Wildlife sanctuary honours Umgeni Valley’s animal whisperer

2012-06-11 00:00

FOUR young buck gazed curiously at the human hive of activity near their enclosure.

The Midlands environmental NGO community and the family of unsung conservation hero Gerbers “Mkhulu” Maphanga were planting a tree to his memory on the grounds of the Free Me wildlife rehabilitation centre outside Howick.

Maphanga died suddenly last week, aged 70. The buck — a nyala, a blesbok, an impala and a common reedbuck — represented hundreds of the wild animals that he loved and brought into the centre since it began five years ago.

Maphanga was renowned for having an extraordinary empathy for the animals, which he often used to calm down in stressful situations.

Free Me manager Rosalind Marais recalled a stressed buck coming in to the centre, sending stress levels up among staff as they tried to cope with it.

“He just sat it down on his lap and within five minutes it was calm. He really had a gift.”

Another of Maphanga’s gifts was communicating with people, said Mike Taylor, former chairperson of the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (Wessa).

“I once had visitors from Paris with two kids, aged six and eight. They couldn’t speak English, nor Zulu and he didn’t speak French. Yet he communicated with them in some miraculous way, for hours.”

Marais said Maphanga regarded the wild animals in rehab as his children. “When they got better, he would say he was so happy. We often had to wait for a day when he was not at work before we released them back into the wild. He could burst into tears when we released his ‘babies’.”

The tree planted to his memory was a hard pear, one that is frost-hardy and produces fruit for both birds and buck. The Umgeni Valley, described by a bystander as “his real home”, creeps into the view from where it stands.

Maphanga worked in the valley from the early days of it being transformed from a cattle farm into a game farm where Wessa has introduced countless groups, including schoolchildren, to the wilds.

He was reputed to know it like the palm of his hand.

“He was one rare individual who could fit an entire valley inside his mind,” remarked one mourner at a remembrance tea held at Wessa ahead of the tree planting on Wednesday.

Maphanga’s son, Brian, who also works at Free Me, said he used his father’s advice to carry on his work with the animals.

“He told me to watch what they were doing and to communicate with them.”

• duncan.guy@witness.co.za

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