Faces of Africa – Charlie “Nyempere” Nkuna: Protector of Kruger National Park

Charlie “Nyempere” Nkuna is a household name in Kruger National Park, South Africa for his dedication and uninterrupted long service as a ranger for 41 years.

Kruger Park dominates South Africa’s eastern border covering 20,000 square kilometers. It was established by the President of Transvaal, Paul Kruger in the 19th century on the realization that wild animals needed to be protected.

At the time, wild animals were hunted by settlers, leading to the extinction of animals like the quagga and the blue antelope.

As a result, the Cape Colony and Transvaal republic began to create parks where the game would be protected. The Transvaal Game Protection society formed a map in 1898 between The Crocodile and Sabie Rivers, called the Sabie Game Reserve. The establishment of the reserve was a fructified revolutionary plan that was later renamed to Kruger National Park, in 1927.

Major James Stevenson-Hamilton, first warden of Kruger National Park

In 1902, James Stevenson-Hamilton was appointed as the first warden of the park. He first set out a “no shooting” rule to protect the animals in the park from poaching. He then trained rangers declaring war on anyone who was caught. James had begun the park’s never-ending war against poaching; prosecuting every poacher he caught.

The park had African protectors who were dedicated to their service. One of them was Helfas Nkuna, a pillar of Kruger National Park who was greatly admired for his prowess. He passed on still serving at the age of 85. Walking in his footsteps is Helfas’ nephew Charlie Nkuna, whose character still remains admirable to many.

Charlie Nkuna and his fellow African colleagues as young rangers at the Kruger National Park.

Charlie started working at the Kruger National Park in 1948, and within no time, he was able to rise to the position of sergeant. The military discipline and training of the rangers helped them fight against poachers and the dangerous wild animals.

“We used knives to protect ourselves from animals that attacked us,” told Charlie Nkuna, a former warden.

During his time, Charlie did a lot of remarkable acts like helping map out the park’s historic transport routes.


A rhino at the Kruger National Park after relocation from other game reserves.

In the 1960s, Charlie participated in the relocation of the first white rhino from Umfolozi Game Reserve to the Kruger National Park. This was due to the extinction of rhinos that was caused by slaughtering and killing for the international trade in rhino horn.

But it wasn’t all easy.

Charlie and his fellow rangers exposed themselves to ruthless poachers.

“One day when I was working with Jan Mdluli, he was stabbed four times by one of the poachers we had captured. I then took him to a hospital in White River,” said Charlie.

Together with his fellow colleagues, Charlie was responsible for seizing many poachers, including those in service.

“One day I found out that policemen had killed many impalas and loaded them into a truck. When we approached them there was a battle and they started shooting at us. I shot back and eventually caught them,” he told.

Charlie Nkuna, a former game ranger at the Kruger National Park

Having spent his whole life in the bush, Charlie’s experience was heartbreaking. His daughter and that of his brother Willie were killed by a straying lioness.

In spite of all these trials and tribulations, Charlie remained steadfast in his loyalty to Kruger National Park, and for this, he was honored with the prestigious Lifetime Contribution Award in 2009.

Charlie “Nyempere” Nkuna died in 2015 at the age of 85.