Earning their stripes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 August, 2008, 12:00am

I have learned a new word - 'crepuscular', which refers to animals being active at dawn and dusk. I learned the word from Francois, a ranger at the Madikwe National Park, an hour's flight north of Johannesburg, in South Africa.

Francois' knowledge of all things safari is astounding. He can spot wild game a mile off, long before guests' eyes have even focused. From his unique office - behind the wheel of a brutish SUV - he reels off the names of all the species. He can easily identify their tracks, determine their sex from a hundred paces, detail their eating, breeding, sleeping and hunting habits, and answer the curliest of questions with authority.

'Fan-tailed flycatcher,' he says excitedly, pointing to a tiny moving dot in a tree, 'and a melba finch, look, there.'

But it's not just his knowledge of the animal kingdom that makes Francois and his contemporaries impressive; it's their ability to multitask. A ranger acts as conservationist, first-aid officer, driver, botanist, tour guide, catering manager, occupational health and safety consultant, political commentator, motor mechanic, geologist, historian and, most importantly, PR manager. It's a big gig.

The ranger is the hub around which South Africa's tourism industry spins. Without them as escorts, a tourist drive through the bush would be too perilous, so they have become the lifeblood of the many national and private game parks that have sprung up all over the country. If there were no game parks, there would be no luxury lodges and the employment they bring.

The rangers' primary concern is the safety of their guests. As risk assessors, they determine the unpredictable nature of wild animals and act accordingly. They are much more than khaki-clad raconteurs and their good nature and amiable disposition often mask professional expertise.

There are no recruitment drives for rangers - they line up for the job. Many of the positions are filled with recently graduated students, mainly South Africans, who either have an affinity for the bush or formal qualifications in eco-tourism or conservation. Once selected, an intensive six-week training course will qualify them to do a basic job. Several years of research, experience in observing animals and responding to a variety of unexpected instances will qualify him or her as a knowledgeable and effective ranger.

Despite the responsibility, rangers are generally paid a pittance and need a strong vocational drive. They work more for a love of the industry than for personal profit. Many are young - in their 20s - and stay in the position for only a few years.

At 38 and married, Francois is an odd man out but has several reasons to move on. 'This is my last day as a ranger,' he says, after spotting a herd of springbok in the distance. 'There's nowhere for me to go here. I can't climb any higher, so I'm going back to university to study eco-science. I'll be back but in a very different role.

'I love the job but I've got a wife and son now and we need to make a decent living. And it's ironic that although I live in the bush, my little boy can't play outside - with the animals it's just too dangerous. There are lots of reasons.'

Working outside in good weather, having few administrative duties and getting to share vicariously the excitement of guests are a just a few of the perks of the job. But there are downsides: the hours are long, life is often isolated and maintaining a personal relationship has its challenges.

The typical day for a ranger starts around 5am and finishes when the last guest is tucked up in bed, often after midnight. They work every day for six weeks then have two weeks off, all for a starting salary of about 3,500 rand (HK$3,600) a month, plus tips. Board is included.

It is not only the industry that undervalues the ranger; some visitors show a distinct disregard for their authority and it is not unknown for them to let loose their own animal behaviour - Francois remembers a Russian guest who spent an entire game drive in the back seat of the jeep demonstrating his mating habits with a female travel companion. 'I'm not supposed to tell you that.'

With the proliferation of private game parks in South Africa, many acting as corporate playgrounds for senior executives, poaching is rife - poaching of rangers, that is. Foreign investors with obese wallets, a luxury lodge and a few thousand hectares of wilderness will pay big bucks to secure a ranger with good credentials. The 'trophy' ranger will find a much less taxing, higher-paid role in a private lodge, but his or her gain is the commercial domain's loss.

And the switch may be a big disappointment. Many who join private lodges find themselves washing vehicles, mowing lawns and acting as a general maintenance man in downtime rather than escorting guests through the bush. Some of the fully staffed private lodges are visited only a few days a month.

The industry is largely unregulated and while employer-imposed standards set the benchmark for a safe environment, the ranger's authority is, on occasion, undermined by irresponsible guest behaviour. Incidents, including fatalities, have occurred in the wild when visitors have ignored the ranger's instructions and caused the animals to respond to perceived threats in a way that wild animals do. Surprisingly, most rangers, including Francois, don't carry a rifle.

The typical length of a guest stay in a game lodge is three nights. It's an experience of a lifetime for many tourists but everyday life for the ranger. Regardless of how many times they have escorted a drive, they must deliver a fresh performance as if it were opening night on stage.

Extinction of the experienced ranger is possible because their job is undervalued, especially considering they are diurnal, nocturnal and crepuscular.

Getting there: South African Airways (www.flysaa.com) flies from Hong Kong to Johannesburg. Madikwe Air (www.madikwecharter.com) offers light-plane transfers from Johannesburg Airport to the national park, a distance of 360km. For more details on the park, visit www.madikwe-game-reserve.co.za.