Ten meters. About 33 feet. A world-class sprinter can cover the distance in about one second. An adult lion can in less than half that time.
That last fact is significant because it’s how much time one particular John Deere employee may have to make a decision that will affect 10 lives, including his own.
Home On The Ranch
Kevin Lesser is a marketing communications manager for John Deere sub-Saharan Africa
When he was young, his parents managed a cattle ranch belonging to Sir John Hewitt in Kenya. So, when Hewitt decided to stop farming and return to Britain, Lesser’s father took his family south to a larger ranch.
“At that stage, it was the biggest registered Hereford stud ranch in the world,” Lesser recalled. “There were 2,000 registered Hereford. We grew up right there on the farm.”
Lesser was 18 years old when his father died in an auto accident. The family moved to the city, and Lesser, rather than following in his father’s footsteps, studied electrical engineering in university. For the next decade or so, he worked in the electronics development trade.
Then he spotted something familiar.
“I saw a well-known trademark logo with a deer in a newspaper one day,” Lesser said. “Well, I recognized that trademark, and they were looking for an area manager – Product Support.”
Starting from Scratch
“I usually end up in a job that’s new to the branch.” Lesser explained. “There’s no handover, so I start from absolutely scratch.”
Such a position brought him and his family back to his family’s home country, and Lesser spent several years establishing and then building up capabilities for Deere’s regional office in Kenya. (To get an idea of scale, although the trip from South Africa to Kenya covers less than half the length of the continent, it’s still a few hundred miles longer than the trip across the entire U.S., from Los Angeles to New York City.)
Then in 2016, a new role, his current role, brought him back to South Africa. As a marketing communications manager, Lesser works with a group of about 120 employees across Deere locations not just in South Africa, but also to the north in Kenya and Ghana. By his own count, Lesser juggles a dozen different roles, which means no two days are the same, and he has to be ready to adapt to new demands each time he comes to the office.
“When you’re in a smaller branch like ours, you have a multitude of functional areas,” Lesser said. “I’m a marketing communications manager, but I’m also the brand ambassador for John Deere in sub-Saharan Africa, so I look out for any intellectual property infringements. I’m the global connection for brand licensing, making sure that the licensing is applied and done correctly here. Event management. Advertising. Website. Social Media. Sales Manual Site.” The list of ad hoc responsibilities goes on, and so does the list of obstacles — language barriers, currency fluctuations, political challenges.
And there are day-to-day challenges many employees never face. “Given the large amount of traveling we do, particularly in remote areas, we’re eating strange foods, sleeping in strange places,” Lesser said. “Africa’s quite well-known for its plethora of strange and odd diseases. Malaria. Cholera. Hepatitis. These are things that you commonly encounter”(in Africa).
“You think you’ve seen all the problems,” Lesser adds, “and then you visit a remote customer, or a dealer, and you come back with a whole set of new challenges. It never stops. It’s exceptionally challenging, and it’s exciting. It’s never never never boring.”
Staying at his best for such a challenging and sometimes daunting role requires Lesser to regularly “recharge his batteries.” He does this not by relaxing poolside or on the golf course, but by taking on an even more challenging and daunting role — safely guiding tourists among some of the world’s most dangerous wild animals.
Really, Really Wild Africa
Lesser recalled stories his parents told of growing up in “really, really wild Africa. They would have to look out in the morning before they would step onto the veranda to make sure there were no lions or elephants in the garden.”
During his own youth, Lesser saw many lions, leopards, wild dogs, and other predatory animals walking around on the farm where his father worked, so he was comfortable around South Africa’s wilder wildlife.
Around 2005, Lesser said he found himself missing the wide-open spaces and the wild animals he’d seen growing up. He enrolled in a year-long environmental course — covering geology, grasses, trees, insects, birds, animal behavior, tracking, and guiding — that led him more or less directly to his work as a volunteer field guide in South African parks.
“I had a choice, but I decided it’s quite boring driving a vehicle in these game parks,” Lesser said, “and much more exciting to actually be on foot amongst the elephants and lions and hippos and all the other animals. The whole reason for being on foot is to get a totally different perspective on nature. If you’re sitting in a vehicle, it’s nice to be 20 meters from a lion because you’re sitting in an enclosed vehicle and you can just shut the window and take your pictures. But when you’re on foot, the dynamic is changed completely. All of a sudden, you have to respect that animal and his behavior and moods because you need to judge those to determine how to get out of there safely.”
Once he finished the qualifications for trail guide, which include training in animal behavior as well as firearms, he could begin guiding tourists through places like Pilanesberg National Park, which is about 133 miles from his home.
