South Africa trip opens park ranger's eyes

November 25, 2000

South Africa trip opens park ranger's eyes


THURMONT, Md. - U.S. Park Ranger Michael Barnhart wasn't too worried about the spitting cobras, but the rhino made him nervous.

Wild animals were part of the agenda in September at the International Ranger Federation's Third World Congress in South Africa.

A $2,000 Albright-Wirth grant enabled Barnhart to spend eight days at Kruger National Park with 325 other rangers from 52 countries to discuss the role of the ranger beyond 2000.

"We were there to see how we could help each other and learn from each other," said Barnhart, 56, who works at Catoctin Mountain Park in Thurmont.

The 27-year National Park Service veteran doesn't have to avoid crocodiles at Catoctin, but Barnhart said he and other U.S. rangers at the conference found they shared the same concerns as rangers worldwide.


There is a lack of adequate funding, personnel, equipment and training at national parks from Australia to Zambia, he said.

Barnhart, of Smithsburg, was part of a North American caucus that formed to help supply poorer ranger associations with surplus equipment.

Poachers also abound at parks the world over, and tourists even feed the monkeys at Kruger National Park, Barnhart said.

Rangers discussed these and such issues as area integrity, community and ecotourism at a series of seminars during the conference, he said.

Barnhart and Einar Olsen, chief ranger of the National Capital Region, gave oral and poster presentations about boundary management and encroachment investigations.

Park property encroachment problems have increased with the decrease in open space adjacent to parks, said Barnhart, who has written a Boundary Management Handbook and taught land management and boundary identification to more than 100 other U.S. rangers.

He said rangers from other countries were surprised that U.S. parks aren't surrounded by fences.

A fence encloses the 18,000-square-mile Kruger National Park, which is about the size of Massachusetts, Barnhart said. An electric fence kept hippos and crocodiles from nearing the rangers' quarters at the Berg-en-Dal camp, and hyenas prowled the perimeter fence at night.

Enclosures made of telephone poles and steel doors held the rhinos, elephants and other large mammals that Kruger rangers trap for relocation to parts of Africa, where such animals are now scarce, Barnhart said.

An angry rhino rammed and dented the 8-inch-thick steel when Barnhart got too close for a photograph, he said.

One Kruger ranger was killed by a night hunting leopard about six weeks before the conference, and another ranger was hospitalized for six months after being gored by a wounded water buffalo, Barnhart said.

His guide told him to sit still in the vehicle so a lion resting on the roadside wouldn't charge.

"If he sees an individual, he sees lunch," Barnhart said.

Yet it was South Africa's reputation for crime, not its abundance of wild beasts, that made Barnhart apprehensive about the trip.

Barnhart, who received the prestigious Harry Yount Award last year for excellence in the art and science of "rangering," said his fears were unfounded.

He was also surprised when he realized the U.S. National Park Service wasn't "the biggest and the best," he said.

During the Civil War in Mozambique, South African rangers demonstrated their unparalleled dedication by patrolling national parks without pay for 18 months to protect wildlife and other natural resources, Barnhart said.

Rangers from other countries also shared stories that earned Barnhart's respect, he said.

His Scottish roommate, who doesn't carry a gun on the job, once had to persuade an armed park visitor to put down his gun.

Jennifer, a petite female Irish ranger, scoffed at the idea that she should fear crime in South Africa.

"She said, 'I'm from Northern Ireland. Why should I worry about crime here?' " Barnhart said.

He said meeting young rangers like Jennifer was a high point of his South African experience.

"I'm in the twilight of my career. It's good to know that these young, energetic rangers are ready to jump in and get going," Barnhart said.

Barnhart hopes to attend the Federation's 2003 World Congress in Australia.

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