Jacques Tredoux always wanted to be a teacher.
Happily, he has achieved his objective – with a slight difference. His classroom spans 18,000 acres and his ‘pupils' come from all over the world to hear his words.
Tredoux is Head Field Guide at Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve and Retreat, in the Western Cape region of South Africa. He's constantly asked whether he'd fancy being a guide at a Big Five game park. He scoffs.
"I would find it utterly boring: there are only five things to be concerned about. Here at Bushmans, we have identified 755 plant species alone. Then there are almost 200 bird species and of course the rock paintings. Such variety fascinates me: I can't think I could find such variety anywhere else."
Tredoux is a man whose passion is nature. He's dedicated towards its conservation and a key element of that is, he believes, bringing nature to the people. He sees himself as a link between the two.
As a young man, he grew up in the shadow of the Cederberg, that vast extensive region in north-west Cape, a 4-hour drive from Cape Town, which offers a kaleidoscope of colours, plants, birds, animals and different people. His family farmed in the region and from a young age he learned the joys and intricacies of a country life. Today, even though he's only 30, he is hugely knowledgeable about so many things: plant life, animal habits, birds….
Initially though, he found his lifelong passion had been side-lined: he was running a retail village store in the small village of Trawal about 30 miles north of Clanwilliam. It was a family business which they built up but it never represented his passion, nor fulfilled his desires. "I wanted to get out and go back to nature. And for me, nature represents everything, not just a handful of animals."
He is happiest amidst winter in the Cederberg. Everything, he says, comes to life. "Summer is usually hot and dusty. Last year, we had temperatures almost up to 50C here. It seems like nothing is alive.
"But when the first rains of winter come there is an immediate transformation. The colours come to life and there is such a great variety.
"Each day is different in some small way. My favourite time of the day is between sunrise and midday when you can do the best tracking and everything is still fresh. Tracking early in the day, following animals' footprints and trying to understand their patterns and territories is like reading a newspaper in the morning to me. It is fascinating.
"In the morning, early on, you see dew drops on the spider webs and can take the most beautiful pictures. Then there are the people of the Western Cape among whom I grew up. I believe they are descendents of the Bushmen and there has always been this strong tradition of story telling. It was part of my young life."
As Head Field Guide at Bushmans, Tredoux is such an obvious devotee of his field, that his story telling fascinates visitors. He likes nothing better than sitting around a campfire in the evening telling stories.
The cold of a winter's night settles quickly upon the Cederberg. The majestic mountains darken ominously, the weakening power of the sun's rays diminish with astonishing speed. Yet as the stars emerge, Jacques Tredoux is at work, guiding his Land Rover across the terrain of the valley, watching and wondering at the animals, the birds and nature. A pair of Blacksmith Lapwings is incensed by our presence, screaming and swooping in their attempts to drive us away. The dominant male Springbok rushes at four young males bold enough to cross his territory. His charge sends them racing away into the gathering darkness, an enchanting sight. Red Hartebeest graze beside a dam: an ostrich pecks hungrily in the scrub.
Soon, the feeding must be done and the animals will settle for the night. To acknowledge another grand day in this haven of nature, the sky paints a fiery finale to the daylight hours.
"I feel a natural part of all this, it is where I call home" he says. "Perhaps you could say I am like the wildebeest we used to have in this area. There was food for them and they bred successfully but we realised after some time, they weren't natural to this area, they were migrating.
"It was like taking me from here and putting me in the middle of London. I would survive, I would find food. But it would not be my home."
Tredoux trained at the Nature College in the Little Karoo, enrolling initially for a six month course but then adding further courses to enhance his knowledge. When he went to the Kalahari for practice and experience, he admits he fell in love with it but even then, it wasn't his natural habitat. As he says, there is not a crack or cave in the Cederburg that he doesn't know.
As a ten year old, young Jacques would go out with his father and grandfather to the mountain and shoot a few dassies, the rock rabbits. Sundays would be spent enjoying braais out on the veldt. He was given a rifle from an early age, a normal practice for a boy in the country. He learned how to use it and shot to kill.
But the Jacques Tredoux that you meet today is a different creature. After years of shooting small game, he calls himself now a retired poacher due to his intense passion for nature conservation. Today, the whole business of conservation intrigues him. He is devoted to the concept.
The evolution of mankind's learning process in this field is something he believes is fundamental to the whole future of nature in this country. Recently, he met a man of seventy who told him he had just learned for the first time the way to solve the problem of a jackal attracted to a sheep farm.
"Jackals are territorial and if you kill the one that comes to your farm, you can be sure that about ten others will take his place. What you have to do is to try and ensure that animals like jackals live off natural food. Sheep are not a natural food for them and you can find a solution through not killing the small game that is the jackal's natural food, like hare and steenbok. At one stage of the year jackals turn completely vegetarian."
In the Cederbeg valley, they have just a handful of Cape leopards but Tredoux is concerned that they are almost on the edge of extinction. Again, mankind is only slowly coming to terms with the ways in which he can live and exist among wild animals. "I knew one farmer who had twenty five of his sheep killed in one night alone by a leopard. They were all bitten to death. That was a whole year's income for that farmer, you could understand his distress.
"The leopard had done extreme damage but when he spoke to the Cape Nature Conservation people, he found another solution rather than shooting the animal. Shepherd dogs that grow up with sheep protect them; leopards won't go near them. That's just one example of how you overcome such problems.
"But people must continue to learn, to educate themselves. I know someone who had an aardwolf on his farm. The aardwolf is so ugly even his mother would not be proud of him. Sheep had been killed on this farm and one day the owner saw the aardwolf beside a sheep carcass. He shot it and told me he'd found the culprit.
"I told him, have you looked at the mouth of an aardwolf. It is nowhere near big enough to eat a sheep. He would have been feeding off the maggots of the dead sheep. This animal could never have killed those sheep."
Jacques Tredoux shudders at stories he read as a young man. Like the hunting party that killed 104 elephants for their tusks in a single Sunday afternoon. Yet animal conservation is a two-edged sword. In the Kruger Park, there are now 14,000 head of elephant but with a land capacity able to carry only about 4,000. Tredoux says "The elephant is destroying its own habitat and the habitat of other animals up there. It is doing extreme damage to the whole area but the Minister of Environment says there must be no culling.
"But nature conservation must mean management. If this situation is left to continue, you are going to destroy the whole Kruger Park. The elephants are breaking down trees and causing enormous damage. If they don't cull, there will be widespread destruction."
To Jacques Tredoux, nature is everything: animals, trees, plants and especially fynbos vegetation. At Bushmans, a long term programme is underway and has been since the 1990s, to return a vast area which had been cultivated, for food like potatoes, onions and even rooibos tea, to the natural habitat. As with everything else, Tredoux emphasises the importance of a balance in nature for the benefit of the present generation and also the future.
"Nature conservation is a long term thing. The present owners here won't see the effect of their policies: it's their children and their children's children who will see the benefits. It takes approximately eighty years to grow back an area after it has been cultivated.
"But the great thing is it's never too late to heal the damage done by mankind. It just takes time."