Kruger, Anniversary of a Historic Park

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The KNP (Kruger National Park) is not another one of the thousands of protected areas in the world: 260 km long, more than two million hectares, 900 km of fence, huge populations of big mammals… Some of these features are unique, but together they turn the park into something exceptional. This year, in addition, it turned 115.
Long before conservationist thinking, ecologist movements and environmental education, an antelope meant food for natives and a trophy for foreign hunters. Any other though would have seemed, in the best-case scenario, extravagant. Fortunately, in the nineteenth century an extravagant individual reached the presidency of the Transvaal Republic, current South Africa. We are talking about Paul Kruger, the founder of the natural park that carries his name. He and his contributors managed to turn the conservation of a natural space into a reality, and today we can enjoy it. This article offers some observations on the park.

26a27abcd31a-79Top left, adult impla female, the most abundant species of big mammals in the park. The authorities calculate around 150,000 specimens, that is, more than all the other mammals together.
Top centre, group of impalas crossing the dry bed of river Sabie, in the south of the park.
Top right, the current of river Luvuvhu creates little islands.
Bottom left, vlei or stream in the area of influence of the river water table, where riverbank woodland grows, contrasting with the adjacent savannah.
Bottom centre, the animals, like these chacma baboons, come to vleis to quench their thirst.
Bottom right, group of impalas observing the movements of a leopard.

TERRITORY

Looking at the map, the natural reserve has the shape of a horn; mind you, a 360-kilometer-long horn, with a surface of around 20,000 km2. Those figures place it as one of the largest protected spaces in the world. It was an example for South Africa and favoured the creation of other reserves like the Kalahari Desert reserve, the other large park in the area, significantly smaller. Kruger Park is 40 km wide in its most narrow point and 85 in its widest. It extends over the subtropical region of the African continent, specifically in the north-eastern corner of the South African Republic, bordering with Mozambique in the east and Zimbabwe in the north. The government is currently studying and managing the KNP connection with the Limpopo National Park in Mozambique and the parks of Gonarezhou, Manjinjin and Malipati in Zimbabwe. The result of this merger would create the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park and would, in principle, spread over 35,000 km2, with the possibility of growing even more in the future.

The territory extends between the Limpopo and Crocodile rivers (north and south respectively), although other smaller ones cross it as well. They sprout small branches or temporary ponds called vleis1 by the locals. The altitude of the territory is not too high, with its minimum in the eastern area (140 m) and its maximum in the south-western area, never surpassing 900 m high. It has a soft relief, without steep mountains or pronounced slopes; just some dispersed kopjes2 alter the omnipresent plain. In geological terms and in general, granite soils predominate in the western half of the park, and lava flows in the eastern. Concerning rainfall, the northern half of the park is drier than the southern half (400 litres/m2 a year in the north, double the amount in the south).

28abcdef-79Top left, the beautiful flower of the Adenium obesum multiflorum, also known as impala lily.
Top centre and right, the peculiar silhouette of the baobab inspired the Arabic legend that says that the devil planted the tree upside down, burying the branches and leaving the roots on top.
Bottom left, termites build huge engineering works up to four meters high.
Bottom centre, the great Nile crocodile can grow up to six metres long.
Bottom right, the Nile monitor, active predator – preferably aquatic –, is the other great reptile in the park, but it is much more difficult to find.

PLANTs

Predominant plant life is the savannah (generally called veld3) in the area) in its different variations: herbaceous, shrubs and trees, yet the mixed one is the most prominent one. Around waterways (most of them only temporary) there are large forests, sometimes impregnable. Among the most abundant trees there are the usual marulas (Sclerocarya caffra) with their unmistakable flat top, bushes and thickets such as Combretum apiculatum, Dicrostachys cinerea and others of the Acacia genus, among which the thorny A. karoo has a significant presence. We can also find the beautiful «impala lily» (Adenium obesum).

We cannot complete the list because there are more than 400 species of trees and shrubs, but we can mention a couple that are very characteristic. One is the mopane (Colophospermum mopane), which forms magnificent forests, mainly in the northern region, down to the Limpopo valley. The other one is the impressive baobab (Adansonia digitata), a tree that never creates forests but stands out due to its outstanding perimeter (up to 30 meters) and its height (20 metres), which makes them tower over the rest of trees. Its trunk, disproportionately «bloated», answers to a water-hoarding strategy, gathering water to use in the time of drought. However, apart from the size, the shape is also surprising, and led many tribes to attribute magical powers to it.

