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A walk on the wild side

“A lion walked right past me while I was taking a nap!”

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A walk on the wild side

“A lion walked right past me while I was taking a nap!”

For 23 years, his office has been the great outdoors.

During that time, come rain or shine, Dimakatso Ntshebe has worked – and indeed thrived – in some of the most difficult and dangerous terrains, Botswana has to offer.

He has walked alone in the wildlife abundant Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve and lived to tell the tale. On the edge encounters with wild animals and deadly poachers are part of the wildlife ranger’s daily bread.

Ntshebe now serves as the North West District’s Wildlife Coordinator, a position he assumed last October after transferring from the Central district.

It means he is now at the heart of a Red Zone area, where poachers shoot to kill.

In this interview, the vastly experienced ranger tells FRANCINAH BAAITSE-MMANA about the ups and downs of his line of work.

Q. Thank you for your time sir. Tell me, what does it take for one to be a ranger?

It is a risky and challenging job, but can be enjoyable as well.

It teaches one to be tolerant, to know how to handle people in any situation.

It is the kind of job that explains ‘full job’ very well because we work day and night and in all weathers, even without enough resources.

This is the kind of job that needs somebody who is patient and prepared to work with people.

It is not for the light-hearted and needs brave personalities.

You have to be prepared to track lions by foot because a lion is not tracked by car, you have to walk to spot it.

You have to be ready to search for and catch cobras from houses when everybody else watches from a distance.

It teaches one to work with people who are in different sets of emotions: happy, sad and angry.

Q. In your 23-year career with the wildlife department have you ever had life-threatening moments, or close encounters with a dangerous wild animal?

Yes, I have had many life-threatening encounters.

An elephant once pushed a vehicle I was in with its trunk.

But the height of it, I believe, was when a lion walked right past me while I was taking a nap!

When I woke up, I saw it drinking water from the well about a few metres away from me.

I managed to remain calm and left the scene unharmed.

Q. Must have been terrifying. How did you overcome your fear?

Of my 23 years career, ten of those I spent working inside the CKGR, managing the reserve.

We were literally sharing the camp with untamed lions.

We saw them everywhere we went.

The lion incident took place inside the camp.

I was sleeping in a stretcher when it walked past me and drank water almost next to me.

Having worked with animals, you get to learn their behaviour and character so well to notice when an animal is threatened or hungry.

I know how to be around animals.

I have even walked alone in the CKGR and everyone knows that walking through the park is very close to a suicide walk.

At that time, my vehicle had broken down and I had no choice but to walk to reach a place where I could get help.

Q. Was it always your dream to become a wildlife officer?

I grew up at the cattlepost and all that was around me was cattle.

So I wanted to be a farmer.

I believe, just like everybody else, my dream career was shaped by my surroundings.

Being a typical Tswana child from a rural upbringing, we grow without role models, without career guidance and our parents sometimes are not educated enough to help us in that regard.

So I have always liked cattle, even to date I love cattle ranching.

I am just here by default and it just so happened that I got higher grades during my time at university and was discouraged from taking farming related course.

I was rather encouraged to venture into medical schooling but I settled for animal sciences.

Q. Talking about sciences reminds me that elephants are dying in large numbers in your area. Have you found a solution to the problem?

Laboratory tests have not yet confirmed the cause of the high mortality rates.

Anthrax has been ruled out and we are investigating other possible causes, including poisoning.

Even last week we took some new samples from carcasses and some from one live elephant, which we had to put down because it was suffering with the mysterious disease.

Q. What symptoms did you observe in the ailing elephant?

It was failing to walk.

It appears the front legs had gone weak and led to uncoordinated movement.

In fact many of the dead elephants appeared to have fallen on the front legs because most carcasses were found in a kneeling position.

Q. Let’s hope you get to the bottom of it soon! Comparing Central district and North West district, are they any differences in terms of animal protection?

Not much difference, but as you know this side the economy is more based on tourism.

Poaching in this area is more to do with commercial purposes: elephants and rhinos get killed for ivory whilst in the Central there is more of subsistence poaching, where small animals are killed for their meat.

In the North West poachers are heavily armed and they shoot to kill!

Q. The North West must be a dangerous area for wildlife rangers then?

This side the protection of animals is under Botswana Defence Force (BDF) and Botswana Police Services because we do not have enough resources.

