Samantha Croxall is PA to Executive Director Simon Tonge. But her life as a desk jockey belies her action-woman past in South Africa.

How did I end up as a PA? The path to this desk is long and winding… Once upon a time, in a far-away land, there was a child with an unrelenting curiosity for how the natural world worked and an unwavering ambition to get everyone to fall in love with the planet. So began my journey into the world of ecology and ultimately nature conservation.

Every school holiday, I followed our local environmental activist around. Thankfully Wally Petersen was a very patient man and we spent many hours discussing the importance of understanding ecosystems, respecting natural processes and developing a sense of social responsibility. He taught me about human-wildlife conflict resolutions while we monitored the local Chacma baboon troops, organised eco-clubs and beach clean-ups (one of which ended up with us rescuing two stranded Risso’s dolphins).

And then there were the radical plant rescues… Mother was not particularly pleased when she found out that Wally and I had spent a day, trespassing on private land, dodging bulldozers while we tried to rescue dune plants which were being cleared for a new beachfront development.

But I had a plan and that was to become a nature conservationist and nothing was going to change my mind! Which is why I was over the moon when I was selected to complete my diploma (and later my degree) in the newly proclaimed Table Mountain National Park. Most of the 3rd year students had opted for the larger big five game parks, but having grown up in the shadow of Table Mountain, there was nowhere else I would rather be.

Beginning as one of the first female students in the Park and going on to become a Section Ranger managing areas of a World Heritage Site was nothing short of a dream come true. But it was not without some hard graft and the tons of patience required to manage an urban edge National Park. One day you can be surveying Disa uniflora in the Valley of the Red Gods when suddenly you’re called to assist the Wilderness Search and Rescue team as they helicopter a tourist off a precarious ledge; on another you’re maintaining a boardwalk footpath in lush Afromontane forest when you have to deal with poachers stripping bark to sell to people who practice traditional medicine or muti.

During that time, I worked on large alien invasive plant clearing programmes sponsored by the World Bank, assisting local and international botanists collecting specimens as part of the Kew Millennium Seed Bank project; I helped clean African penguins and managed an army of volunteers during the oil spill in 2000 caused by the sinking of the MV Treasure; I got down and dirty fighting wildfires for days on end; and I assisted field researchers ring black sparrow hawks.

One of my highlights was being involved in the preparations and eventual reintroduction of klipspringer to Table Mountain in 2004 after an absence of over 70 years.

Before coming to the UK, I spent nearly two years playing ‘jeep jockey’ and Reserve Manager at a secluded five-star Relais and Chateau resort in the Cederberg Mountains, where I learnt a great deal about hospitality and how to achieve excellence in guest experiences.

Despite the long hours, it certainly had its perks. I had 16,000 acres of bushman rock art wilderness to manage with intriguingly adapted plant species and any number of game species, many classed as Endangered or Vulnerable. We had Cape Mountain zebra and bontebok, eland, black wildebeest, kudu, springbok, red hartebeest, klipspringer, aardwolf, caracal, aardvark and bat-eared foxes. We had an amazing variety of birds, insects, fish and feisty reptiles such as the black spitting cobra. And, most elusive of all, we had leopard.

I was thrilled to be part of the camera trap monitoring, capture and GPS collaring of a leopard on the property as part of the Cape Leopard Trust’s Cederberg project. I also established (with the photographic help of a colleague) a studbook for the Cape Mountain zebra to facilitate movement of individuals. I was involved in the construction of bomas (livestock enclosures) and game capture operations for moving eland and black wildebeest and completed an aerial game count of the property.

A move to the UK at the end of 2006 changed everything. I left behind my adventurous nature conservation career for grey skies and tarmac. But strangely, it turned out that my wild years had equipped me with the transferable skills needed to manage projects and people and to begin a completely new career as a PA. However, I always hoped to return one day to my true passion.

So, after years of being stuck in the concrete jungle of London, landing a PA role here at Paignton Zoo feels like a home-coming for my soul. Seriously, who can beat typing minutes of a meeting to the sound of a lion roaring?

Samantha Croxall MEPAA, PA to the Executive Director

Quotes An awesome experience. The amount of free space given to the animals was very impressive Quotes