The courage to learn is something which escapes many of us, who settle for an average day in an average life and eventually die an average death, wondering where all the time went. There is a wilderness trail ranger at the Kruger National Park who is not such a person.
We’re at the end of a four-day media trip to the Kruger, where SA National Parks (SANParks) has given journalists unrestricted access to rangers, crime scenes and people with highly specialised knowledge about the unending poaching, the devastating drought laying waste to the park and much more. And at the end of an emotionally wracking trip from elephant carcass to elephant carcass to listening to desperate plans from desperate authorities to stem the ongoing slaughter of wildlife in the park – as hamstrung by lack of resources as elephants are by poachers – and hearing between the lines about the inadequacies of their actions, the need to find a good news story is physical.
Enter Julius Mkansi, who has worked in the park for 16 years. Despite the terrible war on wildlife in the park, Mkansi is a man at peace. However, when he’s on a trail with a group of tourists and they come across a poached animal, “that moment takes away the joy I was having and sometimes it takes me a whole day to get back to normal”.
“It’s sad to see what is happening at the moment and it is traumatising. Sometimes we’ll see vultures up ahead, or jackals and hyenas, and think there might be a lion kill, only to discover a rhino has been dehorned.”
He grew up in Belfast, a small village close to Kruger Gate, and is a product of a programme run at the time by SANParks and various private reserves that would take children to the reserves for a week or two.
“I was involved in that project until I passed my Grade 12 and was lucky to get sponsors to study conservation,” Mkansi says.
He has worked at Ngala Game Reserve, Olifants Camp in the Kruger – employed by SANParks as a field guide – and Berg-en-Dal and Satara camps as a trail ranger. He says he has covered about 80% of the park on foot. It was in 2013 he moved to Pretoriuskop near Skukuza where he became the Napi Trail wilderness ranger, which entails spending three nights in the bush at a time.
With so many youths blinded by bright city lights, the bush has little to offer in competition except relative silence. It was because of the projects offered at school that Mkansi’s interest in the wild and how it all meshed together grew.
“Every day I was learning interesting things, and I was having that courage that I want to know more,” Mkansi says.
As with anyone who has had their interest piqued, Mkansi would push his luck by sneaking into the park to expand his knowledge, hiding away to listen to the sounds of birds and learning to identify them by their calls.
“It was dangerous because of the wildlife and it was also possible the rangers would have arrested me, but I was only going there to learn,” he says.
It’s not a practice he would recommend today, with the park in the state of war it is at the moment. But as a teenager, there was already an imperative, a drive, to learn more about the magic unfolding in his head. And it was the song of the wilderness that captivated him.
“Especially in the late afternoon, towards the sunset, listening to the last calls from the birds, and then afterwards the quiet, that’s my favourite time of the day.
“Most of the time when I’m out with people we end on a small hill watching the sun go down. After that I just lie on my back looking up in the sky trying to keep quiet and it’s the best time I have in my life.”
He would like today’s youngsters to become more involved with nature. “You will find peace there, and it will take you away from drugs and alcohol. There is lots to learn from nature,” says Mkansi.
“Even our own personal behavior, we can learn from nature.
“If you look at all the animals, looking at their social structure, you can learn a lot. Just because they don’t talk like we do doesn’t mean we can’t learn by studying them.”