The Working on Fire (WoF) programme in Mpumalanga has joined the global community in commemoration of World Ranger Day, observed worldwide on July 31.
This day is dedicated to honour rangers who have lost their lives or got injured in the line on duty, and to commend those who have taken over the baton and are making great strides in the field, reports Mpumalanga News.
The organisation has praised 30-year-old Thulani Mkhabela from Nhlazatshe in the Chief Albert Luthuli Municipality, who was once a firefighter facing raging flames on a daily basis and is now formally employed as an anti-rhino poaching field ranger at the Nkomazi Game Reserve.
“Mkhabela’s story of resilience began in the year 2009, after he completed matric from Takheni Secondary School, with the hope of furthering his studies by enrolling for an education-related qualification,” says Lebogang Maseko, the provincial spokesperson of Working on Fire.
“Due to financial constraints and being a first-born boy child, he had to consider other options to support his family,” she says.
According to Mkhabela, 2009 was a challenging year for him, as he spent most of his time sending through job applications to several companies and government departments, but to no avail.
“I began looking for odd jobs. Doing gardening and painting, just so I could assist my father to provide for my mother and four younger siblings at home,” he says.
“Although I was pleased with myself that I could assist my father, things got difficult when those odd jobs became hard to come by.
“It was later on in mid-June 2012 that I heard WoF was recruiting firefighters to join a team based in Badplaas. I tried my luck and cruised through the extensive physical fitness tests that were required,” Mkhabela says.
Mkhabela admits that Working on Fire fitness standards are not child’s play, but maintains that because he has always been a fitness fanatic, this helped him sail through the demanding tests, preparing him as a veld and forest firefighter.
He then received specialised firefighting training later in 2012, from the WoF Nelspruit Training Academy, where he was trained in fire awareness and education, fire prevention and fire suppression skills, among others.
Hungry for success, Mkhabela saved money received from his stipend to apply for a driver’s licence. Four years later, he was employed as a driver at the Nkomazi Game Reserve, where his love for nature conservation raged.
According to Mkhabela, he worked as a driver for only a year, “because my heart was always set on being an agent of nature conservation. This, I got from my time with WoF”.
“We were always encouraged to become environmental change agents, through working as wild-land firefighters.”
Mkhabela has since been employed in the Reserve’s Anti-Poaching Unit for almost two years, and he maintains there is no career option he would consider, besides one in nature conservation
“My passion is protecting animals from poachers, and with my firefighting experience, I often step in to protect them against veldfires.”
The father of a three-year-old boy, Vuyo, meaning happiness, says much as his line of work is life-threatening, it brings joy to his heart knowing he is protecting the most endangered animals in South Africa.
The commemoration of rangers is the brainchild of the International Rangers Federation (IRF). It is promoted by the 54 member associations of the IRF, by its partner the Thin Green Line Foundation, and by individuals who support the work of Rangers and the IRF. The first World Ranger Day was observed in 2007 on the 15th anniversary of the founding of the IRF.
“As a programme funded by the national department of environmental affairs (DEA), we remain passionate about creating job opportunities and skills development for the youth. We are immensely proud to see Thulani Mkhabela reach for greater heights, while taking an active stand against rhino poaching,” the organisation says.