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.

Nov 1, 1999
Outside Magazine

It wasn't always so. It took the Boers to make the land behave. European interest in the vast malarial plains that include Kruger began in the 1830s, when Dutch settlers of the Cape Colony, at the southern tip of the continent, fled northward to escape the strictures of newly imposed British rule. (The British had, for instance, abolished slavery.) These pioneering voortrekkers went on to establish their own republic, the Transvaal, and in the process slaughtered much of the indigenous wildlife for hides and meat and cleared the land for agriculture. When the British, hearing of gold strikes in the region, followed the Boers north, they brought with them their patrician hobby of trophy hunting. The Boer War, begun in 1899, further depleted wildlife populations; elephants, lions, and rhinoceroses were among the many species hunted close to extinction.


The establishment of the park was inspired in part by the devastation the land suffered during the war and by Afrikaner desire to lay claim to the territory in a seemingly benign manner. The early caretakers of the park were compulsive outdoorsmen who approached wildlife conservation with a missionary zeal. They pushed local people off the land and began an unprecedented experiment in rehabilitating nature. The park was seen as the embodiment of the Boers' hardy spirit and attachment to the land. (The name came later, in 1926, in honor of Paul Kruger, four-term president of the Transvaal, himself a voortrekker and the looming figure in Afrikaner nationalism.) Wildlife numbers rebounded, and mammals whose populations had been decimated were transplanted to the park from other regions.

It takes a lot of work to mount a gleaming spectacle of nature in perpetuity. Willem Gertenbach, the park's general manager of nature conservation and the man responsible for carrying out conservation policy, put it bluntly: "The fact is that we are dealing with artificial controls in the park. The game simply can't move through the fence. And so we compensate for man's intrusions by trying to reproduce nature. I call it 'near-natural management.'"

For years, officials at the near-natural park knew, for instance, that wildfires were a vital means of regenerating soil and vegetation. To simulate nature, then, starting in 1954 the park was divided into 400 blocks, each of which was burned every three years. Lightning fires were extinguished if they had the audacity to hit a block that was not scheduled for burning. The regimen of controlled burning has been phased out in recent years, partly in recognition of what one park naturalist calls its "chronic homogenizing effect on the landscape."

If the park's problem wasn't fire, it was water. Managers at Kruger had to contend with the fact that each of the five major rivers that flow through the territory is depleted by users outside the fences before reaching the park's thirsty residents. Solution: Engineer a water-provision system that would have made WPA dam-builders proud. By the early seventies, Kruger was pocked with 86 earthen dams and more than 450 artificial water holes supplied by windmill-powered pumps. Of course, wildlife that would naturally migrate over the course of a year, tracking the availability of water from season to season, instead remained in place, and vegetation had no time to recover from grazing. In one instance, managers hatched a scheme to nurture endangered roan antelope by bringing water to the corner of the park where they were concentrated. The new sources of water drew large herds of zebras and wildebeests, however, which in turn attracted predators like lions. In short order, the roan were nearly finished off.

As Kruger's approach to management has gradually been liberalized during the nineties, the park has struggled to reverse its tradition of opening the hydrants for wildlife; about a third of the water holes have been allowed to dry up. But water must still be hauled over the fence, as it were, since animals are prevented from freely straying. Scratch Kruger's surface, and you begin to feel you've uncovered the world's biggest and best zoo.

"It's fair to say that Kruger is catching up to the rest of Africa in terms of managing biodiversity," said David Western, former director of Kenya Wildlife Service, when I called him at his home outside Nairobi. "They got caught in a backwater, partly due to apartheid and partly due to an entrenched administration that was resistant to change. They felt they knew how to manage nature, and that was damn well how they would do it. Until very recently, Kruger's management practices have been based on a concept of nature as a static system that continues to improve itself until it achieves a state of perfection. That's a nineteenth-century philosophy, and one that is very nearly the opposite of how we believe ecosystems behave."

In other words, Kruger's managers sought to protect the park and its wildlife from nature itself, and the result was one of the best-looking endangered ecosystems imaginable. Leo Braack, Kruger's general manager of conservation development, acknowledged that the modernization of the park's approach to nature has been helped along by the more general climate of change in postapartheid South Africa. The park's most recent management plan, approved in 1998, is a blueprint drawn up by a younger generation of wildlife scientists. It aims to hoist Kruger into the present by focusing less on species preservation and more on ecosystem preservation.

As Western sees it, the park had little choice but to shake itself up. "I don't think the park could have sustained itself along its old model of management," he said. "For years they've tried to stabilize a fenced-in area, and it's hard to see how diversity can be maintained that way in the long run. Its uniformity makes the park very vulnerable when extreme events, like droughts, occur. Species would have been pushed into extinction."