10 mins read | Creating Change

Everyday Activist: Sabi Sabi’s Zwa Ntloko

‘The wilderness is vital to mankind: for in the wilderness we strengthen our bonds with the earth and find peace with ourselves.’

Over the past few months, it’s become even more apparent than ever that our planet and the nature it allows to develop needs to be protected. Being stuck inside or far away from open landscape has given us fresh perspective over what we could miss out on if we don’t respect and protect natural habitats across the world. Back before we were hit with the effects of the pandemic we were lucky enough to speak with Zwa Ntloko, a ranger at one of South Africa’s most renowned game reserves, Sabi Sabi.

This private reserve is a special, unspoilt part of the world, with a holistic approach to environmental management. They believe it is their duty to protect the wilderness, creating stable employment for their indigenous communities through eco-tourism and sharing their respect and love for nature and the vast spread of animals that live in this area of South Africa. The reserve supports over 300 species of birds, 47 large mammal species, 57 species of reptile as well as a myriad of smaller animals such as bats, small rodents, amphibians and invertebrates such as spiders, scorpions and insects. And it has over 90 species of trees!

Sabi Sabi believe that an important aspect of conversing this nature lies in the training of their rangers, leading them to be environmental educators themselves hoping that the knowledge they pass on to their guests can make a change for the better. We spoke to Zwa about what his role means to him, and what he has learnt about conservation over his 13 year career.

cheetah on the African plains

Let’s start at the beginning. Can you tell us a bit about what lead you to be working at the Sabi Sabi Game Reserve from such a young age?

I grew up in a township outside Johannesburg and from an early age I had a keen interest in nature, even when we had no natural habitat, no trees for birds to nest on, no wildlife areas nearby. But despite all these I found myself going to the outskirts of the township during school holidays and found, open grass lands and a wetland system to observe the little wildlife that existed there.  Little did I know that this love for wildlife would help me acquire qualifications in wildlife to pursue my career at as a guide at Sabi Sabi.

Can you talk us through a typical day at work for you on the nature reserve?

My day starts at 5am when I make my way towards the main lodge… in the background bird calls are abuzz and accompanied by loud barks from a troop of baboons that sleep in one of the tall Jackal berry trees near the lodge.  The safari team then all gather for a short morning meeting to discuss safari plans and tasks for the day. We then proceed to meet our guests and share coffee with them on the main deck facing the waterhole, that one can view from the decks at Bush Lodge. We head out on safari searching for animals and experience the wonderful and beautiful sights of nature.

While on safari I always find myself gazing at the eye capturing architecture of different tree canopies and wonder at the marvels of soaring Eagles in the clear blue skies. During our safaris I enjoy sharing the knowledge I have built up over the years about the wildlife and the environment we are observing. Sharing stories and learning about the bush while being in the bush gives me great joy. After approximately 3 hours we return our guests to the lodge to enjoy breakfast – of course I enjoy a good breakfast as well as, I too, like most guests are ravenous when returning from 3 hours in the fresh air.

ranger looking at lion in the wilderness

As part of our daily programme we offer our guests an environmental awareness safari – which is on foot.  We explore the ecological functions of nature, for example how a spider constructs its web using silk.  This gives guests a completely different outlook on the environment from a walking perspective – it’s not too long but we can cater for longer walks for guests who wish, and I must say there are at times guests who go on a full 3 hour walk.  I am always accompanied by a back-up ranger – we are all fully qualified Trails Guides, which is a requirement for walking guests.  Safety first!! 

As the day cools down, we head out again on an afternoon safari which goes into the night to explore the night creatures – bush babies, owls and various predators are starting to move around… and if it is a cloudless night we sometimes turn off the safari vehicle and do a star gazing talk and encourage our guests to just admire and enjoy the beauty of the Milky Way and African night sky.  Time goes relatively quickly and before we know it, after lots of conversation and questions answered, we return with our guests to enjoy dinner around a roaring fire in our boma – I generally join my guests at their table and we chat about everything and anything – mostly our exciting safari stories whilst enjoying a wonderful dinner.

What do you think is the key to sustainable tourism on Safari Parks?

The overall tireless protection of the extraordinary diversity of wildlife and wilderness within the National parks and surrounding Private Game Reserves as a whole. Provisions of remote areas as corridors and concessions within the National Parks, to reach closely to creating serious and life-long commitment to bettering the livelihoods of the children within the villages in acquiring skills to later use and work in other fields, as conservationists and guides as custodians of the wildlife.

