Unsung Heroes of Battles in the Bush!
The rhino war might rage and the statistics mount. But hidden from view are those driven, day in and day out, to hold it all together. Regardless of everything, they patrol, confront, pursue and persuade. They and their feats are largely unknown.
Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife is gifted with special people; field rangers wedded to the integrity of our game reserves. Conservation is too often discussed within an academic theatre of generic threats; poaching, human encroachment, destruction of habitat, droughts, poisoning, and dog hunting. But what of the people who combat these threats? We need to know of the sometimes bewildering dedication and passion that they invest in maintaining our world-renowned parks.
Last year Staff Sergeant Bhekinkosi Mkhwanazi was awarded the Magqubu Ntombela Award for being Ezemvelo’s Best Field Ranger. As Ezemvelo’s head of their 53-strong iMfolozi Anti-Poaching Unit at Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park this ‘tough-as-teak’ 20-year long serving stalwart epitomises the steely but also enlightened mentality that exists in the organisation to help combat poaching.
His conversation is littered with poaching incidents, frequently going three to four nights without sleep in stake-outs. And he carries the dreadful scar of having shot dead his close friend Jeff Ngubane in a shoot-out with a poaching syndicate in 2011.
“I am driven by what happened to Jeff. He would have done what I did if he was in the same position that night. He looks down on all of us now, judging our passion and determination to not stop; to never stop against these poachers. I would rather die like Jeff holding my R1 rifle in my hands than any other way. “
The lives of field rangers, he said, have changed “100%” since the onset of the rhino poaching war in 2010: “Before, our night-time patrols were usually limited to full moons when poaching traditionally happened. Now we are on 25/8 alert!”
Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park Manager Jabulane Ngubane describes Mkhwanazi as his “Rock of Gibraltar”: “He is the first man I would call on in an emergency. He is the personification of utter discipline, commitment and bravery.”
But, like others I met, Bheki is not just a no-nonsense soldier. He talks endlessly, almost pleadingly of persuading “his people” about the importance of conservation, to them as well as society at large. He outlines an umbilical chord of conservation’s economic benefits
“I ask members of my community whether they understand what poaching is doing. I tell them that thousands of people come here from overseas to see our wildlife and experience the beauty and greatness of our open spaces. I tell them that this brings in money, from the airline that books that tourist’s fare to South Africa, to hired cars, to those employed at Ezemvelo to cater for them…so many people benefit from one booking.”
Whatever people might say, the vast majority of black people want conservation, they feel protective about rhinos and are now grasping that all wildlife belongs to them: “Things are changing. Don’t despair. We have an evil force that we are fighting in this poaching war but we can defeat them if our communities can fight them too.”
Further north, reports are filtering through of others embodying the same, huge commitment. A letter recently written to Ezemvelo’s Chief Executive Officer Dr Bandile Mkhize by uMkhuze Manager Eduard Goosen, tells it all.
Goosen spoke of the “sheer human endeavour and spirit” in protecting uMkhuze and its wildlife. As he put it, “…their courage and devotion to duty remains a lesson to everyone”.
He explained how uMkhuze experiences at least two general poaching incidents every day; 420 incidents for the last reported year. The next highest for all Ezemvelo’s reserves was Ozabeni with 175.
He wrote of field rangers frequently going 48hrs without sleep in their efforts to track down poachers. (Yes, four days and nights following repeated tip-offs about a rhino poaching syndicate that ultimately led to a poacher being killed). He ended the letter with the following words: “I am a privileged man Dr Mkhize. I am eternally humbled to have the honour of being part of this team. These are surely the unsung heroes of this desperate war we are fighting”.
He was referring to people like Section Ranger Philasande (‘Phila’) Nzimande who is widely seen to represent the future of management in Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. Youthful, bright and articulate, he’s studying his Masters in Environmental Science and his opinions are important.
“The public have no idea the level of passion and dedication these men show; every day and every night, uncomplainingly. They don’t talk when patrolling. They whisper. They are a very rare breed and represent all that is great about Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and law enforcement.”
On this day, Phila was referring to Staff Sergeant Jabulani Mkhwanazi, Sergeant Jiza Myeni and Corporal Mabeka Jobe. Jabulani showed me a huge scar above his left ear where a poacher had once hacked him with a panga. Phila and Eduard regard him as a “legend” for his bravery and undying determination to stop poachers.
Goosen spoke of Sergeant Jiza Myeni, a person who has dedicated 31 years of his life to conservation in uMkhuze, a person “committed beyond any call of duty”. He talks of Corporal Mabeka Jobe, (section leader of the uMkhuze Anti-Poaching Unit (APU)) of having a “huge heart”, a person who on two occasions has had his life threatened by local poachers when his water supply was poisoned and many of his livestock died.
Of course, there are many others. We should all know that whoever they are they are the face of 21st Century conservation. These are the people not just fighting to hold on to what we have but also exposing others to the great environmental and economic benefits that lie behind this industry.