Africa Direct Safari Guide of the Year 2016

On 31 July, the wildlife enthusiasts and conservationists are celebrating World Rangers Day as a salute to the modern day heroes that dedicate their lives to wildlife and conservation.

It’s a job and passion that often goes unrewarded. And in many cases, rangers and field guides do what they do despite life-threatening circumstances.

But this says SANParks contracted field ranger Jaco Buys, would not keep him from doing what he loves. 

“In our country, you can choose to be negative or positive. Being a ranger means to choose the positive and to work to share that positivity with others,” he says. 

Jaco was recently named 2016’s Best Safari Guide of the Year by safari operators Africa Direct, and Traveller24 caught up with him in celebration of World Rangers Day. 

He says his love for the veld was first sparked when he was only four years old, standing on a hill near Punda Maria camp in the Kruger National Park with his father.

Now, after 22 years working as a ranger in the bush, he will not leave the veld for any money in the world. 

Here’s what he told Traveller24: 

T24: When and why did you decide this was what you’d like to do for a living? 

JB: My parents took us to the Kruger Park at every opportunity possible. When I was four years old, we were camping in Punda Maria when my dad and I stood overlooking the veld. My dad asked me, ‘So, what do you think of this?’ I said it was incredible, and I immediately wanted to know how do I work in such a place. My dad pointed to the rangers in uniform, and that’s when I decided it was what I had to do in life. Today, it’s a dream come true.   

T24: Why do you love what you do so much? 

JB: As a field guide it’s very important that you love nature – and working with people. And witnessing the impact the bush and the experience in the bush has on people’s lives is just incredible. You can see how people’s lives change in just three days. They get perspective. 

T24: Walk us through an average day in your life? Morning to night… 

JB: The walks I do in the Kruger are typically three days. During such a three day trail in Kruger’s wilderness area, you’d usually wake up at about 04:30 (in winter, or 03:30 in summer). 

We’ll have coffee with the guests, check our water supplies and rifles (the guides), and head out as the sun rises for two to three hours. 

At around midday, the group has brunch and a little bit of a siesta after brunch – while the animals sleep. We’ll also do a shorter walk in the afternoon. 

At night, the group usually sits around the campfire and discuss the day’s walk, sightings etc. 

T24: Do you have dangerous encounters on the walks? 

JB: Incidents do happen, but not often. We have to understand, humans are the agitators – animals always react to human encroachment.

You do get the ‘Big & Hairies’ (the species that are potentially dangerous) out there, but we are trained to diffuse situations that are potentially unsafe. 

Every time I do a walk, there are butterflies on my stomach, because there is always the potential for something unexpected to happen. 

Having said that, we are not trained to shoot our way out of any situations – it is always a last resort. I am privileged – I’ve been a guide for 22 years and never had to shoot an animal on a walk. No good guide ever wants to shoot the animals we are so privileged to see.

T24: Describe your closest wildlife encounter so far? 

JB: It’s important to remember that the most dangerous and challenging animal on earth is the human being… and other animals always reacted out of fear or their own protection. 

With wildlife, there have been many close encounters. One that happened earlier this year was a very close encounter with white rhino and calf. At first, our walking party surprised them by coming around a turn… 

The calf was about 18 months old and curious to see what we were. When the calf came running closer, the mother reacted. She charged at us, and came within four metres – we paced it out afterwards!

But guests on the walk handled the whole thing excellent. We were able to diffuse the situation.

T24: Have you noticed a change in SA’s wildlife, and rhinos specifically? 

JB: We are trained to pick up on animal behaviour, and I can see the impact poaching has had on the rhinos clearly. They are more agitated and more nervous. Even the ox-peckers – the birds known to sit on the rhinos – are more nervous.

T24: What’s the hardest part of your job? 

JB: Being away from my family – my wife, Laurika, and children Linka and Matthias. 

My wife loves me enough to know that what I do in the bush defines me as a person, but being without them is still very, very hard. 

T24: What’ the best part of your job?

JB: Spending the most time possible in the bush!

As a young guide, you start off wanting to see the ‘Big & Hairies’, but the more you do it, the more you realise how it’s about everything – a holistic bushveld experience. Especially, you learn that it’s not about you. The more you fall in love with nature, the more you want other people to experience it that way. 

T24: Describe your favourite moment as a Safari Guide in your career? 

JB: As a field guide, you’re always surrounded by guests, but they’re not always your family. The best times are when I’m able to spend time with my wife and children in the bush. 

Like this morning, for example. I was driving out of the Kruger with my wife when I noticed the bush alerts… baboons shouting, grey loeries whistling and impala huddling together and making their distinct nasal sounds – I knew something was up… 

As we sat in anticipation, a leopard appeared from the bushed. It was absolutely wonderful to experience this with my wife. 

T24: What, for you, are the biggest misconceptions about SA’s wildlife? 

JB: That animals are aggressive and we should fear them. We should know our place in nature, and realise our responsibility in nature. Humans are the aggressors, and animals always react in fear. 

T24: Why should young South Africans become guides and rangers? 

JB: Because it makes you a better person. It’s one of the most fulfilling careers in the world. You will never drive a Ferrari, you will never gain in riches, but the wealth you have will be unmeasurable. 

I think if all South Africans would go into the bush for a couple of days, it would solve a lot of the country’s problems. 

This country needs heroes. And rangers and guides are that next generation of heroes – people we can look up to.