29abcde-79Top left, the beautiful lilac-breasted roller (Coracias caudatus) with its long forked tail, taking off in the picture, is a frequent species in the park.
Top centre, the trusting yellow-billed hornbill allows people to get close.
Bottom left, «cleaning team» made up of three red-billed oxpeckers (Buphagus erythrorhynchus) worming the neck of a giraffe.
Bottom centre, a grey heron (Ardea cinerea) catching a tilapia fish.
On the right, a pair of yellow-billed storks (Mycteria ibis) in the middle of courtship.

ANIMALS

Regarding the fauna, suffice it to say that it is the most spectacular feature of the park, as well as the most valuable from the point of view of conservation. There is such an overwhelming presence of vertebrates that one feels bad for talking first about invertebrates. There are many insects, especially termites that build mounds more than three or four metres high. Another – more annoying – inhabitant is the Anopheles mosquito, whose female transmits malaria. Before travelling, one must take pre-emptive measures such as getting repellents, mosquito nets, medicine, etc.

Some fish can survive a drought and others defend themselves with the electricity they produce. Among reptiles, there is the giant Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) that can reach six metres in length, many snakes (some of them poisonous, like Boomslang snakes or mambas), the huge Nile monitor (Varanus niloticus), the great leopard tortoise (Geochelone pardalis) and smaller ones: other tortoises (some endemic), lizards, agamas, chameleons, etc.

«The most varied group of vertebrates is birds»

30abcde-79Top left, zebras watching every angle in case any predators, such as cheetahs (next to it, the only photo made in captivity, in a farm in Namibia), are near.
Top right, young elephants playing in the water.
Bottom left, group of lions crossing the river Sabie.
Bottom right, dwarf mongooses (Helogale parvula) in their kopje.

The most varied group of vertebrates is birds. More than five hundred species have been detected, so mentioning the most frequent ones would take another full article. But we can, at least, mention some of the easiest ones to spot: the ostrich (Struthio camelus), which is the fastest biped runner in the world and can reach and maintain a speed of 70 km/h; the hornbills (Tockus, omnipresent and almost insolent; Bucorvus, the biggest ones, who usually move in groups of relatives on the ground and prey on insects and vertebrates; and Bycanistes); bustards (Lophotis and others, such as the wonderful wild Kori bustard – Ardeotis kori –, one of the heaviest flying birds); the ubiquitous superb starling (Lamprotornis), the eminent rollers (Coracias and Erystomus); the trusting francolins (Pternistes, Scleroptila, Dendroperdix and Peliperdix); the elegant lapwings (Vanellus); the colourful bee-eaters (Merops); the gregarious guineafowl (Numida); the abundant weavers (Ploceus and others); the doves (Streptopelia…), apparently adapted to almost any environment; the sunbirds (Chalcomitra), representing a similar role to hummingbirds in the American continent; a great variety of aquatic birds: herons, egrets, geese and storks – among which the saddle-billed stork (Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis) and the marabou stork (Leptoptilos crumeniferus) stand out due to their gaudiness –, ibis, spoonbills, etc.

We can also observe the flight of different swallows, swifts, vultures and eagles, which are much easier to spot than here. The surprising bateleur (Therathopius ecaudatus) and the powerful martial eagle (Polemaetus bellicosus) stand out. The secretary bird (Sagittarius serpentarius) is a unique predatory bird, known due to its ability to hunt poisonous snakes. Finally, it is easy, during the itinerary through the park, to distinguish the monochromatic and fruitarian go-away-bird (Corythaixoides concolor), usually in small groups on tree branches, or the magpie shrike (Corvinella melanoleuca), always alone and observing every movement near their watchtower.

31aCAT-79Comparison between populations at the end of the twentieth century and in 2013 of some of the most abundant species in the Kruger National Park. From top to bottom, the common names of the animals are Burchell’s zebra, Cape buffalo, blue wildebeest, great kudu, African bush elephant and giraffe.

The crown jewel might be mammals, a group with 150 members, among which the largest ones stand out: felines and large herbivores. These last ones can form great packs and some of their communities are unique due to their size. The ubiquitous impala (Aepyceros melampus) stands out with more than 150,000 specimens, exceeding the amount of all the other big mammals put together. Apart from this extreme case, the most common are the Burchell’s zebra (Equus quagga), the African buffalo (Syncerus caffer), the blue wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus) and the greater kudu (Strepsiceros zambesiensis). Other easily spotted species are the African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana), the giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis), the eastern waterbuck (Kobus ellipsiprymnus) and the desert warthog (Phacochoerus aethiopicus).

