Eyes on the Veld

Deep in South Africa's interior sprawls Kruger National Park, the crown jewel of game preserves with 2,500 lions, 2,750 rhinos, 8,500 elephants, 30,000 zebras, 100,000 impalas...and 650 miles of boundary wire keeping animals in and poachers out. Welcome to the postmodern Eden, where everyone behaves—or else.

Outside

Outside    

 
 The official cages at Kruger, the ones that actually look like cages, are run by a bearish, laconic man with the coincidental name of Marius Kruger. Kruger is a manager in the renowned game capture unit. If you need to trap, tranquilize, transport, and cage an animal, the people at Kruger, I was assured by an American wildlife veterinarian, are the best in the business. "We capture anything," he told me. "Rhino, elephant, buffalo, lion. It's very technical work."

Kruger gave me a tour of the cages, called bomas, located on the outskirts of Skukuza. Enormous mats, developed to bear loads of ore, had been adapted to haul tranquilized elephants onto flatbed trucks. A series of pens contained a dozen white rhinos that had been sold to wildlife sanctuaries in Australia. The rhinos were becoming acclimatized to restricted mobility and a feeding schedule.

Rhinos that are pegged for captivity are darted with tranquilizers from helicopters. "Once it's down on the ground, we put a cloth over its eyes, tie a rope across its mouth and horn, give it an antidote to partially revive it, then lead it by the rope to its crate," he said. "If everything goes well, the process takes 20 or 30 minutes." The penned rhinos languished in the shade of their cages, the very model of docility.

The most crowded part of the boma complex held about 20 animals participating in something called the Disease-Free Buffalo Breeding Project, a little exercise in wildlife eugenics being undertaken by the park. In the 1950s, before Kruger was fenced in, bovine tuberculosis (BTB) was introduced into the park's buffalo population by contact with outside livestock. Today, close to 90 percent of the substantial herds in the park's southern region are thought to be infected. Predation of sick buffalo by lions has caused the disease to spread widely among the lion population, though Kruger's officials dismiss reports that bony lions are commonly seen staggering around the park. The Disease-Free Buffalo Breeding Project captures pregnant female buffalo in the wild, tests them for BTB, anthrax, and other diseases, and transports the disease-free offspring to other parks in South Africa in hope of establishing a healthy national herd.

Marius Kruger was off that very afternoon to capture some elephants outside the park for relocation to a more suitable habitat. I didn't want to ask him what became of that vast majority of buffalo selected for the project that tested positive for disease. I didn't want to ask him because I knew the answer: They were destroyed.

  

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