I may be here to study ants, but the startled buffalo facing up to me from between the branches of the acacia is of more immediate concern. In a split second, Renson Thethe, game scout at Kruger Park's Scientific Services barks a warning call and swings his rifle round. He knows that a bullet is of little use, but the gesture is enough to ward off the animal. Day in day out, along with the rest of the National Park ranger service, Renson will risk his life in the name of Conservation, and the protection of his country's national heritage. Amongst others, he shares with me tales of beating out wild-fires, the searing heat scarring his hands.
And its not just the animals and fire. One day, whilst registering for field permits, I see two other rangers bring in a man wearing ragged, mud smeared clothes, but more importantly shackled with handcuffs. From the back of their hilux truck, they unload a bloody stump of rhino ivory, which is added to store of elephant tusks and rusted snare wires. For Kruger, and the rest of the nations parks are at war; rangers vs poachers with sustained civilian casualties for rhino populations.
During my stay, the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism revealed that 102 rhinos had already been killed since the 1st of January, adding more to last year's total of 668. Driven by local poverty, and a flourishing market in Asia where a kg of "medicinal" rhino horn can fetch $65,000, such a slaughter is understandable. But inexcusable, given that black rhino are only just retreating from the brink of irreversible extinction. For the foot soldier rangers, shoot to kill is now the law, in a country where violence is increasingly seen as a resolution to problems.
Walking back along the red dirt track, Renson confides that he is ready to retire, but that to claim his pension he must serve a further 2 years of service, and that whilst rewarding, this is a job which takes its toll. He parts curtains of spiderwebs with the barrel his rifle, which his has not used in his 23 years, allowing the resident to scuttle safely to a corner. I hope that he can maintain this record, and claim the rest which his country owes him.