Game Ranging in South Africa
Want to do more than a safari? Learn to become an actual park ranger!
South Africa is home to some of the most diverse, dangerous and awe-inspiring wildlife in the natural world. But what's the best way to really experience it? How can you venture beyond the typical national park merry-go-round? Well, how about going deeper than the usual safari trails by looking at game ranging experiences in the famous Kruger Park region?
"Being a wildlife ranger in Africa must be up there on the list of what we want to be when we grow up - right alongside being an astronaut, pop star and doctor," says African Conservation Experience's Ellen Sziede. "Most of us grow out of the other dreams, but every year a number of die-hard dreamers decide to take a serious look at what it would be like to be a game ranger, and they embark on a wild adventure in South Africa."
It's true, there's a certain child-like wish-fulfilling magic to the idea of working, studying and living among magnificent creatures like elephants, lions, zebras, giraffes and rhinos. It's like something out of The Jungle Book or an adventure reminiscent of David Livingstone.
However, for 42-year-old professional game ranger Martin Bornman there's an alternative argument for why someone might volunteer to don his iconic khaki get-up. "The natural world is disappearing fast," he says, "and this could very well be one of the last decades when large free-ranging populations of mega fauna can still be viewed."
Whether you're drawn to the idea of realising childhood fantasy, motivated by the more grown-up recognition of a shrinking natural landscape or simply after an interesting ecological experience, it's fair to say that learning to be a game ranger is both an unusual and quite brilliant way of getting closer to South Africa's living, breathing natural treasures.
Getting properly immersed
So what does learning to be a game ranger actually involve? "The course itself is a jam-packed two-week programme," explains Ellen Sziede. "It's based in a private wildlife reserve in the Greater Kruger area, and designed to give a thorough introduction to the wildlife and ecosystems of South Africa."
Basically, the work of a game ranger requires a comprehensive understanding not only of the cool wildlife, but also the environment you work in. And if you're learning about the environment, the best thing to do is properly immerse yourself in it.
"While some topics are presented in fairly formal lectures at camp, a lot of the learning takes place in the field," says Ellen. "Bush walks, game drives and night drives are therefore a big part of the course. This is when everything you learn in the classroom comes to life and tests you. It's a real challenge!"
She adds: "It's one thing having a lecture about common trees in Africa and how to behave in the proximity of large and dangerous animals; it's all together different actually finding yourself surrounded by a herd of elephants while walking through dense bush with Acacia trees ripping your lovely new khakis to shreds."
Throughout the course, the sights, sounds and smells of the African bush become more familiar to ‘learner rangers' as they assimilate the knowledge and experience of the programme. They recognise the tracks left by a wide range of animals, spot rare birds and even correctly identify a species by studying dung. Lovely.
Hennie Van Deeventer, 45, is African Conservation Experience's head ranger and instructor, and the man responsible for bringing all these subjects to life. Whether he's teaching budding rangers about identifying dangerous snakes, the use of spotlights on game drives or animal habitats, Hennie is passionate about the course's impact. "The course is life-enriching on all levels," says the head instructor, who has more than two decades of experience in the field.
"The job and placement allow a sense of freedom. It's an almost spiritual experience, with a profound sense of making a difference."
Fellow full-time ranger Bradley Black, 33, agrees that the course enjoys a special place amongst wildlife projects. "The course opens people's eyes to a world that few modern humans get to see," he says. "I love having that positive influence on people."
A different perspective
We've heard from the pros, but what of the aspiring game rangers, the adventurous souls eager to swap the comforts of home for a fortnight of dust, heat and bush in South Africa? What do they have to say about the concept of the programme?
Sam Browett, 21, signed up for the game ranger course last July. "I went out to discover South African conservation from a different perspective and the project was perfect," he says.
Sam, who is from Ireland, was in his second year of studying zoology and environmental biology when he decided to apply to the African Conservation Experience programme. Like most of those signing up he'd never done anything like this before, but was looking for a way to get real experience in working with wildlife. What would he say to anyone interested in the programme?
"Go with an open mind and enjoy every moment of it," he says. "Before you know it, you are back home, wishing to go back to Africa!"
Another course enthusiast is Londoner Sunil Lath. He completed the ranger programme last September, and says: "After years of thinking about working with African wildlife I finally took the plunge by joining the programme. Through the course I began to understand the flora and fauna I was immersed in, and found appreciation for our delicately balanced environment. "
For Sunil, 28, the course was not merely a quirky holiday or career booster, but a genuinely life-affirming experience. "Not only did it help me explore career options in the industry, it brought out my adventurous spirit!" he says. "Who wouldn't want to be surrounded by a herd of more than 100 elephants, go tracking a clan of hyena on a night game drive or learn to handle and shoot a rifle? It was my best ever wildlife experience!"
African bush romance
While there is an exam at the end of the course, the real ‘graduation' and baptism of fire is the sleep-out in the bush. Dinner around the camp fire and sleeping under starry night skies might seem like the pinnacle of African bush romance, but there is a serious, responsible side to this adventure too.
"Although most participants in the game ranger courses have never been to Africa before, at this point in the course you have learned a lot, so during the sleep-out everyone is tasked with taking turns to keep watch," explains Ellen Sziede. "This requires you to keep your eyes and ears sharp, as you are very much responsible for the group's safety."
It sounds pretty intense! Ellen agrees, saying: "The sounds of hyena out on a nocturnal prowl are only too real, and they are not the only predators out there... it can be daunting, and it probably won't be the best night's sleep you'll get, but it's a night most will remember for a long time!"
After two weeks of immersing yourself in the African bush you'll leave with a thorough understanding of the environment you've lived and learned in, as well some life-long friends. But the journey doesn't have to end there.
"One of the most rewarding ways to solidify everything you've learned is to continue onto a more practical conservation placement," explains Ellen. "Many participants join rangers and researchers at a wildlife conservation project for a few weeks. It's a great way to put your new-found skills to the test."
While the game ranger course won't be for everyone, if you're looking to get off the beaten track and experience the wildlife of South Africa in-depth, up-close and away from the typical tourist trails, this might well be the best two weeks of your life.
Feeling inspired? Enquire about the game-ranging course with African Conservation Experience.
Want to know more about South Africa? Check out this Guide to South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland.
Just want to get a feel for what South Africa has to offer? Take a look at our South Africa country page.
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