Ranger Training

May 9, 2016

There is a war going on in South Africa. It doesn’t, for the most part, involve armies or large battles, but it is a tough, dirty and vicious war nonetheless. Special forces, intelligence gathering, air operations, dog teams, covert surveillance, crime scene management, and many other experts are involved in this war, and at the forefront are the rangers of the national and private parks and the hunting and game reserves. I am talking about the anti-poaching war being waged in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, as well as other parks and reserves across the rest the African content.

SAWC arms instructor, Chris Bota, addresses trainees at the firing range.

After getting fed up with seeing the horrendous photos on social media of slaughtered rhinos and elephants, I started casting about for ways in which I could actively help. Through the wonderful assistance of Ruben de Kock and Lesley Grayling of the Southern African Wildlife College (SWAC) and its ranger division, I decided to join them in June of 2015, as a volunteer. My job was to assist the OIC, Mr. de Kock in mentoring leadership and teamwork to the ranger trainees, as well as to develop a report on how to make the ranger division and the SAWC work more effectively together. Among the list of qualifications that convinced the organization that I could be a positive contributor in this regard were my former careers as a naval officer and then physical education teacher.

There are approximately 500 qualified rangers working in Kruger Park. In addition to regular patrols by the rangers, there are many specialty groups – dog teams, air operations, special and rapid insertion teams, intel groups and more. These rangers have all passed the SAWC year-long basic ranger training program (in addition to various advanced training options). Originally under the auspices of African Field Ranger Training Services, a private company owned by Ruben and Marianne de Kock, SAWC purchased and integrated the program three years ago. It is now a full-fledged year-long program offering multiple courses in a paramilitary format.

Physical training is part of the paramilitary approach.
Physical training is part of the paramilitary approach.

Why would South African park rangers need to be trained in a paramilitary format? Park Rangers in Canada, the USA or most other parts of the world certainly do not require paramilitary training, although they are trained in law enforcement.

In North America, when we think of park rangers, we might think of horse-mounted personnel in the back areas of Jasper National Park or fish and game wardens on the coast of British Columbia. Their duties include search-and-rescue missions, resource and wildlife management, plus law enforcement. Compared with Africa though, poaching in North America is a comparatively minimal problem. And despite most North American wardens and rangers being armed, we do not see them as related to, or trained as, military personnel. After all, they are responsible for looking after tourists, protecting flora and fauna, and preventing illegal hunting and fishing. Why would one need to be a trained paramilitarist to do this job?

In South Africa, the history and development of rangers, while having some similarities, is markedly different from here in North America.

Rangers attend class in tented classrooms. The camp simulates living in the bushveld.
Rangers attend class in tented classrooms. The camp simulates living in the bushveld.

There most certainly is some poaching and illegal hunting in Canadian and U.S. parks, however, most of the time it consists of out-of-season hunting and the harvesting of specific animal parts for ceremonial and medicinal purposes. In South Africa, on the other hand, poaching is a huge problem with national and economic ramifications (many billions of dollars change hands in this illegal trade). In short, it is war.

To this end, South African and Kruger Park rangers must be trained in specific roles for specific goals. Certainly, part of their job consists of conservation of flora and fauna and assisting the public, but the vast majority of the training goes towards fighting poachers. The South African Ranger Training Services, now an integral part of the Southern African Wildlife College, is key to this effort.

Chris Bota instructs trainees on the Lee Enfield .303 rifle. Author Jim Parker with an orphaned rhino at the Care for Wild Rhino rescue sanctuary

Although a fairly recent addition to the college, Ranger Training is fast evolving and adapting to the demands of the poaching war. The program has had to adopt paramilitary training paradigm due to the extreme danger posed by poachers. To founder Ruben de Kock, a former South African Army sergeant major and horse soldier, such training was a logical requirement to keeping the Rangers safe while enforcing the laws. It also made sense from an organizational and efficiency point of view. The question of how to mass train several hundred people a year to competently perform a dirty and dangerous job while maintaining a certain standard of quality and para or military training found its answer in the comprehensive training provided at the SAWC.

A kilometre and a half from the main campus, and also in Kruger National Park, is the ranger training division of SAWC. Here, a camp that duplicates how rangers would live in the field has been created. Tents without electricity, an outdoor galley, and a few permanent buildings such as the administration and cooking buildings, are surrounded by electric wire to keep the wild animals at bay.

OIC Ruben de Kock, instructs new trainees on the use of the BatHawk ultralight in the fight against animal poaching in Kruger National Park.
OIC Ruben de Kock, instructs new trainees on the use of the BatHawk ultralight in the fight against animal poaching in Kruger National Park.

‘Running in parallel (to the other SAWC programs) is the law enforcement role so necessary in fighting the current poaching scourge. To this end, the College has increased the field ranger training capacity and scope of the law enforcement and anti-poaching training, which also now includes ground-to-air patrol training. With the support of its donor base, the College also conducts aerial patrols (using the BatHawk ultralight aircraft) to monitor rhino populations in the Greater Kruger National Park area and assists in anti-poaching with the support of field staff on the ground. The aerial patrols also assist with mapping and plotting rhino, thereby allowing for better decisions to made regarding the deployment of field rangers in the areas where they are most needed.’ – Source: SAWC’s Annual Review 2014.

