Picket Chabwedzeka, Zimbabwean ecologist

In Europe and in the United States, when you hear about conservation, you often think about international nonprofits such as the World Wildlife Fund, and of the discussion about zoos in "developed" countries: should animals be kept in captivity for our children and for us to gaze at behind a fence? Is the money they raise for conservation worth the sacrifice of these animals' lifestyle? 

On the ground, there are many more people involved in conservation. Southern Africa has a large portion of the world's giraffes, lions, rhinoceros, hippopotamus, elephants, as well as a plethora of various antelopes and birds.

Mitchel and Picket Chabwedzeka
Mitchel and Picket at Sinamatella Camp,
Hwange, Zimbabwe, 2021
Picket Chabwedzeka is one of these people on the ground. He is a Game Reserve Manager and Senior Ecologist at the Victoria Falls Private Game Reserve in Zimbabwe.

He was born and raised in Harare. Growing up, he had no prior knowledge of careers in wildlife preservation, until after finishing his high school degree, he volunteered at the Zambezi National Park. 

From there he traveled to Cape Town, in South Africa, to work with his grandmother, who is a trader, dealing in a variety of merchandise. He started studying at University of Cape Town (UCT), majoring in Geography and Environmental Management, but when fees were raised, he took an evening position as a waiter to put funds aside for one semester, and then transferred to the University of South Africa. During this time, he started a position as a field guide at the Mountainview-Moholoholo private game reserve, working his way up to an Assistant Reserve Manager during the five years he was there. In 2013, after his final exam, he moved to Somkhanda in Kwazulu Natal, a special community-owned reserve, as an Internship Program Manager. 

Zululand community outreach and
homestay event (Picket is at the right)
Finally, he interviewed with the Stanley and Livingstone Private Game Reserve in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, thus returning to his homeland. He was as an Anti-Poaching Manager in December of 2016. In early 2021, he was named a Reserve Manager. In the meantime, he registered for a Master's at Midland State University in Zimbabwe, and in 2019, went for post-graduate work to the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom in Ecological Survey Techniques for one year. In Oxford, he stayed at the home of friends: friends he had met when he was their guide, earlier in his career, in 2010.

He met his wife Mitchel (pronounced "Michelle") a few years ago, and they held a traditional marriage ceremony last year.

Black rhinos with Picket
What especially struck me about Picket, more even than his sharp intellect and approachability, is the fact that he likes to get to know and learn from people he meets from all backgrounds. As a university student, he met South Africans from various ethnicities, and made a point to visit them in their home villages, learning some Afrikaans and Zulu along the way, as well as Ndebele (the Zimbabwean language used in the Victoria Falls region, Matabeleland; Picket's mother tongue is Shona).


What is his biggest passion? As an ecologist, he's very involved in the feeding behavior, breeding and safety of black rhinoceros in all the areas he worked in, starting in South Africa's Moholoholo. He recently completed a "black rhinoceros preferred browse" study, yet to be published. He currently manages a black rhinoceros breeding project in Victoria Falls and has had so far 5 rhinoceros calves born under his watch since 2015.

Ranger training in Zimbabwe
Ranger training
Tracking is one of his skills; he shares his knowledge in the many ranger training courses that he presents. He believes that tracking is "a science and an art, it is the ability to walk with the animal in the past in the present time. It is philosophical. Eventually being able to catch up with the quarry or animal being tracked brings joy to the tracker. It is the ability to sharpen and put to test our skills as humans versus animals refined senses which have been tested over time. I enjoy tracking and it is one of my best moments when walking in the wilderness, as it involves studying all (the) finer details of markings left on the ground."

Picket is also involved in the management of anti-poaching units in many wildlife protected areas in Zimbabwe. 
Picket and his ranger team


 


Spotted thicknee* spoor


Photo credits: 1st photo: Diane Chehab; all others: GRTTS (Game Ranger and Tracker Training Specialist PVT Ltd Company Rangers)

*A spotted thicknee, also called a spotted Dikkop is a ground-dwelling bird that perches on the ground as it cannot perch on a tree.

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