A tour group is never larger than 10 — eight tourists and two guides.
“It starts with people who pay for a tour and want to see some animals on a guided walk,” Lesser said. “They usually have no idea of the experience they are about to have, and a good guide will interpret the environment during the search for the animals.”
Lesser notes that humans traveling on foot are at a distinct disadvantage in the animals’ home turf. “Of course, the animals can out-smell, out-see, and out-hear us completely, but if you keep the group small, you have a far better chance of being able to see something. All our training teaches us to get as close as possible to the animal without making it feel uncomfortable. If the animal doesn’t even know we were there, that would be a perfect approach.”
The guided walks never go beyond two and a half hours. Stamina isn’t the problem. The problem is that for every second of the tour, the guide must devote 100 percent of his attention to interpreting his surroundings — noises, smells, wind direction, potential escape routes. Sustaining extremely high concentration while releasing abnormally high levels of adrenalin for extended periods is exhausting, especially knowing that even a momentary slip could be disastrous. As Lesser put it, matter-of-factly, “You don’t want a customer trampled by a six-ton elephant or have his extremities gnawed at by a 240-kilogram male lion.”
Asked whether tourists on foot don’t appear to the animals as food without the nuisance of wrappers, Lesser said even large predators such as lions regard humans as “super‑predators. So even if you’re getting close to a lion, the lion has some wariness because he recognizes you as something that’s been hunting animals over the eons. In 99 percent of the cases, animals will flee if you give them an escape route. If you corner them, then of course it’s a different scenario completely.”
In that “different scenario,” the animal becomes aggressive, and that’s where the calculations from the beginning of this article become important.
Engaging with Lions, Elephants, and Rhinos
The guides have rules of engagement. For example, Lesser said, based on their animal behavior studies, they typically give lions the benefit of the doubt up to 10 meters. Once a lion approaches within 10 meters, “it’s not going to stop anymore, and that’s when you have to take the decision to use your rifle,” Lesser said. An adult lion can jump a little over 10 meters, so Lesser has to be good with both decisions and a rifle.
The point of decision with elephants is further — up to 30 meters. Elephants can’t jump, of course, but they weigh between four and six tons, and a charging elephant will take a significant distance to bring it down because of its momentum.
Threats aren’t always obvious, either. “Most people are oblivious to how fast most of these animals can actually move.” Lesser said. “Even a hippopotamus that looks to be absolutely placid lying in the water can get out of that water at 35 kilometers per hour and head straight for you. So, it’s very dangerous.”
Lesser once was guiding a group and halted about 35 meters away from a pair of white rhinos. “We were sitting underneath a bush watching them,” recounted Lesser, “when a pair of warthogs came up out of the bush. And as they trotted along, they ran into the rhinos by accident and completely disturbed them. The rhinos got up and ran in all directions. Our party was covered just by a bush. One rhino went to the right of us and the other went to the left. That happens.” An adult rhino weighs about 1,500 pounds, so the difference between running around a bush instead of through it is significant.
The incident illustrated one of the guides’ top rules — don’t run. “The only case we would run is when we have no alternative and a safe escape route exists and we could get to the escape route before the animal reaches us.”
If they don’t run, what do they do?
“I tell them to form up in a tight circle,” Lesser said. “The bigger you appear to the animal, the more uncertain the animal becomes. An animal will have to consider ‘If I tackle this beast, which is bigger than I am, and I get injured, I’m dead.’ Nature has got its cruel way of taking away the weak and keeping the strong, and any serious injury is definitely like a death sentence to an animal.”
Lesser recalled being “stormed,” or charged, by a lioness. “That’s usually a very rare thing,” Lesser said, “but when we backed off far enough, we saw her go in among the rocks to pick up one of her cubs, so we could understand why she was charging.”
Another time, Lesser was in a vehicle with a tour of high school students from New Zealand when a young bull elephant came up and rested one of his tusks on Lesser’s armrest. Because young bulls are less predictable than older male elephants, Lesser was concerned it might do something rash. Reassuring the group and remaining absolutely calm and immobile saved the day.
Lesser’s experience with wild animals has supplemented his understanding of behaviors in the office. “No one animal is the same as the next,” he said. “Every animal is an individual and has different individual characteristics, and it’s about how you read that — looking for small signs of stress or disagreement — and how you react to it.”
Of course there are limits to the similarities between field and the typical nine-to-five office workplace. “I haven’t learned to smell fear yet,” Lesser laughed, “but if I do, I’m sure I’m going to make a huge amount of money.”