It was a repeat of the Windy Ridge tragedy more than a decade ago.
Consequently, for the next few weeks I avoided the northern boundary, always changing my movements at the last minute and never repeating a schedule. I also wore a bulletproof vest at all times and each night Zingela and I slept in a different room of my house.
Then we got the news that the sergeant had died from AIDS. Apparently, he had stopped taking antiretroviral drugs after being dismissed and the assassination squad disbanded as they were no longer being paid. Zingela and I were free to patrol in the north again.
Zingela was also singled out by poachers, so I made sure he never left my side. But it wasn’t only poachers after him – there are hundreds of lions and hyenas in Sabi Sand Wildtuin, especially in the north where I lived, and of course leopards consider dog meat the ultimate delicacy. The yard of my modest house was fenced, but the poles and wire had been weakened by burrowing warthogs, porcupines and honey badgers. I doubted if it was strong enough to withstand a determined predator.
I was soon to find out. One evening, after a long day in the bush, I parked outside the house, stretching and thinking of a long cold beer to wash the dust from my throat. I patted Zingela standing next to me, who no doubt was also looking forward to his drinking bowl.
Suddenly I heard a low growl, and a split second later a massive lion crashed into the fence, trying to get at Zingela. The wires bulged like a balloon, but by some fluke didn’t snap. I rushed Zingela into the house, slamming the door as the dazed lion stood glaring from the other side of the flimsy barrier, its eyes glowing red in the dark.
That night, every door was locked, every window bolted, and I did some hasty reinforcing of poles and fencing the next day. And not a moment too soon as a week or so afterwards, another seven lions arrived, prowling outside and trying to get at my dog. All of this, of course, was a hockey-stick learning curve for Zingela, and from then on, he always warned me well in advance when lions were around.
Well … almost always. Once, while patrolling the northern boundary fence near Dixi village, we skirted a clump of magic guarri bush and walked straight into a pride of lions. I have seldom been more surprised, not to mention alarmed. For the first and only time, Zingela had completely missed their scent. The single thing that saved us was that the big cats were all fast asleep under the bushes and – incredibly – had also missed our scent.
I subtly hand-gestured to Zingela to retreat and we literally tiptoed backwards. Most dogs would have barked and perhaps even charged the lions, but Zingela was so attuned to the bush and my commands that he didn’t make a sound. It was simply unbelievable for any dog to have that level of intelligence, training and intuition. I could not have been prouder of him, as even a squeak would have had potentially dire consequences.
Another valuable lesson learnt from this was that whenever Zingela and I came across lions, I would divert his attention and we would pretend to ignore the pride before moving off in another direction. This seemed to confuse them, as if they were wondering why we had the audacity to snub them, and, as we didn’t retreat or back off, the big cats concluded we did not pose a direct threat.
But the main point was that if Zingela could hold his nerve, not uttering a sound when surrounded by lions, imagine how silently he could track poachers. Once again, I knew that dogs would be our ultimate allies in the looming full-scale wildlife conflicts ahead of us. If only I could get the authorities to see that.
Fortunately, there was one other ranger who agreed with me. Richard Sowry, a Kruger section ranger at Kingfisherspruit, owned a Belgian Malinois, and he also believed that dogs were the way forward for APUs (Anti-Poaching Units). We joined forces and slowly, through demonstrations and real-life situations, started showing what well-trained, smart dogs could do in the wild.
- Called By the Wild by Conraad de Rosner with Graham Spence and Elaine Bell is published by Ad Lib on November 23, 2023 (paperback RRP £9.99)