Sitting around a blazing campfire, most of us have envied the rangers who earn a living in the great outdoors. To find out what a ranger’s job is really like, Wild ventured to three very different parks. By Janine Stephen

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Carmen Gagiano in her element at Tsaarsbank in West Coast National Park. Pictures by Janine Stephen

Section ranger Carmen Gagiano

Park: West Coast National Park
Years on the job: Nine

“The ostriches in this park are crazier than anywhere else,” says Carmen Gagiano, frowning over the steering wheel. We’re approaching an innocuous curve on the tar road that runs past Geelbek and the baby blue lagoon, all the way to Langebaan. The fynbos is thick, yet long necks snake up in the distance: this isn’t called Volstruisdraai [otrich curve] for nothing. For some reason, Carmen says, cyclists get these birds going. “Once on patrol I had to herd an ostrich away with the bakkie as a cyclist rode furiously away up the hill.”

Carmen sometimes jokes she’s a ‘computer ranger’, deeply submerged in desk-based logistics. Her days can include decoding the latest environmental legislation, planning road maintenance and balancing budgets or ordering tonnes of lucerne to see eland and other antelope in the fenced Postberg section through a dry spell.

Not just conservation

Field work remains her first love. “Last week we had to move four Cape cobras from the construction site,” she says casually. “The best way to catch them is to use a rubbish bin as they can’t bite through that.” Despite snakes and renegade ostriches, Carmen’s domain is best known for enigmatic flocks of migrant waders, lagoon water sports and blazing bunches of spring flowers.

Visitors to the park keep rangers on their toes. Flower devotees are generally well-behaved and in awe of the miraculous carpets of blooms, although there can be traffic jams. “Sometimes the flowers are just too beautiful and people can’t resist walking into the veld and lying down.”

Holidays bring crowds wanting to frolic in the lagoon and then Carmen must also enforce rules such as sticking to the recreational zones, no pets or alcohol, and checking permits for water craft and fishing. “We don’t just do conservation!”

Field ranger Samuel Mathebula

Master tracker Samuel Mathebula camps out for days at a time.

Master tracker Samuel Mathebula camps out for days at a time.

Park: Mapungubwe National Park
Years on the job: Twenty

Samuel is a master tracker and much of his job involves decoding spoor, both human and animal. He spends a week at a time on duty out in the depths of this remarkable park, patrolling from about 06h30 in summer and 07h00 in winter, stopping only when the heat makes it impossible to keep going. He often covers around 24km a day. He’s been looking after game here since 1996, just after the province and then parks board committed to establishing a new national park in the area.

Our mission was to head north to where South Africa cosies up with its neighbours, Botswana and Zimbabwe. The Limpopo and Shashe rivers are vast expanses of sand, dotted with pools. Popping across is all too easy for lions and elephant, which ignore all borders, but also for humans.

Samuel stops me near the lush Tree Top walk to point out footprints in the sand. Poaching of antelope and warthog is a problem and some try to make a living from selling the meat, says Samuel. Others risk their lives to walk into South Africa to find work, passing through well before dawn.

We make our way slowly down the Limpopo, passing elephant scattered like boulders among the trees. Samuel points out lala palms, which you can tap and make beer from. We stop at Poacher’s Corner, where Samuel often finds people fishing in the river. Today the tracks are all animal: mongoose, hyena and genet.

Field ranger Nkosinathi Moyo

Nkosinathi Moyo loves to introduce visitors to the rugged beauty of Anysberg.

Nkosinathi Moyo loves to introduce visitors to the rugged beauty of Anysberg.

Park: Anysberg Nature Reserve
Years on the job: Seven

For a man who grew up in townships, Nkosinathi Moyo is a master of Karoo terrain and it’s no small achievement. After his first tastes of conservation work during training at Vrolijkheid Nature Reserve, Nkosinathi knew this job was his future. He saved his stipend to pay for driving lessons and, when he discovered he needed glasses to pass, he sold his phone to pay for them. “I had to make myself employable,” he remembers. By 25, he had the Anysberg job and was learning Afrikaans common names for its plants and animals.

During my visit, Nkosinathi concentrates largely on biodiversity surveying, something all rangers devote at least a day a month towards. A focal point is chosen and then the rangers scour the area for everything of interest, from reptiles to archaeological sites.

We record game spotted with GPS co-ordinates (the info is later registered and mapped), a pair of elderly red hartebeest, an African wild cat that darts across the road, a group of bachelor gemsbok. A pair of suspicious white-necked ravens take off. They are entered on another form as Anysberg contributes to the Southern African Bird Atlas Project, which records all species observed in sections called pentads.

The job provides adventure

Ranger_NkosinathiMoyo2_JanineStephen-minPlant collection is another survey staple and Nkosi gently samples sprigs of a low-slung yellow-flowering plant and presses them between paper and cardboard. One will go all the way to Kirstenbosch for identification. The reserve keeps finding species they didn’t know were there, such as a tall Psoralea, found along fresh water streams.

The job provides adventure. Nkosinathi was part of the 2013 night survey that finally proved a population of riverine rabbits were living on the reserve. He also finds job satisfaction through guiding community groups from Robertson, some of who are so unused to nature that they are afraid of the intensity of the dark and have to be persuaded to go stargazing. “I love doing this job. It provides for my family and I get to work outdoors.”

This is a shortened version of an article that first appeared in Wild Spring 2016.