How it all started

KZN Amphibian & Reptile Conservation is currently achieving what it was set-out to do, which was to change people’s perceptions towards frogs and reptiles. We’re managing to send out educational messages about these animals, particularly snakes, to thousands of people across the province. Hopefully this will continue, but it’s no easy task! To get to where we are today has taken a lot of hard-work. Here’s a bit of background on how the programme was started (by Nick Evans).

It would be very cliché of me to say that it all started with a dream. What I’m doing now wasn’t what I thought I’d be able to do as a career.  I’ve loved snakes my whole life, and have always been catching them, after being inspired by the late Steve Irwin. I had always wanted to help out in the global fight for conservation, I just never knew exactly how I would. But things start falling into place as life goes on. God’s got superb plans and timing!

While at school, I received a few phone calls to remove unwanted reptiles, from people who knew me, or people who knew my mum (Mrs.Evans of Westville Junior Primary, the teacher with the snakes!). We sometimes had calls in the afternoon after school, or on weekends. My mum would drive me far and wide so that we could rescue a reptile! We were called for lots of Monitor Lizards, Night Adders, and a few Mozambique Spitting Cobras- all of which made my week!

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A younger me with a Nile Monitor which I had rescued from someone’s dogs.

I volunteered at Phezulu Safari Park when I was sixteen, because working with crocodiles was a dream of mine, a dream which I fulfilled there. At the same time, I got to accompany the manager, Tim Korb (who has since resigned) on  Black Mamba call-outs. I gained a lot of experience there, especially around crocs and mambas, under Tim’s guidance.

Once I had left school after completing matric in 2012, I went to work at Dangerous Creatures at Ushaka Marine World, a world-class facility. Again, good timing and luck came my way to get the job. I had no interest in studying anything, I just wanted to get out into the world and gain experience (I don’t discourage studying at all!). It was there that I learnt a huge amount about working with mambas (and a lot more), under the manager and my mentor, Carl Schloms, and where I got plenty of practice in handling the world’s most venomous snakes. I learnt more than that though. It was all an amazing experience!

I left Ushaka to work in Zululand, I needed to change something in my life. I had just gone through an emotional meltdown. I suffered from severe depression and anxiety, brought on by a violent, alcoholic father (who died whilst I was in school). I was fortunate to have the best grandparents that anyone could ask for, who helped raise me along with my mother. My grandpa was a father-figure to me. They are largely the reason why I am who I am today. If they hadn’t raised me the way they did, I would probably be an alcoholic like my dad. I almost lost the fight with depression, but I got through it with supportive family and family friends. I was also lucky enough to have the best psychologist around, Dr. Kevin Suter, who probably saved my life.  I soon after managed to find a girlfriend (Joelle), somehow, who was a keeper! That really lifted my spirits.

Zululand is my happy place, and I had spent many weekends previously there, searching for snakes and frogs. My job there entailed a lot of fun activities. But things just weren’t working out there, and I returned home to Durban after a month, where I wanted to follow my passion.

I didn’t know exactly how to pursue my passion, which was working with the animals I love. All I knew, and what motivated me, was that I wanted to make a difference in the world. That is still my motivation. Especially after what I had just gone through.

Friends, who were doing snake removals, started sending calls my way, if they were unavailable. Whenever my phone rang, my eyes lit-up, and I was hoping for some bit of excitement! I then started getting my first few Black Mamba calls, which I had been waiting impatiently for. Whenever I received a call for one, my excitement and adrenaline levels went through the roof! My mum could never quite believe how excited I got, and still get, when I get called for a mamba! Working with Black Mambas is just indescribable, it’s an awesome moment in which I treasure.

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Releasing a big Black Mamba in early 2015.

I spent a lot of time on Google. I was searching for career ideas, opportunities, anything to spark a light bulb in my head. I really wanted to make something of my life, and to make enough money to marry my first girlfriend, Joelle. I knew from day one, that she was the one.

Then, someone who I had worked with at Ushaka (Chantal), suggested that I contact a lady, Yvette Taylor, from the Earth Organization. I looked them up on Google. The Lawrence Anthony Earth Organization, a global conservation organization inspired by the late Lawrence Anthony (the Elephant Whisperer), offered people the chance to open up their own conservation chapter through them. “This is what I’ve been waiting for!”, I thought to myself.

I emailed Yvette, requesting the opportunity to open up my own chapter. I received a positive and encouraging reply, and that was the start I had been waiting for! I originally planned it to cover the Zululand area, as that’s where I wanted to  be based. Logistically, I needed to return home to Durban. So I decided to cover the whole province. This is when KwaZulu-Natal Amphibian and Reptile Conservation started, in February 2015. A long name, I know, but it is what it is! With the Earth Organization backing me, I at least had some form of credentials.

