South Africa’s most significant conservation areas, including the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, are here today because of the dedication and commitment of veteran game rangers like Mdiceni Gumede and Paul Dutton, writes Fred Kockott
CLUBBING unfledged pelican chicks was common on the Lake St Lucia estuary in days of old.
So too was the harvesting pelican embryos and turtle hatchlings to use as bait.
The culprits were not traditional landowners who depended on the environment to survive, but visiting white fishermen.
Dealing with such fishermen, especially when they were drunk, was among challenges that veteran game rangers, Paul Dutton and Mdiceni Gumede, now in their early eighties, experienced during their baptism into conservation at Lake St Lucia in the early 1960s.
“We were nicknamed Die Natalse Varkeraad (the Natal Pigs Board),” says Dutton. “We were reviled and sworn at. Once I even had a burning cigarette butt thrust in my ear.”
Fred Kockott, chats to veteran game rangers like Mdiceni Gumede and Paul Dutton. Picture: Fred Kockott
Gumede had an even harder time dealing with his own people. He and Dutton were once called on to repel groups of people intent on reclaiming land in the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park.
Gumede’s stomach understandably churned – this was the very heart of the hunting ground of the late King Shaka, where people were prepared to kill to reclaim land.
“We walked into an ambush,” said Dutton. After laying down their guns, Lee Enfield rifles, Gumede helped negotiate.
“I told the people we were not fighting. I pleaded with them to move out. We talked kahle kahle (carefully and gently) till late afternoon,” said Gumede.
The next day police moved in, torching homes that people had begun building in the reserve.
Gumede had his fair share of skirmishes with poachers, too.
In one incident a bullet grazed his head. A colleague was not as lucky. A bullet entered his cheek and came out just above his neck. The man lost part of his face and one eye.
Now battle-scarred and poor, all in the name of conservation, Gumede survives on the pittance of an Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife pension at his home near the Somkhele coal mine on the border of the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi park.
“This is really tragic and makes me very angry,” says Dutton. “Mdiceni has been very poorly compensated and now has to live right next to this mine. It darkens their water supplies with coal dust. The land where they used to graze their cattle is now a great big gat (hole).”