If you are lucky, you can find the southern reedbuck (Redunca arundinum), called rietbok in the area, and the precious sable antelope (Hippotragus niger). The 220 tsessebes (Damaliscus lunatus) may be especially interesting, as well as the population of around 90 roan antelopes (Hippotragus equinus).

On top of a kopje (where there will probably be a den of hyraxes) we can observe klipspringer antelopes (Oreotragus transvaalensis) and, especially in the north, the beautiful nyalas (Nyala angasii). Relatives of the kudus, they give their name to the region: Nyalaland. Among hunters and carrion-eaters we can find the black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas) and, almost certainly, the spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta). If we are lucky, a nocturnal expedition will provide us with a glance at the aardwolf (Proteles cristatus), also called «maanhaar jackal» or termite hyena, because they build their dens in termite mounds where they can feed on the insects.

Now we get to the heavyweights: the hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius), the great eland of Cape Town (Taurotragus oryx), which can reach a weight of 900 kg, and the two rhinoceros, white and black. If we lower the size and sharpen our sight, we will see the bush duiker (Sylvicapra grimmia), the common steenbok (Raphicerus campestris) and the Raphicerus colonicus, Smith’s bush squirrel or yellow-footed squirrel (Paraxerus cepapi)… The primates we can find are the vervet monkey (Cercopithecus aethiops) and the chacma baboon (Papio ursinus).

However, the most coveted by visitors are the great predators: 1,700 lions (Panthera leo), a thousand leopards (Panthera pardus) and the very uncommon lycaons (Lycaon pictus) and cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus), with little over a hundred specimens each.

All these figures were obtained thanks to the great team of biologists that permanently study the evolution of populations. Apart from these evaluations, which require great effort and are not carried out in other African parks, they also study the movements of many species using radio transmitters. Another feature of this reserve is the large staff of scientists, rangers and veterinaries.

30fghijk-79Top left, great nyala male crossing the river beach.
Top centre, spotted hyena carrying a piece of prey.
Top right, greater kudu male walking on the riverbed.
Bottom left, grey heron «surfing» on a hippopotamus.
Bottom centre, only giraffes can reach these leaves.
Bottom right, family of warthogs «kneeling» to eat grass, showing their dangerous tusks.

The rules

Many corners are accessible thanks to a network of thousands of kilometres of paths and roads. This fact received some criticism, but in such a vast area, the lack of roadway infrastructure would make moving around a lot more complicated. Besides, this enables people to visit the biological richness of the park, with the resulting advantages. With the road network and a strict prohibition to leave them, an ideal duality is obtained, allowing the visitors enjoyment and the preservation of the environment. There are other rules to follow, though: one cannot drive over 40 or 50 km/h (depending on the road they are driving on, dirt of asphalt) and always inside the roadway. This rule provides security for both the animals and the drivers (one must drive on the left in South Africa).

It is also forbidden to leave the vehicle except in special spots designated for that purpose. Not following these rules causes several accidents every year; let’s not forget the presence of big felines, as well as elephants, hippos and buffaloes. You cannot feed the animals either, as it would alter their diet and natural behaviour (they would grow used to getting close to humans). Finally, we have to take into account that the entrance of any kind of pet is strictly forbidden, because they could irritate or scare some species and even alter the environment if they got loose. If any pet is detected, guards have strict orders of killing it.

Any breach of these rules implies strong fines and even the expulsion from the park. In addition, it is advisable to reserve a visit (months in advance) for the protected camps within the reserve. There are 15 such facilities (some with hundreds of beds) in which to eat, rest and sleep comfortably, without worrying about the dangers of the savannah because electrified fences surround them. The entrance is always guarded.

If you cannot get a bed in the bungalows, you can always resort to camping. What is not at all advisable is to enter the park and leave it on the same day, because moving inside the park is slow and you would not be able to enjoy the most interesting places. For instance, the road connecting the Pafuri entrance gate in the north with Berg En Dal in the south is 436 km long. The best option is to plan a southbound route, if you have enough days, sleeping each night in a different camp. Remember Kruger can be accessed through eight different gates.

The number of visitors every year greatly exceeds the million people, despite limiting daily visits to minimise the risk for flora and fauna.

«El nombre de visitants anuals sobrepassa de llarg el milió de persones»

32b33-79One can only know the feeling of having a lion walk a foot from you living it. On the right, park rangers carry military-grade weapons to confront the many poachers that killed half the population of rhinoceros over the last years.

