottle, knives, snares, and finally a carcass.
But this was no ordinary carcass - it was small, rectangular, and made of brightly coloured fabric. The whole exercise had been a simulation, carried out under the eagle eyes and cameras of observers, and was being scored on a scale of one to 10. The Punda Maria team was one of the last sections in Kruger National Park (KNP) to undergo a Protected Area Management Audit (PAMA).
As well as the test in the field, rangers had to demonstrate their weapon handling skills, shooting accuracy and safe handling of firearms, the neatness and cleanliness of their staff quarters and their discipline and team work during a marching drill.
They also had to show the auditors their awareness of what was going on in their section - occupation of the tourist camp, where and what contractors were doing, and any other activities underway.
Paperwork relating to the running of the section was reviewed. For the last two years, Arrie Schreiber of SANParks Corporate Investigation Services has been refining a set of tests that will locate the weaknesses and strengths of the rangers that protect the integrity of the country's national parks.
Trial runs were carried out last year in Marakele, Addo and in Kruger in the Shangoni, Malelane, Houtboschrant and Letaba sections. This year, everyone in the field will be evaluated. Altogether, there are about 55 ranger sections in all of South Africa's national parks, with 22 of these being in Kruger.
Punda Maria and Vlakteplaas were the last to undergo testing on September 16 and 17, 2005. The overall average achieved in Kruger was 68,4%. Schreiber comments, "This is quite high and even higher percentages can be expected in 2006. The KNP rangers can indeed be proud of themselves."
All the sections that were involved in the trial run last year have shown marked improvement when re-tested this year, especially in Addo Elephant National Park. Schreiber says that the audit is the only one of its kind. "It's not foolproof, but we are improving the assessment as we go on. Prior to this we never measured the ranger's effectiveness, but we can see that we were on the right track from the beginning."
The audit has been created for many reasons, one of which is in response to public criticisms that the transformation process in SANParks has appointed 'under-qualified and inexperienced rangers'. It is also in response to resolutions passed at the World Parks Congress in Durban in 2003, and South Africa's commitments to the Convention on Biodiversity.
"The objective of this exercise is to expose Section Rangers of SANParks, who are responsible for the maintenance of Area Integrity of a SANPark to a PAMA in order to establish the Quality and Standard of Area Integrity Management Effectiveness."
Schreiber would like to see SANParks having the "best ranger corps in the country if not the world", with rangers maintaining the four pillars of a successful ranger force (namely training, equipment, discipline and motivation) at a high standard.
Rangers undergoing the PAMA, although understandably nervous at the close scrutiny, have welcomed the process as a way of identifying their weaknesses. Many look forward to next year's visit, with the chance to improve themselves and indulge in healthy competition with their neighbouring field sections.