Agreement Msume, a 21-year-old student from South Africa’s Mpumalanga province, never thought that she would come face-to-face with a rhino. And she certainly didn’t think that she would ever be responsible for giving a rhino emergency medical care. Apart from being terrified of wild animals in general, that scenario was never part of the vision she imagined for her life.
Born and raised in Bushbuckridge, before this year, Agreement had never been into the iconic Kruger National Park or any other wildlife reserve. And no one was telling her that she was missing anything good either. Among young people living in rural areas around the world, the yearning is often for cities, fashion, fast cars and tech. Not nature. Not khaki uniforms and the bushveld. Certainly, according to Agreement, wildlife as a potential career is not a concept that comes up a lot in conversation with other young, rural women.
In January 2016, Agreement, unemployed and unsure of her next move, heard about a new wildlife course for adults. It was called “Introduction to Wildlife Monitoring” and it caught Agreement’s attention precisely because it wasn’t just about becoming a game ranger; it was about blending conservation with tech, with a special focus on protecting South Africa’s rhinos. There were only five spots available and Agreement applied, thinking that, as a woman, she would probably be at a disadvantage and wouldn’t succeed.
By the beginning of April, two month’s into the course, three young women (Agreement Msume, Mapule Raphalane and Ntsako Milazi) and two young men (Ronald Mhaole and Kgumotso Matsana) had all been into the Kruger National Park with one of South Africa’s most accomplished field guides, not once, but twice. They had been to Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre in Hoedspruit. They had started their Excel, Database and Powerpoint Advanced computer modules at a state-of-the-art computer training facility. And Agreement had seen a white rhino in the wild from an open-air Land Rover. It was at a dam just inside Kruger’s Phabeni gate, and the experience was followed, on the same day, with the thrill of seeing all of the big five.
It was only days after that life-changing experience in the Kruger that the five students were told by their facilitator, Sibusiso Mnisi: “Pack your bags – for two weeks you’re going to look after rhino at a secret location.” The five interns (two of whom had never travelled further than Nelspruit) were transferred to a rhino sanctuary, where they were to take part in an internship programme focusing on animal husbandry and wildlife monitoring.
26 rhinos call the sanctuary “home” and Agreement, who had only ever seen a rhino once days before, was now tasked with everything from feeding and hygiene, to observation, data collection and security. Agreement had barely learnt how to mix a bottle for the rhinos when she was faced with the reality of being part of the team that would care for a critically ill orphaned rhino (her name was Lulah) that had recently been flown in from the Kruger.
The process of trying to keep a baby rhino alive is an around-the-clock job that is physically and emotionally exhausting. For Agreement, under the supervision of the owner of the sanctuary, this was one of the hardest tasks she and her fellow students would face. They had just arrived. They had just experienced the joy and peace of the Kruger. And now, less than a week later, they were investing all of their energy in saving a rhino whose mother had been brutally murdered for 17cm of horn.
The calf did not make it. Her injuries were simply too severe, as was her trauma. For Agreement and her peers, it was a first glimpse into both the beauty and tragedy of conservation.
Agreement has completed her internship at the sanctuary and if you talk to her she’ll tell you that she fell in love with the orphan rhinos, but also with the feeling of having a sense of real purpose. “I would go back to the sanctuary in a second,” she says. “It was one of the best times of my life.”
Since returning from the sanctuary, Agreement and her peers have all passed their First Aid level one and are now in the final weeks of studying for their Excel database exam as well as their Field Guide Association of South Africa (FGASA) level one exam.
I stepped into one of the FGASA classes recently and was blown away by the determination of these five young individuals. They are learning about mammals, birds and reptiles, but also about ethology (animal behaviour), astronomy and geology. In a wildlife college, young South African’s pay thousands to become qualified field guides and they have the luxury of a full-time instructor to demonstrate, among other things, the constellations of the night sky. Agreement and her peers climb up onto the roof of their houses at night if they want to see the stars. They watch David Attenborough documentaries. They use an online training guide, and as best he can, Sibusiso explains complex terms, like “ungulate” and “atritial”, both not easy for native English speakers, let alone Agreement and her peers.
At the end of the day, this is a pioneering course.
We don’t know what the result is going to be. What we do know is that too many rural individuals, like Agreement, are excluded from the economy of wildlife in South Africa.
Too many young women are excluded. Game ranger is one possible occupation, but – in the 21st century – there are many more opportunities. Private reserves and wildlife sanctuaries need wildlife monitors. They need computer literate people who can understand animal behaviour and capture complex data. They (and “we” as a nation) need “protectors” and “advocates” – people who will inspire more people in the rural communities where they are from. More than anything, we need people from communities adjacent to our wilderness areas who are inspired by the bushveld.
Agreement ticks all of those boxes. And more than anything else, she has a heart for rhinos.
About the Introduction to Wildlife Monitoring Course
Good Work Foundation’s (GWF) bizhub Conservation Academy adult students, sponsored by Konica Minolta South Africa (KMSA), have completed four months of a pioneering new six-month course, called “Introduction to Wildlife Monitoring”. The course, intended to empower young, rural South Africans to be participants in the economy of wildlife and conservation, aims to blend digital learning and tech-skills with practical conservation experience.
Course modules include:
- International Computer Driving License (ICDL) PowerPoint and Excel Advanced
- Field Guiding Association of South Africa (FGASA) Level 1
- First Aid Training Level 1
- Two-week animal husbandry internship at Care for Wild AFRICA, a wildlife rehabilitation sanctuary
- English for access (Hands on English programme)
There are a number of ways that you can get involved in Good Work Foundation’s adult literacy programmes. To sponsor a group of 10 adults through a full-time one-year adult learning programme costs $5000. If you would like to find out more, reach out to Ryan James: email@example.com.