Management

Although we are talking about a territory where human influence seems limited, several interventions are done in the ecosystems of the park. It is the case of the introduction of a number of dams that are added to the natural ones, some of which have been modified and reinforced to favour water retention. Faced with the lack of electricity, wells have a windmill to pump water up to the surface, where it accumulates in a pond or reservoir. Another intervention is causing controlled fires every now and then to avoid bush overpopulation and favour tree expansion.

But the bluntest artificial element is, no doubt, the 900 km fence surrounding the perimeter of the park. Keeping it has such a high cost that there is an item for it in the National Budget, independent from the park’s income. The presence of the fence has provoked a deluge of letters, but we need to understand that any comparison with a zoo would be absolutely ridiculous, given the immensity of the area it encloses.

Regarding migratory land species, their movements are limited. This is, without any doubt, a habitat alteration, but we need to ask ourselves what would happen if that barrier were not there. These animals would enter neighbouring countries and would probably die at the hands of poachers. They would also be more vulnerable to droughts, because the park provides it when it is scarce. Besides, the fence was set to stop the anthrax epidemic the park suffered in 1960. From a practical standpoint, the fence makes control easier for the guards and hampers the access of poachers who try to kill elephants to trade their ivory or rhinos to trade their horns. They are, at the moment, the worst problem for park authority.

We can find an example of the success of its environmental management in elephants. When the continuator of Kruger’s task, chief guard Stevenson-Hamilton, came to the park, there were no pachyderms… until he discovered five specimens in 1905, sheltered in the lush forests in the north. Monitoring and protection helped the community grow to 25 members. Following that strategy, the population in 1936 was over a hundred and ten years later they spread to the south. Nowadays, there are around 14,000 and some are transferred to other parks where they have disappeared. In some locations they are even a problem because of the damage they cause to trees.

«La tanca de 900 km que envolta tot el parc és la més gran del món»

30l35abcdOn the left, chacma baboon playing with its offspring.
Top centre, they are not easy to spot, but this indigenous cabin was full of bats (Hipposideros caffer).
Top right, cars must move slowly. Otherwise, elephants might ram cars in order to intimidate the visitors, especially in the presence of their offspring.
Bottom centre, intentional fires allow guards to control bush overgrowth and favour tree growth.
Bottom right, this female white rhinoceros stretches on the ground to nurse her offspring, already a little too big.

White rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) are another example of good management. They are one of the favourite trophies for poachers and became extinct in other locations a long time ago. They had to be re-introduced: in 1961 the first four rhinos were transferred. Anaesthetic and transport techniques are not easy with these animals, and they can suffer serious injuries while they are manipulated, they can even die. However, we have learned a lot over the years and repopulation was a success; today it is not even difficult to see one. Despite all that, unfortunately, their horns are very valuable in China and other Asian countries, because of their alleged medical properties, leading to an increase in the number of poachers, and causing the loss of half the population over the last years.

There is a medical team with helicopters that can provide support to any emergency in the park. Doctors carry different antidotes for snake poison, as there are several hemotoxic and neurotoxic ophidia that can be deadly for humans.

Finally, we must remember that in the time the Kruger Park was created (nineteenth century), old, educated and proud Europe preferred colonial wars, and we needed a country from the most remote and unexplored corner of the African continent to show us the way with a very important step towards nature conservation. And, apart from an example for the continent and the whole world, the KNP constituted in South Africa an incentive to modify legislation and a fundamental precedent for the creation of many reserves and parks that appeared throughout the country. Therefore, we have 200 protected spaces in South Africa, turning the country – in the opinion of many experts, as well as ours – into one of the best examples of conservation of natural heritage.

1 Vlei: Stream of water that flows during the rainy season and forms temporary ponds as it dries out. (Go back)
2 Kopje: Low hill that stands out in the plain. (Go back)
3 Veld: South African steppe vegetation (savannah). There are many variations depending on the predominant plant life. (Go back)

Note: All the pictures are of free animals in the KNP, most with Nikon objectives, during the 2013 expedition. The authors are Albert Masó (12 fotos), Lluís Solé (8), Thomas Dressler (8), Oriol Pérez (2), Miquel Àngel P. De Gregorio (1), Francesc & Arnau Jutglar (1), Marta Puig (1), Pepe Martín Cano & Pilar Gurrea (1), Joan Teruel (1) and Francesca Portolés (1).

© Mètode 2013 - 79. Online only. Pathfinders in Science - Autumn 2013
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