Anti-poaching technology to conserve the remaining species within the National Parks and Reserves, by creating guardianship programmes of near endangered wildlife species, big or small.  Environmental teams and scientists to look closely at protecting and restoring biodiversity and creating new natural habitats through land use and into built environments. With regards to local identity, wisdom is of high cultural importance within the umbrella of understanding sustainability culturally. The preservation of archaeological sites and creating bioregional equity in local community economies and that is key.

Sabi Sabi game park ranger

You’ve worked at Sabi Sabi for 13 years – can you tell us how the game reserve has changed in that time? Have you witnessed any tangible effects of climate change?

When I started 13 years ago, my first ever summer in the lowveld region was met by massive thunderstorms perennial and non-perennial rivers heavily flooded with water coming down from the escarpment along the Drankensberg mountains near Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve. Underneath these rivers Tigerfish would migrate inland from the Indian Ocean via the heavily flooded Sand River punctuating the Game Reserve with dams and small mud wallows that would carry rain water till late June as the winter crept in. Today one of my favourite mud wallows doesn’t fill up to full capacity due to climate change. Climate change is already a measurable reality and wild Reserves are vulnerable to its impacts.  These mud wallows are an integral part of the biological and social interactions which are created by elephants by digging up roots for their nutritional needs.

The rise in the average temperature of the earth’s surface is what causes global warming which further creates long droughts that we are experiencing today. Scientists and environmentalists within the Sabi Game Reserve and us as fellow guides will need to continue managing wildlife and our safaris in sustainable ways. We do this by being aware of the changes and how we can manage the habitat and environment in a natural way, but still provide all elements required to operate sustainably. Although the mud wallow may not fill up naturally each year, we will utilise natural watering holes and feed water to these areas accordingly until the rains return. Therefore, further emphasising the importance of minimising the permanency and impact of decisions so that today’s actions do not compromise future decisions when meaningful changes need to be made.

elephant in African bush at sunset

You say you are looking to attain more experience and knowledge than you currently have. How do you plan to build on what you already know?

By being committed to studying and being hungry for knowledge and success. Doing wildlife courses as well as taken advantage of the training opportunities provided by Sabi Sabi – by bringing wildlife experts to present us their research.  Through such interaction I gained a lot of work experience, so staying in books has been a great benefit in my line of work and in general life.  I also learn a lot from my guests. Where they are from and some of the challenges their countries face in environmental management. I learn from my guests’ questions as it keeps me continuously needing to stay on top of my surroundings.

Do you notice any change in the attitudes of visitors from the day they arrive to the day they leave?

Most guests come from big towns and well-developed cities, and they come with the expectation to see the most famous Big Five when they arrive.  To their surprise they become interested in all species from highly passionate and enthusiastic guides that are eager to show guests a herd of Impala grazing in an open area with newly born babies clustered in nursery groups and they get to learn about how these young calves are cared for by their mothers and how they are protected from predators every single night. This knowledge is new, and we find that guests change their whole experience that they had coming in, which allows them to leave with the happiest memories. They also leave with a sense of responsibility towards sustainable living and how they can all play a role in protecting the planet.

How do you see the safari park changing in the next 10 years?

To more environmentally friendly practices to prevent damage to the environment, educating tourists on adherences to wildlife policies. A serious need for an adaptive wildlife management approach in the next 10 years. Sabi Sabi has already made some bold moves in ensuring they stay ahead of the game regarding Eco-Tourism and working with authorities in protecting the protected area status.

What’s the most challenging part of your job?

My passion and experiences have placed me in a position where I’m able to turn work challenges into a meaningful and positive energy. I love each and every aspect of my life whether being at work or at home with my family both for who I have utmost respect and appreciation.

Finally, if you had to pick one highlight of your time on the reserve what would it be?

Following my passion through all the wonderful years that I have worked at Sabi Sabi has afforded me the chance to fall deep in love with the wildlife over the years. I’ve come to meet guests and shared the most wonderful experiences with them – that has been the greatest and most fulfilling highlights of my time.  Sometimes we’d struggle to find words to describe the actual feeling of the Wild, but it has brought me enough peace and that to me is by far the greatest highlight.


Keen to find out more about what Sabi Sabi does, or explore the progressive ways in which they are dedicated to conservation? Get to know them better here. You can also get a daily dose of photography capturing the incredible range of species that surround the reserve here. Because right now, more than ever, we need to connect with nature and appreciate the diversity our planet nurtures.