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UNSUNG HEROES

A Ranger’s Tale: Protecting the Garden Route National Park

A Ranger’s Tale: Protecting the Garden Route National Park
Bongani Mdaka patrols the suspension bridge, Storms River Mouth, Tsitsikamma in the Garden Route National Park. (Photo: Wild Africa Fund)

For Bongani Mdaka, an unsung South African hero, no experience is more rewarding than protecting the biodiversity of South Africa’s rich natural endowment.

Nestled along the picturesque coastline of South Africa, the Garden Route National Park is a treasure trove of natural beauty, home to lush forests, pristine beaches and diverse wildlife.

The park is a mosaic of ecosystems, a tapestry woven with indigenous forests and a dramatic coastline. Spanning some 1,210km2, it is a haven for biodiversity, sheltering rare plant species and providing a refuge for diverse wildlife, including African black oystercatchers and the elusive Cape leopard.

a ranger's tale

Bongani Mdaka educates kids about poaching and fish identification in the community adjacent to the Garden Route National Park. (Photo: Wild Africa Fund)

But this breathtaking landscape is not without its challenges. From invasive species to climate change, the park faces a multitude of threats that demand constant vigilance and conservation efforts.

At the heart of these efforts are dedicated individuals like Bongani Amin Mdaka, an assistant section ranger in the Wilderness section of the park. For the past few years, Mdaka has been on the frontlines of conservation, working tirelessly to protect the park’s delicate ecosystems.

In a telephonic interview with Daily Maverick, he shared his story.  

a ranger's tale

Bongani Mdaka and his colleague depart on a small vessel to patrol a marine area of the national park. (Photo: Supplied)

“I was born in Limpopo and work for South African National Parks. My duties as a ranger include monitoring our environmental assets and leading a team of field rangers and environmental team. I also organise and conduct patrols.”

“The reason I do what I do is my passion for conservation, that is why I went to school to study nature conservation.”   

a ranger's tale

Bongani Mdaka surveys his surroundings from atop a suspension bridge in the Garden Route National Park. (Photo: Wild Africa Fund)

His love for the environment started at home, he explained. 

“I grew up in a family with domesticated animals and occasionally my family slaughtered animals on family occasions and that did not sit well with me. All I wanted was to not have this animal slaughtered. I would cry for them and that is when I knew I cared about animals.

Read more in Daily Maverick: How a coincidental wildlife conservationist is working to save rare chimps and monkeys in Nigeria

Mdaka said his work had taught him several lessons.

“Conservation and the environment taught me to stay true to myself, and stick to what I love in order to bring change for conservation.”  

Poaching risk

According to the Garden Route National Park Park Management Plan for the period 2020-2029, “The overall perceived poaching risk is medium. The security of the park’s biodiversity is at risk due to the open nature of the park. The main threats are the illegal collection of plants or parts thereof, illegal fishing, abalone and Knysna seahorse collection, exceeding bait collection allocation and the international market and trade in endangered species.”

a ranger's tale

An aerial view of the rugged coastline along the Garden Route National Park. (Photo: Wild Africa Fund)

Speaking about poaching and illegal activity, Mdaka said, “It’s basically the poaching of smaller animals, bushbucks. These poachers have got a way of using snares and they will come back from time to time to check if anything is caught in their snares. That is on the terrestrial side.     

“Another type of poaching that is a big problem is basically the poaching of fish. Most of the time it’s people fishing without licences. And it’s not just animals. Poachers target plants too.”  

a ranger's tale

Bongani Mdaka surveys the marine protected area from the suspension bridge, Storms River Mouth, Tsitsikamma, Garden Route National Park. (Photo: Wild Africa Fund)

His role as an assistant section ranger involves maintaining a delicate equilibrium between the needs of the local communities and the imperative of preserving the ecosystem.

“Another challenge that we have is that the Garden Route National Park is located near an urban area and an informal settlement,” he said. “You also have farmers who when they see animals getting on to their land, instead of communicating with us, they don’t ask for permission, they just shoot them. So one of the challenges is stakeholder relations.”

Despite these challenges, the rewarding nature of his work makes it all worthwhile, Mdaka emphasises.

“For me, waking up each and every morning, being able to protect the biodiversity of South Africa’s significant resources of plants and animals is the most rewarding part of my work.” DM

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