Cathy Dreyer’s career in nature conservation spans almost 20 years, traversing from Addo Elephant National Park to the Kruger National Park, SA’s flagship park. Standing head and shoulders above the crowd, she is the first-ever female head ranger in the Kruger.

Affectionately known as the rhino whisperer, Cathy started her journey at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, where she completed her degree in nature conservation. From there she went to Addo, where she did her practical training, working closely with the South African National Parks (SANParks) Veterinary Wildlife Service Unit based in Kimberley. After completing her practical training year, she joined the game capture team on a permanent basis, capturing and relocating an extensive variety of species throughout both Africa and southern Africa for the next 12 years.

The rhino whisperer on a translocation project. Photographer: TUSK

“In 2012, I decided to spread my wings and left SANParks,” Cathy laughs. “I became a conservation manager for the Great Fish River Nature Reserve, which is home to one of the key black rhino populations in SA, and is managed by the Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency. I stayed there for five years before returning to SANParks, as the black rhino surveillance and monitoring co-coordinator for the Kruger National Park (KNP), organising and taking part in the application of aerial surveillance.” She was also instrumental in drawing up defence and patrol strategies aimed at keeping the black rhino population in the KNP safe.

“I don’t come from a conservation background, and people often ask me how I came to be in this field,” Cathy says. “I used to walk a lot growing up in Cape Town and around Table
Mountain. All I knew was that I wanted to do something that was outdoors. I actually only saw my first rhino when I was 19! It was during my time at Addo. They were doing relocations and the rhinos were being kept in holding pens. Nobody really knew what to feed them, so I did a little research into their behaviour, and from there I just fell in love with them. Staying positive isn’t always easy, especially when you are faced with such awful cruelty on a daily basis, but I try to remember that the horrific and shocking figures would be worse if it weren’t for the people working tirelessly to stop poaching.”

Cathy Dreyer on World Ranger Day. Photographer: LINZETTA CALITZ

Cathy’s wealth of conservation management experience is crucial to her role as head ranger, specifically when it comes to rhino preservation. Currently, SANParks is working
on the development of effective management strategies in an effort to protect the rhino population, as well as to more successfully manage conservation issues and wildlife crime in the Kruger in general. Gareth Coleman, the managing executive of KNP, has outlined a turnaround plan, addressing these and other key safety, infrastructure and investment
challenges. Part of Cathy’s job is to drive these changes. “I’m definitely up for the challenge!” smiles Cathy. “It’s a privilege to be in a position of leadership at a time when the KNP is so intent on making the turnaround plan work,” she continues, “and I’m honoured to work alongside the dedicated, committed and passionate ranger corps and conservation management teams in the park.”

We have no doubt that Cathy will go far in her role. Apart from receiving several achievement awards at SANParks, she was the first South African – and first female – to have won the coveted Tusk Award for Conservation in Africa, in London in 2016. The award was handed over to Cathy by Sir David Attenborough. “It was one of the most memorable
experiences of my life,” she says, “something I will never forget. The Tusk Award is given to someone in recognition of their outstanding contribution and considerable success in their chosen field, someone who is considered to be an emerging leader in conservation in Africa. It’s a huge honour.”

Cathy Dreyer and Sir David Attenborough at the 2016 Tusk Conservation Awards in London on November 30, 2016. Photographer: GETTY FOR TUSK

We will be keeping a close eye on Cathy. Having proven herself to be a dedicated conservationist and a law enforcement officer, we are sure she will rise to the challenge of protecting and guarding our precious wildlife.

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