Recently the Colleges’ Higher Certificate Class (Nature Conservation) had the privilege of visiting the warden station of one of the Balule reserves, Parsons Nature Reserve, bordering the Kruger National Park.

The warden’s reliable patrol vehicle, “Koevoet” with the students enjoying every moment on it.
The warden’s reliable patrol vehicle, “Koevoet” with the students enjoying every moment on it.

This excursion was part of the practical component of their Conservation Management Planning module. On the day of the excursion we left the College at the crack of dawn in order to meet the warden, Cornell Vermaak, at a fuel station just outside the reserve. As he led us in through the gate he immediately pointed out the first challenge that many private reserves face, which is access control.

Due to the variety of landownership shapes and forms in amalgamated landscapes, a specific reserve does not always have full control as to who has access to their land via another reserve open to them.Although it “forces” people to work together in order to combat rhino poaching it does require constant and clear communication systems to be in place. As we drove through the reserve to the warden’s headquarters (HQ) I was shocked to see the extent of elephant impact since I last visited the reserve a decade ago and explained to the students that this is a result of conservation areas open and adjacent to each other not aligning their management strategies. Extensive research in the Kruger National Park showed that year long provision of water from artificial water sources, such as boreholes, in naturally dry areas affects the way in which large herbivores and carnivores use the landscape, with areas around these artificial waterholes typically being over utilized.

Students enjoying a ride on the warden's reliable patrol vehicle, “Koevoet”.
Students enjoying a ride on the warden’s reliable patrol vehicle, “Koevoet”.

However, many of the private landowners bordering the park refuse to close their water points as they and their guests who support the tourism industry enjoy viewing animals drinking close to the lodges. After the Kruger National Park closed many of its artificial waterholes more than a decade ago the result is that elephants have fluxed in from the park onto the private nature reserves where water is easy to find but high quality food not so much. Because of their sheer size, elephants then have a greater impact on trees as they push them over to access leaves on top of the crown or roots below ground where many of the nutrients are stored.

After reaching our destination, Cornell gave us a brief overview of a day in the life of a warden by deploying his anti-poaching patrol team and explaining the implementation of his annual operations plan.

He also emphasized that the type of support from scientific services, maintenance etc. that a warden would typically have access to in a National Park, is simply not available on most private reserves, which results in the warden on a private reserve having to fulfil all these roles himself.

Following these discussions which the students found to be of real interest, we then got taken on a general warden’s patrol of the reserve in Cornell’s sturdy and reliable old “Koevoet”.

Cornell explaining the importance of waterhole management.
Cornell explaining the importance of waterhole management.

As we crossed the crest of one of the many rocky hills in this landscape we suddenly saw a variety of animal species, including giraffe, impala, wildebeest, zebra and warthog. The reason for this soon became clear as we entered the valley and saw a waterhole in the riverbed. Cornell parked the vehicle close by and then showed and explained to the students why regular sampling of highly utilized waterholes is so important and how, if you keep the waterhole small enough, you are able to close it down from time to time in case of a disease breakout or over utilization.

When we were just ready to leave the waterhole area Cornell ripped out a pair of blue plastic gloves and to everyone’s surprise asked two of the students to put them on and pick up fresh wildebeest and zebra droppings close by. Back at HQ we were escorted straight to the laboratory (with the cooler box and dung) where all the puzzle pieces finally started to fit together. In the lab Cornell showed the students how to do a “floatation” with the dung samples they just collected and how to prepare a slide to check the dung for parasite eggs such as round worm and tape worm under a microscope. This led to great excitement as the students were able to see the eggs under the microscope and make the link as to how powerful this relatively easy to use tool is in assisting managers with decision-making regarding management of wildlife, waterholes and diseases.

We would like to thank Cornell and his team and Parsons Nature Reserve for the incredible opportunity they gave our students, the future conservation managers of Africa experiencing hands-on wildlife management in a very practical and meaningful way.

Student, Refiloe Mathetse, looking at parasite eggs in a wildebeest dung sample
Student, Refiloe Mathetse, looking at parasite eggs in a wildebeest dung sample.
A Higher Certificate student preparing a dung sample
A Higher Certificate student preparing a dung sample.