It was only a few years ago that Zinave National Park was an area where the occasional shadow of an animal was nothing more than a mirage as it dashed into the bush for cover. The usual dawn chorus of our feathered friends was instead filled with an eerie silence, and even the shrill cry of the cicada was entirely absent under the hot African sun. It is hard to believe that in under a decade, these are all but memories in Zinave, as today it is a sight to behold with wildlife dotting the landscape, birds flitting overhead and the familiar sounds of the bush once again filling the midday quiet. Although these are incredible conservation feats, the increase in wildlife numbers goes hand in hand with the important task of needing to protect them.

The life of a ranger is certainly not for the faint-hearted and thus is extremely important that an extensive selection process is carried out to pick those who are the best fit for the job. Tiaan Kleynhans, the Counter-Poaching Unit Coordinator in Zinave, and his dedicated team have been hard at work the last few months building and setting up the new ranger camp in preparation for new recruits that will boost the number of rangers currently working in the park. This is a necessary addition with the expansion of the sanctuary and increase in wildlife in Zinave National Park.

Upon completion, this ranger camp is now hosting the year’s first intake of new ranger candidates. Over a thousand applications were received from men and women who wanted to join Zinave’s ranger team and the top 200 candidates were invited to report for selection. To ensure that a fair process is adhered to during training, there is limited personal connection or contact between the trainees and the candidates.

When the programme starts, the candidates are put through tough tests to ensure that those selected to continue with training will be able to cope with the pressures and demands that come with protecting wildlife in Africa. They do two gruelling fitness tests a day during which they have to complete an 8km run carrying a bucket filled with 2 litres of water in under 45 minutes. They also have to complete 40 push-ups in under 2 minutes, 60 sit-ups in under 2 minutes, finish 120 shuffle kicks without breaking rhythm and then perform 8 pull-ups.

After completing this in the morning, they are challenged to do a 10km speed hike carrying a 25kg sandbag. This simulates patrol conditions, and they have to finish the hike in under 2h30mins.

On the last day of training, the remaining candidates face their most challenging day yet. As a team, they now have to complete a 15km walk with their 25kg sandbags. When they hit the 10km mark, they are then tasked with constructing a stretcher out of wooden poles and a rope for a 5km EVAC (evacuation) simulation. They have to carry one of their team members all the way to the finishing point. If they put the stretcher down or switch out the person being carried, they are disqualified and fall out of the selection programme.

Those that make it through then only have one thing left to do, and that is to convince the Project Coordinator and senior rangers that they are a good fit for the team. If found suitable, the candidate will be selected for basic training.

Out of the 1000 applicants, 200 attempted the selection process. Of those, only 34 candidates will now start basic training.

Arguably the unsung heroes of our protected areas, rangers play a vital role in creating a solid foundation for the future of Africa’s conservation areas. Although one of their primary focuses is to patrol protected areas and mitigate instances of human-wildlife conflict, their duties also extend to engaging with the local communities around the park and helping them to understand the value of these sanctuaries. Conservation areas not only protect nature but also unlock employment opportunities for people living in the area.

Peace Parks Foundation, through a 20-year co-management agreement, is working with the Mozambique National Administration for Conservation Areas to restore ecosystems such as Zinave, back into its former glory.

Keep watching Peace Parks TV to see these rangers in training.