The bush is their office, no day is the same and problem solving may require a gun. Game rangers are the protectors of our wildlife and most beautiful spaces, and they’re no longer all men. By Melissa Siebert, pictures by Karin Schermbrucker
Sandra Basson is a no-nonsense woman. As section ranger for Pafuri, beautiful but arguably Kruger National Park’s most challenging section, she has to be. Her to-do list is formidable: daily foot and vehicle patrols including anti-poaching manoeuvres, tracking illegal aliens from Zimbabwe and Mozambique, environmental audits, veld condition assessments, flora and fauna conservation and a lot more office work than people think. Not to mention heading up a team of 21, including 14 rangers who are mostly Shangaan men. “I never do anything in isolation,” Sandra says. “Without my team, I’m nothing.”
The mutual respect is palpable. When asked how Sandra compares to her male predecessor, Sergeant Daniel Chavalala says, “There’s no difference.” Then reconsiders. “No, she’s better. She’s a mother, not a father,” he smiles. “When you don’t feel well,” he rubs his stomach, “she cares for you.” Is she a tough boss? “Not tough,” Daniel says. “Strong.” For more than 100 years, game ranging in our national parks had been a male preserve. Men such as Harry Wolhuter, the first ranger in Kruger, became legends. The first two women rangers in Kruger were deployed only in 2000. Today slightly more than 10 per cent of SANParks’ rangers are women. Sandra is one of five women section rangers at Kruger, out of 22.
It’s obvious why she got the job four years ago. She’s a conservationist, diplomat, cop, manager and captain rolled into one, a powerhouse who speaks her mind. Proud of her team and passionate – maybe a bit proprietary – about Pafuri. “It’s amazing,” she says repeatedly from the back of the ranger bakkie, surveying her 100,000-hectare realm on patrol. A glorious, ever-changing landscape of riverine forests, sandveld, koppies, flood plains around the Luvuvhu and Limpopo rivers, pans and horizons defined by silhouettes of magical trees, including the iconic baobab. “All of that,” Sandra waves her arm expansively, “is still Pafuri.”
There’s no typical day in the life of a game ranger. The unexpected rules. But the chronicle of a recent day with Sandra might read like this: up at five, coffee with dogs Rafa and Nyala on the stoep; meet with rangers to plan day’s patrols; radio call from Mozambican rangers in Limpopo National Park to co-ordinate investigation of downed rhino; depart in vehicle to fetch Mozambican rangers and examine rhino carcass for signs of poaching; en route inspection of border fence, which has been raised from the ground in spots, human spoor nearby (illegal immigrants often barefoot, poachers wearing decent shoes); check gouges in the gravel road where police, evidently, swerved to escape a charging elephant; tape off washed-out road; post-pone rhino probe with Mozambicans since anti-poaching team have launched investigation; liaise with people doing tsetse fly surveys, as well as leopard research team; tea break at special place in ‘fairy forest’, Lanner Gorge in the distance; see leopard off Luvuvhu East; back to base to meet with people for radio repair; office work, collect rangers’ reports and complete daily diary for Pafuri; supper alone; read; bed.
Sometimes Sandra has to shoot an elephant, something she hates. That said, she’s a mean shot and her .458 rifle is often slung comfortably over her shoulder. In 2008, there was an elephant terrorising people in the Makuleke area of Pafuri, repeatedly charging them. “I had to shoot her from a chopper,” Sandra says. “I prayed she’d fall at the first shot and she did.”
She’s also shot an elephant with a broken leg and an ornery buffalo. Recounting the stories, she sounds fearless. But she’s not, due to a close call with elephant two years ago. Elephant in Pafuri and elsewhere in the north of Kruger are notorious, often fleeing in rage from people shooting at them or snaring them across the borders. “We were coming from a Know Your Status HIV campaign in Punda, everyone in the bakkie,” Sandra says. “We passed a breeding herd of elephant, then people in the back started screaming. It happened so fast. Two bulls came from the back and then a cow crossing the road came straight at us. Her tusk just missed my neck. They threw the bakkie into mopane trees. One guy had his leg ripped open, and we had to go to the hospital in Malamulele, an hour and a half away. Everyone had counselling after that.”
Aside from elephant, buffalo, bees (she’s allergic) and a bad knee from a motorcycle accident, not much stops her. Sandra started coming regularly to Kruger when she was two, with her parents and older brothers from Krugersdorp. “I saw the rangers in their uniforms,” she smiles, “and knew that’s what I wanted to be.”
She first became a maths teacher though, then worked at the Johannesburg Zoo and raised lion and leopard cubs, eventually getting a diploma in nature conservation through Technikon SA and field guide training through the Field Guides Association of South Africa (FGASA). Before landing in Pafuri, Sandra was project manager for a range of Kruger projects, including wetland management and erosion control.
Beyond the credentials, game ranging takes a certain character, obviously not for wimps. “It’s hard work. Physically, of course, but also psychologically. I work on the borders, so there’s international relations. Every day is an anti-poaching day, though the incident over Easter weekend was the first involving guns. We arrest hundreds of people a year coming through the fence illegally, mostly from Mozambique.” You must be fit and tenacious. A sense of humour helps enormously and Sandra has one. “Six!” she and her team yell at each other if they mistakenly sight something in the bush. As in “you owe me a sixpack”, of cooldrink or water in Sandra’s case as she doesn’t drink beer. Or “Checkers!” if someone’s driving is off (as in “you got your licence at the supermarket”).
“You also have to be able to be alone,” she says, “and to be with your team. My idea of fun is to go out on patrol with them. We learn from each other.” Mavelani and Mutale Gorge mean the most to her. “I have a place along the river where I get myself together.” High up on the sandstone cliffs, the eyrie of Verreaux’s eagles and saddle-billed storks, few humans. “I don’t like it where people have been intruding.”
Someone she’d like to see more of is Derek Visagie, a quantity surveyor based in the southern part of the park, at Skukuza. Married last November on the banks of the Luvuvhu, they live apart during the week and reunite for weekends. “We’re at opposite ends,” Sandra laughs. “He’s in development and I’m in conservation. “We’re soul mates, though. He knows if I left Pafuri I’d be a completely different person.”