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Q&A Sessions: Meet Cathy Dreyer, the rhino whisperer

Cathy Dreyer, the first female head ranger of the Kruger National Park, speaks to Sheree Bega about earning the trust of black rhinos by reading to them and why the park’s hard-working rangers deserve the admiration of all South Africans.

You’re called the rhino whisperer. How did that name come about? 

I spent a lot of time boma training black rhino while I was in Addo [Elephant National Park] and throughout my career with the [South African National Parks] veterinary wildlife services unit and while in the Great Fish Nature Reserve. 

This involved taking wild-caught black rhino and taming them down in holding bomas in preparation for moving them over long distances. They had to be comfortable being in a small, confined space for long periods of time and used to being fed and given water during transportation. 

I found the best way to win their trust and habituate them was to talk or read to them, and as a result, they became familiar with my voice and presence. I earned the name because of the bonds that developed between myself and individual animals. 

Having spent so much time working with rhinos, it was impossible not to become passionate about them and to contribute towards their conservation and protection.

You’re the first female head ranger of the Kruger and the first female — and South African — recipient of the Tusk Award for Conservation in Africa. Have you experienced sexism in your career?

I’d like to think that I am where I am through hard work, dedication and surrounding myself with like-minded people who challenge and inspire me to always do better. I’ve never really focused on the fact that I am female nor has it been something that I have felt has added extra pressure on me. 

I’ve been fortunate to have been mentored by some incredible conservationists and specialists in their field who have always treated and made me feel like an equal.

What led you to conservation?

I grew up in Grassy Park and Diep River in Cape Town. As a family we went hiking in and around Table Mountain and often went for outings to the beach. From a young age I knew I wanted to be in a career that involved being outdoors in nature and working with wildlife. 

I wasn’t exposed to any parks or reserves until I went to Addo to complete my experiential training and straight away knew that working in conservation and with wildlife was what I wanted to do. 

I became involved with the Sanparks veterinary wildlife services unit while I was in Addo.

The unit is responsible for the capture and translocation of all wildlife throughout all the national parks and in Africa. It was here that I became involved in black rhino conservation and this experience shaped my career to focus on black rhino monitoring, conservation, translocation and protection.

You’ve said that meeting Sir David Attenborough was a highlight of your life …

So many conservationists have grown up watching Sir Attenborough’s wildlife documentaries and listening to his passion and dedication towards wildlife and wild places has always been inspiring. Meeting him and learning about his passion for Africa and Africa’s wildlife and receiving an award [the Tusk award] from him was definitely a very special moment.

What are the biggest issues facing rhino conservation in the Kruger?

Rhino are complex animals and their social structures, territoriality and associations with one another make them a difficult species to manage. 

The focused and dedicated poaching of rhino in the Kruger over the last decade has by far been the biggest threat facing rhino. Their survival is dependent on us protecting them against poaching and other related wildlife crimes. 

This is further complicated by the size of the Kruger, which makes protecting rhino extremely challenging and costly … and dangerous for the field rangers on the ground. 

If it were not for the dedicated rangers on the ground working tirelessly to protect them, often at great personal sacrifice to themselves and their families, rhino would no longer exist in Kruger. With new technologies and innovative strategies, we remain hopeful we’ll be able to stem the tide of poaching and offer rhinos the protection they need to once again thrive.

What does your job involve?

The head ranger oversees four regional rangers, 22 section rangers and a large number of field rangers that make up the Kruger ranger corps, who are responsible for conservation and law enforcement. 

This involves a lot more than just poaching and fighting wildlife crime. Rangers are responsible for all aspects of biodiversity management, which includes burning, veld management, water management, monitoring species of special concern, erosion control, game capture and aerial census, to name a few. 

A large part of the work is putting in place strategies and mechanisms that support rangers and their development. 

There’s a large amount of administration, which is not a favourite of any conservationist, but I’m lucky to call Kruger “home” and to work alongside so many skilled, dedicated and committed people and have the opportunity to learn from them.

The path I’ve chosen has meant that family, marriage and children have taken a back seat. I’m a self-proclaimed workaholic who is driven by my career and my need to make a meaningful contribution to conservation.

Are there things about your job that have surprised you?

The scale of the Kruger Park is probably one of the biggest challenges and trying to fulfil all our obligations with limited budgets because of the [Covid-19] pandemic and the loss of revenue from the many lockdowns and restrictions. It’s often very difficult to predict what a “normal” day will involve.

What’s the funniest experiences you’ve had out in the field?

Some of my fondest memories have been with the veterinary wildlife services unit doing game capture. Catching animals is always about putting the welfare and safety of the animals first, but it is a very physical job with many moments that make you smile. Monitoring black rhino in the field is always challenging and entertaining and I’ve had to climb a few trees in my career.

What do you want South Africans to know about the Kruger’s rangers?

The rangers have overcome numerous challenges in the past few years, specifically those related to wildlife crime and poaching of rhino. Contacts with armed poachers are common, as are lengthy follow-ups in pursuit of suspect poachers, often in tough terrain and conditions. 

Despite this, the rangers remain dedicated and committed to their work and are passionate about their role in protecting our natural resources. They have developed specialist skills, which are unique and they continue to perform their duties with pride. They deserve the support and admiration of all South Africans.

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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