SINHLE WORKS DEEP WITHIN THE REMOTE NATURE RESERVE OF THE KRUGER PARK, TIMBAVATI IN THE HEART OF SOUTH AFRICA. GROWING UP IN THE UNTOUCHED BUT RATHER REMARKABLE TRIBE OF THE SHAAGAN PEOPLE, HE IS NOTHING SHORT OF KNOWLEDGE ABOUT THE STUNNING NATURE AND ANIMALS THAT SURROUND THIS SPECTACULAR RESERVE, AS HE HAS CLOSE ENCOUNTERS WITH THEM ON A DAILY BASIS. INTERVIEW ANNABEL CARDEN
ANNABEL CARDEN What made you want to be an animal tracker? SINHLE MATHEBULA I initially started as a guide, but taught myself the skills to become a tracker. I have now been a ranger at Umlani Bushcamp for five years. AC Where does the name of your tribe, Shaagan, come from? SM King Shaka of the Kwa Zulu Matal tribe, who sent Soshangana to conquer the Tsonga people in Mozambique. Travelling there, he discovered a place inhabited by peace-loving people, and decided to stay rather than return to King Shaka. After a while he moved on to Mozambique, but left his children to live in the area, and so it was named Shaagan, which means ‘my offspring remain here’. AC How do you track? SM The best time to track is usually in the morning or the evening, as animals tend to go hunting at this time. I listen for trees snapping or bird calls. Some birds form particular ‘bonds’ with some mammals, for example, Oxpecker birds eat insects that may irritate the skin of rhinos, and they give warning calls whenever a possible threat is nearby to alert the rhino. A lot of animal dung and prints can be seen in the dirt on the ground, and areas dense with grass are flattened while plants will have branches snapped off. Animals like elephants and buffalos also rub their bodies against the bark of trees, I could go on. AC What is the most dangerous encounter you have experienced? SM I was once tracking a leopard, but I didn’t spot the black rhino that was just a few metres away. Black rhinos are also very dangerous animals, if they see you, you are automatically seen as a threat and he charged at me. I climbed a nearby tree but the rhino stabbed my trousers, only centimetres away from my leg, and pinned it to the tree. Thankfully the trouser ripped enough for my to free my leg. There was another incident where I was tracking lioness prints to an area densely populated with foliage, and she crossed my path with two cubs infront of me before I had chance to spot her. She immediately braced the attack position and ran at me, stopping just a couple of metres infront of me, then walked away, but every time I tried to move, she ran at me again. So the best thing to do was stay still, and wait for them to move on. If I had turned away at anytime, she would have attacked me as prey.
AC Are there any specific signs you can look for in order to predict behaviour? SM The practically undetectable movements could mean the difference between knowing whether the animal will run away from you, or charge at you. Most animals respect humans, as they are an unrecognised species in the animal kingdom. They are unaware of our capabilities so they are unlikely to attack if it means they are unsure whether they could survive. However the Bull Buffalo will charge at you, they will fight until either they kill you or you kill them. I was tracking with a fellow ranger at Umlani, and we came across a buffalo without warning. He chased us into fallen acacia bushes, which have incredibly long thorns. The trunk of the tree managed to block us from the buffaloâ€™s horns. Eventually the buffalo grew bored and turned away. The adrenaline was so strong that we didn't even notice the cuts of the thorn bush and returned back to camp covered in blood!