I started advertising the service of snake removals more and more, and used social media for free marketing. There’s nothing I enjoy more than rescuing snakes! Seeing them go back into their natural environment is just great to watch. I had always loved writing too, it was the one thing I was good at, at school. So I wrote about every rescue call I attended, or I wrote up articles about reptiles and amphibians that I thought people may find interesting. It started taking off, and I received lots of encouragement from my readers (thank you all!). I believe it helped educate a lot of people too, and continues to do so.

I then started doing snake awareness talks. This probably baffled those who knew me. I was, and still am, the quiet guy who doesn’t say much at all (Joelle would disagree with that, I talk a lot to her). I was really nervous for my first few talks. In school, I couldn’t do an oral without extreme stress, and a shaky voice, and shaky legs! It was something I had always hated. But now it was different. I had more confidence in myself, and I had overcome my personal issues. Plus, I was speaking about my passion- a huge help!

I started getting more and more requests for snake talks. Facebook was working well for me, in getting my name out there. The more I did, the more confident I became. I was speaking to groups of 200, 300 or more, and I was really enjoying them! Funny, from a guy who could never do orals in school, was now speaking for a living. Never say never!

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Things grew from strength to strength. Talks and call-outs were now a daily task for me, just what I had wanted! Making a decent income off that sort of work was not easy though. I had worked hard, whether it was doing those tasks, or constantly contacting places who may require my services, or searching for such places on the web. So I was lucky enough to get a month long contract at Ushaka, during a period in which Carl was out of action due to a neck operation. I was running the programme part-time, on my off days from Ushaka.

I then went onto work at the Endangered Wildlife Trust, for my good friend, Dr.Jeanne Tarrant, who runs the Threatened Amphibian Programme. During this time, with a now more steady income, Joelle and I got engaged. I’m lucky to have someone who shares and supports my passion whole-heartedly, and I wasn’t going to let her get away! I was loving working for the EWT, but I obviously couldn’t juggle two jobs at once. Plus, I was a bit out of my depth, admin-wise. I resigned at the beginning of the year and followed my gut.  That’s when KZN Amphibian & Reptile Conservation became, yet again, a full-time ‘job’.

I went straight back into the hard work of trying to establish the programme. A lot of people ask, “Do you have a real job?”. This is very much a real job, in fact, I think it keeps me busier than most other jobs out there! I often spend 10-12 hours a day working. I’m not one to sit back and wait for opportunities, life doesn’t work that way. If I’m not doing talks or call-outs, I’m in front of my computer. I spend hours writing articles for social media, magazines and newspapers. I spend lots of time doing emails too, as well as photographing frogs and snakes etc. I’m also working on two books, one of which I hope to have out within the next year. So, if you’re ever wondering what I do all day long, apart from catching snakes, it’s not sitting in front of the T.V! Most summer nights are out spent frogging, which is a lot of fun!

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I’m still hoping that we can achieve so much more. We’re starting up lots of new projects.

Along with some interested friends, we’ve started up Save Our Suburban Lizards (www.durbanlizards.co.za), a conservation/education/research project to help conserve threatened lizard species in the Greater Durban Area. On the topic of research, I’m now starting to do research on mambas and cobras in Durban, as well as frogs (that’s always ongoing). I’m also starting up a lot of community ‘snake work’, in underprivileged areas, where there is a lot of human/snake conflict. As soon as Spring hits, I’ll be organising frogging evenings for the public to come and enjoy.

I am absolutely loving what I do, there’s nothing else I’d rather do. I have been lucky enough to turn my passion into a career, and am grateful for the opportunity. I now feel like I am achieving what I set-out to do, slowly but surely. It’s a tough job, getting people to respect and appreciate snakes, but it has to be done to ensure a healthy environment. Education is key in conserving the natural environment and the animals in it, so we all need to work hard at it.

I currently run the programme by myself, mainly. But Joelle and my mum help me on numerous occasions, when they’re not working. I have received a lot of support and advice from far too many people to name, but a special mention to the Schloms family for their support during my dark days (and still now), as well as Yvette Taylor and the Earth Organization, who have helped me so much in achieving my goals.

Along with educating the public and conserving these ecologically important animals, I hope to inspire a few children somehow, or anyone struggling in life. That’s one reason why I’ve written this personal post. Especially those who are having or who have had a rough time, or suffer from disorders like depression. Depression is a very underrated killer in this world. Also, children need to be encouraged to enjoy and love the natural world in which we live. Spending time in nature is the best thing one can do, mentally, and there’s so much to keep yourself captivated. Lastly, DO WHAT YOU LOVE!

Working with wildlife, and working to save it, is the most fulfilling and rewarding job in the world. I love it!

Joelle and I with a Black Mamba that we rescued.
Joelle and I with a Black Mamba that we rescued

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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