Meet our New Reserve Manager, Dwain Strydom

Amakhala Game Reserve proudly welcomes Dwain Strydom as our new Reserve Manager, with the prime responsibility to ensure the territorial and biological integrity of our protected conservation area.

His position covers a range of multi-faceted tasks, from ensuring the day-to-day health and well-being of the wildlife on Amakhala and ongoing infrastructure and equipment maintenance, to research and monitoring, game capture and introductions, population management and burning programs, as well as public relations, environmental education and local community liaison.

Fortunately, Dwain is both qualified and experienced for his important role at the ‘coal face’ of conservation. He holds a Nature Conservation Diploma from UNISA, and has worked at the Pilanesberg Game Reserve; he developed a community game reserve inside the Kruger National Park with SANParks and has held the position of warden at Umbabat Game Reserve.

Originally from Johannesburg, Dwain enjoyed a rugby career in England, where he met his wife Gayle and where his kids were born, before returning to South Africa to pursue his passion for conservation.

We took some time to interview Dwain so that we can get to know him a little better. Here is Dwain’s story.

MEET OUR NEW RESERVE MANAGER, DWAIN STRYDOM

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your role at Amakhala?

Dwain: My name is Dwain and I've recently come from Zululand. I've moved down to Amakhala Game Reserve as the General Manager of the Game Reserve. My day-to-day role is looking after the reserve itself, everything within the boundaries of the game reserve, the staff, different departments including ecology, security, maintenance of the reserve, and the well-being of the owners' land.

How did you come to work in wildlife management?

Dwain: I started about 16-17 years ago. Originally I was a rugby player, and I was fairly good - I think! I went overseas and played rugby in the UK, and that's where I met my wife and somehow convinced her to move to Africa. We have two lovely daughters, both born in the UK. Since school days, it's always been a passion of mine to be in the bush, and every now and again when I speak to my mates they keep saying. 'Look, you're the only one that's doing what you said you're going to do since primary school.' It’s a reminder that I now know that it's always been there.

I started off with field guiding up in the Northwest Province. From there we moved up into the Limpopo national parks and then down to Zululand. Most of my work has focussed around the conservation side of things and land management. From this, I grew and slowly built my career up over the years. I've been in most departments within conservation, but the nice thing is that I'm still learning. Every reserve that I've worked in has something different, and that's the nice thing about it.

What attracted you to Amakhala Game Reserve?

Dwain: I kept on hearing about the beauty of the Eastern Cape but I'd never been there. You hear and read about it on TV and on websites, but I've just never had that opportunity to come out this side. When the opportunity arose, I went for it! There was something about the Eastern Cape that was calling out to me. I said, 'I have to go and see what it's like.'

When I came down for the first time, it was the great people and an interesting environment that attracted me the most. The openness, the aloes, the thickets, it's something totally different that you don't get to see in the other reserves that I've worked in. There are the Big Five in the area and you've got the coast just down the road – what more can you want? It ticked a lot of boxes and as soon as that opportunity arose I grabbed it, and here I am – and loving it.

What is the prime responsibility of the Reserve General Manager?

Dwain: The main thing is managing the land, the animals, the people that manage it, as well as managing the different departments to ensure that they all fit into each other, because every department has a specific role just as important as the other, and you have to combine them all to work together.

Daily office work and financial reports is another responsibility, ensuring that you keep everything up to date, including balances because a lot of money is invested into the reserve. You have to have things working and ticking over all day, because every day is going be different and you've got to make it work.

There's a lot of behind the scenes work that happens. My role is about a lot of different things, not just about the animals out there. Another key role is keeping the team spirit up among staff so they keep enjoying doing what they are doing out in the field.

When I started in conservation it was 80% out in the bush, 20% in the office, and now the roles have totally changed. I'm now 80% in the office and 20% out in the bush.

The rhino poaching crisis started in 2009. How did this affect your career?

Dwain: In 2009 when the rhino poaching hit us, I was working in one of the national parks. In literally one month we lost more than double figures, and it went from the nice work of just day-to-day patrols, bush walks and having coffee on the decks to actually just not knowing where to run, what to do, and most of all being away from the family day and night. After a full day's work you get a report of gunshots going off and it's literally just grabbing your bag and leaving. You know you're not coming back that night till the next morning, and all you can do is just say goodbye while all your wife can say is, 'Be safe.' What can you do?

The rhino poaching crisis really knocks people down. Probably 2009 was the hardest, when we weren't used to it. We didn't know what to expect, and it was just all around us. So over the years it's taken about 80% to 90% of your day-to-day normal work away, and really, for a reserve manager or a ranger, that's become the work these days. A lot of reserves don't have the financial support to have a manager to manage the APU, so the reserve manager has to fill that spot, and when you get called out, you go. You're working an 8-5 job, with other work in between, but you drop everything when that dreadful call comes in and says, 'We've got an incursion,' or, 'A rhino's down.' 

That's a continuous stress. It's always in the back of your mind. It's something that sometimes people do get a bit blasé about when there's a quiet period, but unfortunately it's happening everywhere around us without us even knowing. With so much uncertainty, we just don't know who to trust. Sadly, sometimes it's people that you trust, that are working next to you, that are busy planning something.

