In memory of Dalu Mncube

Jason Taylor, a former volunteer at Zion Wildlife Gardens, pays tribute to his friend and ex-colleague Dalu Mncube

At the end of 2007, before leaving Zion Wildlife Gardens after two years of service as a volunteer, I twice advised Dalu, who had been with us for about a year, to hurry up and apply for a job as a big-cat handler on Australia's Gold Coast.

It was nothing personal against the owners, the Busch's, but I just felt deep down that Dalu would thrive in the "professional" environment and his fellow workers and public alike would absolutely adore him.

I can still vividly remember him telling me he'd come to New Zealand because at the Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve in South Africa he was only involved in the cubs' creche. What he really wanted to do was to be involved with the big cats' whole life process. That's exactly what Craig had offered him when he visited South Africa. Dalu gladly took it with both hands.

Dalu initially lived alone onsite at Zion in a shabby 15sq m cottage, a stone's throw away from Abu, the royal white male tiger who was as big as your average three-seater couch.

The first room you walked into in Dalu's cottage was the kitchen/living room with a sink, fridge, small table and chairs. His other room was a tiny bedroom - more a bed than a room.

At certain times during the year, on the floor of this cottage, many a still-blind young cub, would crawl around crying for milk.

The life of a TV big-cat handler like Dalu, in a small family-run team, is not as glamorous as it first sounds. You basically have to do everything your local farmer does - get up at all hours, kill, blood and chop up old livestock, move heavy loads and collect barrow loads of animal dung.

Because it's been much publicised, you won't be surprised to know that at this particular time Zion was worse than Coronation Street.

Craig's relationship with his mum was pretty fractured. All this ongoing drama meant that apart from the odd helping hand, the 24/7 management of chores that kept the big cats happy, was pretty much left to Dalu.

Most days Dalu would go about his business, going into enclosures, putting his life on the line for the Busch family and in my humble opinion, neither being fully appreciated nor probably paid much more than your average shoe salesman.

But, here's the strange thing. Despite all this, and even considering he had little time for his beloved golf, Dalu seemed to be a happy chappy.

Here he was, a "20-something"-year-old man basically in charge of his own lion and tiger park.

He had raised several of the cats himself from infanthood, particularly those in the white lion pride which came to Zion from his old park in South Africa. He connected with them as if they were his own children.

The only way he was ever going to be separated from them was if you dragged him out in a wooden box.

And so, sadly, a few days ago that's exactly what happened.

But, from my humble and limited experience, it could and should have been easily avoided.

So, although I admire and respect Craig's ability to build a business and create from scratch a "safe haven for endangered big cats", and although I love and appreciate Patricia's friendship, kindness towards me and her deep spirituality, I'm angry at them. Very angry!

I feel sorry for Dalu's partner, Sharon. But even more than that I feel for his mum and dad back in Africa. After all, their boy was only young. They trusted Zion to take care of him. And he died in a foreign country. A country that (to my knowledge) they are yet to visit.

I hope that Zion and those gorgeous big cats are in the future managed by someone else and I hope all the Zion cats get to live out their days. To hear that they may be destroyed would be an absolute tragedy. This is Dalu's family we're talking about here. It would be the last thing he'd want.

- NZ Herald

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