The young trainees, mostly local, but some from other areas of South Africa and other African countries, endure a tough selection process in order to be accepted into the year-long training. Just like any other military training, ‘selection’ is a combination of physical and academic tests. After successfully completing Selection, they will live at SAWC’s ranger camp. The privately-owned college is supported by corporate and private sponsors in addition to a very small government grant. There is no charge or tuition for South Africans but ‘out-of-area’ students would be charged a tuition fee, which includes accommodations and food.

Ranger trainees practice reading ‘spoor’, which includes identifying tracks and droppings (both animal and human). Ranger Sargent directs his rangers in a chase against rhino poachers.
Ranger trainees practice reading ‘spoor’, which includes identifying tracks and droppings (both animal and human). Ranger Sargent directs his rangers in a chase against rhino poachers.

The typical day starts early, usually around 05:30, with drill practice and other physical activities. In a unique addition, from a western point of view at least, is the singing of tribal songs while the trainees work – even parade drill commands are integrated into their music. On a dusty, dirt parade square, platoon-sized ‘squads’ practice British commonwealth drills. Their instructors or ‘corporals’ are earlier graduates of the same program, who have shone above the rest and been offered drill instructor positions.

After morning ablutions, the ranger trainees don standard khaki army fatigues and boots, and march, singing, to the outdoor kitchen. Because the college is privately supported, the ranger program depends on various funding sources to support it. As the amounts of the funds vary, this impacts how much food can be purchased – thus, some programs might offer the trainees three meals each day, while others can only offer two. It is pretty rough fare by Canadian standards, with low quality meat, often supplemented or replaced with SPAM, mealie meal (corn grits) and lots of bread. Often, this is more food than the trainees might receive at home, so they are quite happy. As a Canadian, I missed regular salads and fruit.

Ranger trainees gather around a patrol helicopter for instruction.
Ranger trainees gather around a patrol helicopter for instruction.

The rest of the day consists of more drill, classroom instruction and, at various stages, time on the fire ranges and in the field. Everywhere on the ranger camp grounds, trainees march, carrying axe handles in place of weapons. This is to provide ‘muscle memory’ for the heavy R2 (known as FNC1, in Canadian lexicon) rifles they will be carrying once they graduate and become full fledged park rangers.

Tracking expert, Sean Patrick.
Tracking expert, Sean Patrick.

After breakfast and cleanup, the workaday begins. Currently, classes are held in canvas army tents when instruction is not out in the field. The courses are many and varied, and continue to evolve. This is one of the secrets of the ranger division’s success; continuous input from those in the field, actively fighting poaching. The school is open to new technologies such as the use of UAVs, with a course now being offered in the use of unmanned vehicles. Satellite geo-tracking is another new technology making its way into the Rangers’ operational tool kit.

Other courses include, crime scene management, forensics, weaponry, tactics, canine handling, flora and fauna, bush survival and living, conservation (it is not solely anti-poaching), humans and animal tracking, air operations and much more. Clearly, the modern ranger must possess a plethora of skills in order to survive and thrive in the dangerous bush environment.

Classes consist of lectures, with a practical or field component. An important example is ‘air operations’. Bruce MacDonald, the ‘BatHawk’ (ultralight aircraft) pilot, makes the aircraft available for the trainees to practice radio procedures and aircraft directing. As well, arrangements are made for a Kruger Park helicopter to land at the school’s landing strip and the students will practice embarking and deplaning under the direction of flight crew. Trainees are sent out on a co-op work experience towards the end of their training year, which helps tie all of their training together into real-world application.

One of the more important courses is that of firearms training. This instruction is contracted out to Chris Botha, who brings his portable shooting school to the ranger division’s firing butts. Instruction is safe and thorough, with the trainees meeting a national standard upon completion. In Kruger Park, the weapon of issue for the rangers is the R2 semi-automatic rifle, although they are also trained on others, beginning at .22 calibre.

Jim Parker administers 02 to a  rhino that has been anesthetized before being “tagged” for monitoring purposes.
Jim Parker administers 02 to a rhino that has been anesthetized before being “tagged” for monitoring purposes.

At the end of the year-long program, trainees who have attained their qualification certificates can progress to jobs. Some of the trainees have been sponsored by their organizations and have jobs to return to. Ruben de Kock attempts to find employment for as many others as possible.

As with any job, the real training and education begins ‘on the job’. Graduates recognize that they still have a great deal and variety of training ahead of them to prepare for this tough and dirty ‘war’ being fought throughout Africa.

A Physical education teacher, Jim Parker was a Canadian naval reserve officer for 27 years, serving in the Sudan and Afghanistan. After publishing ‘Children of Africa: A Photo­graphic Journey’ in 2014 and is working on a second book, ‘I Am Ranger’. In 2015, he volunteered at the Southern Africa Wildlife College, helping train rangers in the anti-poaching fight in Kruger Park.