Marlene Joubert – Skilderkrans

In a previous article on Judy Davidson and the South African Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre I discovered that Skilderkrans, located in Bronkhorstspruit, Gauteng was one of their release sites. As I wanted to know more about these sites, I contacted Skilderkrans’ owner, Marlene Joubert.

 

Have you ever met someone new and realised that your friendship is not? New, I mean. With Marlene, chatting easily as if we had been friends for years, I learned that as well as providing valuable land for the release of wildlife, she also does her share of rehabilitation. I knew then that her story needed to be told.

 

Armed with a plan to meet my long-time friend in person, my family and I enjoyed a wonderful Christmas getaway at Skilderkrans where Marlene and her husband Danie have designed and built three beautiful lodges.

Wildlife rehabilitation expert from childhood

It’s the 60s in South Africa. It’s a farm in Delmas, (previously known as the Eastern Transvaal province) — a sleepy little farming dorpie east of the big smoke of Johannesburg. The Opperman family have farming in their blood. Granddad and Father Opperman are maize farmers. Mother looks after three beautiful children and life bobs up and down with the seasons.

 

At about the age of 6, Marlene’s oupa brought her a tiny, sick chick. He also gave her an ancient book of healing recipes and concoctions. In those days, people used medicines that many people haven’t even heard of today like Condy’s Crystals (Potassium permanganate), Mercurochrome (yes, it contains mercury), Flowers of Sulphur (does not come from flowers and is also known as brimstone) and Gentian violet (again, not made from flowers). Even then, Marlene had a gift, an intuition and a sense about healing. The concoctions helped but she instinctively knew what needed to be done from that tender age. Marlene admits that being the middle child meant she was wild and (to her mother’s irritation) there were always animals orbiting her like moons around a planet.

 

She wanted more than anything to be a vet but her father would not hear of it. Marlene recalls his reasoning, “No daughter of mine is going to put her hands up the arses of my neighbours’ cattle!” He wanted her to be a good wife. Back then young girls did not disobey their father, especially not Farmer Opperman.

Along with many healers I have interviewed, Marlene had an artistic flair. She took a course in art and fashion design in Pretoria but was soon spotted by family friend and farmer, Paul. Marlene’s sister Annelize was a stunner and farmer Paul once enquired if she had a sister. That sister happened to be the equally beautiful Marlene and she and Paul were married in 1982. They farmed in Thabazimbi: wheat, cotton, maize, vegetables and cattle.

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One day on the farm, Marlene found two orphaned civets in the wheat field. She phoned Nature Conservation who — instead of providing support—sternly warned her that if she still had the civets after 3 months, the authorities would come and confiscate them. When this didn’t happen, Marlene used her skills to raise them successfully and her talents to devise a slow release system. This system involved outdoor runs that provided safety and food where the civets were able to gradually venture out and return. After 6 months, they were accustomed to hunting for themselves and the release was complete.

Marlene’s daughter was born in 1986. At the time, a tragic Brucellosis outbreak in South Africa forced the family to euthenase their cattle. Now in dire straits, they lost their farm and had to move to Ermelo. Paul started helping Pieter Celliers (who owned extensive tracts of natural land in Hluhluwe). Marlene and Paul designed and built a boma for young elephants from a Kruger National Park cull —eventually releasing them. After her success with the elephant release system, Marlene was approached by another farmer who needed assistance with big game. As usual, her gifts allowed her to better the lives of many more animals.

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After her divorce and the birth of her son in 1990, Marlene needed an income. She moved to Delmas and started working for the Pannar Seed Company, selling maize seed to farmers. But her continuing passion for was recognised by the people who still brought injured birds and other animals to her.

 

In 2008, she met Danie whom she married in 2010. They lived on his property called Luiperdskloof in Bronkhorstspruit. In Danie she found a kindered spirit — someone who loved nature as much as she did. He had been busy repopulating his land with wildlife in an attempt to return the once degraded area into a natural paradise. Danie had many different types of antelope and other wildlife on his farm and in 2015 Marlene rehabilitated her first meerkat. In 2018, they increased their borders by purchasing the neighbouring Skilderkrans property. In that year, a wildlife rehabilitation centre called FreeMe had to close down and needed to find land for 22 meerkats. Some of them went to Judy Davidson at the South African Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre and 6 

were sent to Marlene. Using her years of experience, she built outdoor enclosures and began a slow-release programme with them. It took 2 years to successfully release the meerkats onto

 their land and today there are about 4 clans from the original

 group that live happily at Skilderkrans.

In 2019, the sensational story about a leopard roaming the streets of Benoni moved Marlene to offer her land as a release site. He still lives on Skilderkrans land, keeping the antelope numbers in check and they see him at least once a week. From this, Marlene has received injured wildlife from many different sources and always manages to provide the right care and the opportunity for a wild existence. At Skilderkrans, she has released meerkats, mongoose (water, marsh and slender), striped polecat, striped weasel, serval, leopard, eland, duiker, blue wildebeest, steenbok, impala, hedgehog, porcupine, scrub hare and hyrax (and there’s a skunk that just arrived!).

Over the years at Skilderkrans, while creating a good working relationship with neighbouring land owners, Marlene has been able to educate them about some of the species they consider vermin. Animals like caracal, bush pig, wild boars and warthogs have been poisoned and shot, but Marlene’s intervention has ensured a better understanding of these animals so that they can be managed in a more sustainable way.

 

Today, the 100 hectares that makes up the Skilderkrans Conservancy plus the thousands of neighbouring hectares of land owned by like-minded people have provided safe refuge to Marlene’s rehabilitated patients. The conservancy boasts three beautiful cottages and a camp-site next to the breath-taking Wilge River and all the income from the lodges and campsite goes towards her rehabilitation efforts.

 

During my Christmas visit, Marlene invites me into her homestead. I find a household dedicated to her work and a family who surround her with enthusiasm and love for what she does. She has two baby dassies (Rock Hyrax) that were picked up by well-meaning tourists who believed their mother had been killed by a predator. Nature can be cruel but if Marlene is called on to help, she will always make a plan.

 

Marlene has come a long way from that young farm girl with her tiny little chick. Her skills have increased with every new species she encounters. Hating the thought of wildlife in cages, she admits she cannot turn animals away.

 

While always having a plan and continuing to educate herself about the specific needs of the animals she cares for, Marlene has provided a second chance for so many animals that may still have been caged or even killed. Her lifelong dedication and passion make her their genuine ally.

 

As individuals, we can not change the world; we only have the capacity of one person. This beautiful person has changed the world for countless animals who, without her, would not have been reunited with freedom.

 

©Liz Roodt 2024