Ngamiland is classed as a ‘red zone’.

Such zones are dangerous poaching areas.

These are where you find poachers armed with assault riffles and such areas were given to BDF because the army have resources and arms that allows it to combat.

Wildlife does not have the armoury that can allow them to enter such areas, but they do protect areas outside the red zones.

Q. Interesting. So how then are you responsible for protecting other animal species, such as the endangered rhinos?

All security forces are deployed towards the protection of wild animals.

Chobe and Ngamiland is under the protection of BDF while Central is under the Police.

Wildlife is taking care of Kgalagadi and Kweneng is under the protection of Police and Prisons.

All species are protected and in all areas around the country.

So all agencies have to be involved to protect all these animal species, including the rhinos.

Q. With all these armed forces on board, surely human/wildlife conflicts shouldn’t be a problem?

We are doing our best, believe me! We have a Problem Animal Control unit whose main purpose is to deal with problem animals.

When an elephant has entered a field, they will be the first to respond to control and chase those animals back to the field.

Killing is the last resort when we have done everything else possible.

Q. But I am told you are slow to respond to reports from people under attack?

It is not that we are slow to respond!

Rather it is because we do not have enough resources and manpower to be in many places at the same time.

When an elephant is reported in an area, most likely our officers are somewhere else attending to a similar call.

As we speak, our officers are in Hynaveldt.

They have been there since last week Thursday because lions are eating cattle in farms.

So it is possible that if we get a call now say in Shorobe with a report that an elephant is ravaging through someone’s field, it will take time to attend to the report because at the moment we have no standby vehicle and necessary resources to attend the call.

So either we call some of those in Hynaveldt and borrow a vehicle from another government department to take them there.

That will obviously take time and the public will be think we are slow to respond, which is not the case!

Q. How often do you get complaints about wildlife in this area and what are the common ones?

We receive 60 to 80 reports every month.

Of course common reports are about elephants in the fields, lions eating cattle and wild dogs and hyenas eating small stock.

Some are about snakes in the houses etc.

Q. I understand you only pay out compensation for wildlife attacks when a human life is lost. How about those injured and left with permanent disability?

The compensation programme that we have was introduced in July 2015 and yes it is only for those killed by animals; they get P70, 000 – P20, 000 is for funeral and P50, 000 for loss of life.

For the injured, we believe they are compensated through free treatment in government health institutions.

If they need emotional counselling, government offers such as well.

Q. But some are attacked in their yards by these protected animals. They lose their lifestyles, source of income and they go through physical and emotional trauma – are you saying that is not worth compensating?

No, that is not what I am saying.

We have what we call counselling.

When you are left with physical disability, we take you to social services department, and explain to the welfare officer that this person was sustaining him/herself through this, but now they have been injured and their permanent disability means their livelihood has to be altered, how can you assist? That is how government operates to avoid duplication of efforts.

Q. Nevertheless, there is this common complaint that government is more protective towards wild animals than its people, what do you say to that?

That is not true, the law says we can kill wildlife when a human life is at risk.

We are only allowed to kill an animal when it poses danger to people, that shows how much we care for human life.

Q. Have you ever in your career felt helpless about a situation?

Very much.

Sometimes I don’t even know what to say and how to console a farmers.

In one incident in Gantsi, a farmer came to me to complain after his 80 cattle were killed and eaten by lions in a matter of three months. He said, “Look I have tried everything, but it is not helpful.”

For your information, I am also a farmer so I know the pain of losing livestock to wildlife.

I have experienced the loss as well.

Q. What advice can you give to people in terms of learning to live peacefully with animals?

We need these animals.

After diamonds, tourism sector is the second generator of income to Botswana’s economy.

Unlike diamonds, our animals are renewable and if you take care of them they will always be there for our economy, for us to see and for our children and our coming generations.

Q. Away from wildlife, are you a family man?

Yes.

I am married with two children.

Q. Besides chasing poachers and protecting animals, what do you do to relax?

I am not such an outgoing person, so I prefer spending my free time with my family at home.

I like reading and I am a big football fan.

Q. And finally, Thank God It’s Friday, what are you up to this weekend?

In the absence of any emergency, I will be home.

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