On Patrol in the Phalaborwa Section



By Lynette Strauss

"If we were to award every ranger injured, kidnapped or assassinated since the fourth World Parks Congress in 1992, the ceremony would probably last two days." So said Juan Carlos Gambarotta in a paper highlighting the plight of protectors of protected areas worldwide.Game rangers could be confronted by violence day or night. This is also true of the rangers in the greater Kruger National Park (KNP) – even more so at present with a … percent increase in rhino poaching recorded in the Greater Kruger area over the last year.

The KNP deploys more than 250 field rangers across the two million hectare reserve. Divided into 22 sections, these men and women are at the coalface of conservation –day-by-day, for very little money, they continue to watch over Kruger's biodiversity. On December 2 this year, the Kruger Park Times spent a day with field rangers from the Phalaborwa section on a patrol in the Sable Dam vicinity.

I arrived 06h20 at the Phalaborwa section ranger offices where recently appointed section ranger, Rodney Landela introduced me to his team of field rangers and general workers. After morning prayer and a briefing, corporal Daniel Chavalala drove us to the patrol block. After dropping off the other team on our way, we found the shade of a large Shepherd's tree where we left the bakkie. A quick weapons and water check and we were on our way. It was still early and overcast, but I could sense we would soon be wrapped in the impending Phalaborwa summer heat and humidity.

Walking single file, I settled into the rhythm of the two men's medium paced stride. The grass was green, but sparse, the soil dry. We were in mopane country and the mopane worms in various stages of maturity, were everywhere.They were not the only creepy crawlies on the prowl. I counted four different nibbling worm species on some shrub I do not know, leaving disrobed stalks in their wake. The veld was desperate for rain, the mud holes had almost dried up and the lack of tracks indicated the game had sought wetter pastures elsewhere.

As we wove our way through the denser parts of the mopane bush, I calculatingly crushed the unwelcome images of a raging buffalo bull bursting through the thicket. I was thankful for the two rifles in capable hands ahead of me, and shut my mind to what could be lurking behind me.The veld was desperate for rain, the mud holes had almost dried up and the lack of tracks indicated the game had sought wetter pastures elsewhere.

As we wove our way through the denser parts of the mopane bush, I calculatingly crushed the unwelcome images of a raging buffalo bull bursting through the thicket. I was thankful for the two rifles in capable hands ahead of me, and shut my mind to what could be lurking behind me.Halfway we stopped at a small outcrop for a water break, rest and some small talk. About three months ago I had heard about a rhino carcass that was found at Letaba Ranch, a Limpopo provincial park bordering Kruger to the north of Phalaborwa. I was told a well-known poacher, Mboweni, had been apprehended at about the same time.

Today I could get the story first hand, as it was Daniel and his team that captured the alleged poacher. Acting in collaboration with the Letaba Ranch officials and with permission from the Limpopo provincial department, the Kruger rangers caught Mboweni at his well-equipped camp on the reserve. He appeared in court, was released on bail and has not been seen since. A warrant for his arrest has apparently been issued as he failed to show up for his next court appearance. "Similar tracks to his were spotted in Kruger where the person appeared to be tracking a rhino and calf. That was two weeks ago," Daniel continued.

Perhaps sensing our disheartened state at that point, Daniel delved for a success story from a few years ago.A team of field rangers was on patrol close to the Manhlangeni section, on the border with Letaba Ranch and Mbaula when they came across an impala carcass in a snare. Several other snares had been set close by. Suspecting the poacher could still be near, they decided to wait in ambush. "I crouched under some dense branches of a big mopane tree that had fallen, but not died. There was also tall grass growing around the fallen tree and I was well hidden," says Daniel. The others were hiding at strategic positions close by. Not long after settling in, they saw the poacher carefully approaching the carcass.

Suddenly, within touching distance of the animal, the man sprinted away, stopping not far away. Thinking he was safe from the clutches of the law he approached the animal again. He grabbed the hind legs and dragged it towards Daniel's hiding place, sneaking glances left and right. Wiggling backwards, he hauled the animal into the fallen tree's branches, the man's back-side almost touching Daniel's face."I waited," Daniel said. Then the man took the front legs and pulled the animal deeper into the hiding place. At that point, Daniel grabbed the man by the collar and with a "what are you doing!", shocked him speechless.

"Hey, hey, hey, hey" was apparently all he could manage as the other rangers rushed in to assist Daniel. Today, says Daniel, "the notorious poacher is an old man and not active in the veld anymore."Two stories later, we were on our way again. In the next hour and a half we encountered very little game – impala and duiker, helped a tortoise, the size of a rugbyball on its feet, evaded a snake and recorded several more fast drying water holes. After about 13 kilometers, I saw the koppies close to where we had left the bakkie and knew our walk was at an end.

We drove to the office where Elvis settled at the computer to upload the cybertracker records to Sandra Mcfadyen in Skukuza and Daniel busied himself with the inevitable paperwork.As I drove home I thought, with appreciation, of how Daniel, Elvis and their colleagues remain committed as the focal forces that protect Kruger's biodiversity and resources from destruction - despite their jobs being difficult, dangerous and thankless, with little financial reward and recognition.

Did you know?

From 1998 to 2005, in 27 countries surveyed, 120 rangers died in the line of duty due to violence related incidents. Three game rangers were kidnapped and 106 wounded, of which most were shot. Seven ranger stations were severely damaged.

South Africa, being part of the survey, recorded one death in that time. Other countries included in the survey are Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Portugal, Czech Republic, Ecuador, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Namibia, Peru, Spain, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Uruguay, Zambia, Argentina, Philippines, India, Guatemala, Cambodia, Israel, the USA, Venezuela, Vietnam, Ghana and Uganda.

Juan Carlos Gambarotta conducted the survey on behalf of the International Ranger Federation (IRF) to understand the extent of violence that is part of all game rangers' lives world-wide.



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