What is your role when it comes to wildlife protection and the Anti-Poaching Unit?

Dwain: My role with the APU active management side of things is enhance their existing training, using my previous experience, knowledge, and past history with rhino poaching, and trying to grow the team and get them ready for any possibility that may arise.

Fortunately the Eastern Cape is probably at the moment the least threatened area, but the feeling on the ground is the guys are still busy recruiting and sorting their plans out, and the way things are going in other provinces, we need to be prepared. I need to get the guys ready because I've been there and I know what to expect. There's nothing worse than when you get hit and you don't know where to go. My role is to encourage the APU to keep doing what they are doing and to better equip and train them to be better prepared.

Have you ever found yourself in a dangerous situation out in the field?

Dwain: Over the last 15 years there's a book that I can write about my experiences. Most of the time people have stories that related to dangerous animal situations, but a story that comes to my mind was when we were camping on one of the trails in a national park. About 9 or 10 o'clock at night we got a call on the radio that there's a fire burning near us – believe it or not, started by poachers. Unfortunately the wind was blowing in our direction, so the fire was coming at a heck of a speed, and we were trapped. All that we could really do was light a fire and burn the areas around our tents. There was just no time to pack up our tents and move anywhere because it was just grass, and we would have been really caught up in the fire. We had to literally burn around our little tents and camps as a back burn just to stop the fire, to give us a bit of a break. But we survived!

We always expect things to happen in the bush, such as being charged by animals but also need to expect the unexpected situations like the poachers that set a fire because they know it attracts the animals for them. That's one hair-raising situation I've been in before that I won’t forget any time soon.

What motivates you to get up in the morning?

Dwain: What gets me up every morning is the unknown. What phone call am I going to get this morning to say what's happened or what animal's given birth? It's the unknown in the game reserve that keeps driving me, rather than going into your day with a clear vision of 'I've got to do this, I've got to repeat this.' It's purely the unknown, and in the environment that I enjoy being in.

Your most epic sighting on Amakhala Game Reserve?

Dwain: Over the time I've been on Amakhala, I think it's the cheetah on the open plains that has been the most epic sighting for me. Where I've been before it's been mostly bushveld and enclosed areas and large trees, so seeing cheetah on these open plains with eland and gemsbok that naturally occur in this area – is wonderful.

Amakhala is the combination of an ecotourism business and a conservation project. What is your strategy for balancing the two?

Dwain: My strategy at the moment with Amakhala is centred around three main points 1) reduce the impact of the eco-tourism, 2) build awareness of the environment to local people, and 3) helping people visiting the area to better understand the local culture and people of the area. I think if you combine those three together you're on a winning ticket.

Can you tell us about any special projects that you have lined up this year?

Dwain: There are some special projects in the pipeline. One such project is enhancing eco-tourism on the game drive side of things by building bird hides so people can stop and see some special birds migrating during the summer months and to enjoy local birds that stay here throughout the year. Another project is to continue to control and eradicate alien vegetation, enhance land sustainability, control erosion, and continue to bring the land back to its original state.

Any exciting wildlife projects in the pipeline?

Dwain: We're maybe a week and a bit away from releasing another male leopard onto Amakhala. We are also pretty sure that one of our cheetah females is pregnant – she's been hiding for a while. Everyone is waiting in anticipation. We monitor them through VHF collars, and she's moving slightly but she sticks to one area. Prior to this she was seen mating indicating that she should be pregnant. She has probably even given birth. We've also had a baby elephant born about a month ago. With all the good rains that came late, and all these new animals coming through, it's a good place to come to right now.

Did you always know you wanted to work in conservation?

Dwain: My love for conservation started, back in the day when 50/50 was still on. It was always a toss-up between Carte Blanche and 50/50 on a Sunday evening but 50/50 always won. I would cry every time I saw lions killing hyenas and ask 'why does it happen?' Once I got the understanding behind it, the interest just grew and grew to actually understand why these things happen. I remember clearly even before primary school that conservation has always been a passion and a goal. When the opportunity came for rugby, I always knew in the back of my mind rugby's a short-term career and that I needed to fall back on to something, and conservation was always the something I was going to fall back onto regardless of how long my career would have lasted.

When you are not working, what do you enjoy doing?

Dwain: Every gap I get I like to go out on the ocean and paddle. Getting away from phones and TVs and Wi-Fi and tablets and just being with nature. It's so quiet out there behind the back line, away from the noise of phones, tablets and TV’s. It’s also great exercise. I also do a lot of running – my goal is to try and do Comrades.

I like to be active and out in nature. If I'm not training or paddling in the ocean, I'll put the kids on the back of the car and do a bit of a drive in the game reserve where I get to see things that I don't get to see when I'm busy in the office. I use that time to move around the Game Reserve and see what's going on the ground.

What one piece of advice would you give yourself (if you could) at the beginning of your conservation journey?

Dwain: It's to be patient and realise that things come in time. Sometimes I know what I want to do in my mind, but nature has other plans – so I’ve got to be patient and work with nature – I can’t force it. I've got to let nature also play its role in it. And then sometimes my patience runs out a bit, so my advice as always to myself is just to sit back, be patient and it will work.

Thank you.

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