Hot on the heels of strong women working in conservation

Precious Malapane, Conservation K9 handler and anti-poaching ranger

The South African government’s theme in celebration of Women’s Day/month 2022 is “Women’s Socio-Economic Rights and Empowerment: Building Back Better for Women’s Improved Resilience”. The theme focused on strategically advancing women’s socio-economic empowerment agenda towards achieving gender equality by 2030.

Precious and EWT Conservation K9 Ruger

The resilience of South African women has been recognised throughout our country’s history but assigned social and professional roles have often hindered women from raising their social and economic status. I am one of many women who have not let anything stand in their way. My name is Precious and I am a Conservation K9 Handler working with Ruger and Bekha, the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Conservation K9s and strong females themselves. I am the only woman in a team of 12 rangers. I am also the only Dog Handler in the team. You might be wondering how I ended up here. This is my tale.

I grew up in a remote village off the north-eastern border of the Kruger National Park border. I was a very quiet and rather shy child. I came out of my shell when I joined a girl’s traditional dancing group at age ten, where I learned to be confident and comfortable in my skin. Attending practice every day and dancing in front of people helped me build my confidence.

I sadly lost my mother when I was just two years shy of matriculating. She was our only parent, and when we lost her, my three siblings and I started doing odd jobs around the village to survive. However, we did not let our situation get in the way of our education. I matriculated in 2014 and enrolled in the Southern African Wildlife College, where I trained as a field ranger. I was lucky enough to get an internship in the college’s K9 unit. I started working with Conservation K9s under the guidance of renowned Dog Master – Johan van Straaten, from whom I learned much. I know everything I know today because of his teachings.

My love for dogs began at a very young age when my family got one as a pet. I knew then how great dogs are. I didn’t know that they could do so much!

Precious with EWT Conservation K9 Bekah

I love working with dogs because they are always eager to go out and work. With them, there is no politics, social roles, or discrimination. I am just their beloved handler and trainer. I also love how they are not biased or easily swayed by external forces. Their job is to help their handler find what they are looking for, and they will not stop until they find it. And when they do, they will not leave it until the handler arrives. They have taught me to be honest and dedicated in my work.

Although I am mostly surrounded by men in my line of work, I have been fortunate to know and learn from strong women who have shaped my life and career. They have empowered me and improved my resilience both socially and economically. These are some of them:

My mother: That woman is my hero, my pillar and strength, even now in her absence. She played a huge role and did a great job as a single parent. I really love how she raised me and my siblings. I am where I am today because of her.

Theresa Sowry: The CEO of the Southern African Wildlife College. I love how involved she is on every level. You can tell she is passionate about conservation from her interaction with all students and the team at the college.

Shadi Henrico: Shadi is the Conservation Canine Project Coordinator at the Endangered Wildlife Trust. She assisted me in qualifying as a Dog Handler and trained Ruger – the dog I work with at the reserve. She also shared with me this great life I get to live now because of her willingness to help me whenever I reach out to her.

Anitjie Mkhansi: She is also a Conservation Canine handler at another private reserve. I always go to her when I face work-related challenges, and she is always keen to sit down with me and come up with solutions. Navigating work and inspiring each other as young women of the same age and in the same field makes everything easier.

Having come across all these amazing women, and in celebration of women’s month in South Africa, I encourage other women and young girls to pursue careers in conservation and dog handling because why not?

I personally believe that, as women, we can do anything we put our minds to. We are all human, after all.

With all that being said, I hope we find ways to continue liberating women from cycles of poverty and assigned social roles and giving them the resources to improve their social and economic opportunities.

We will play out of this with my favourite song – Master KG’s I am a superstar.

Keep your eyes on the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Wild Diaries for my and Ruger’s tracking adventures.

Ruger has been sponsored by IUCN Save Our Species and co-funded by the European Union  and Bekah by Global Conservation Force