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.

Mark Levine

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.


One night this past summer, staring through a wrought-iron gate topped with gleaming strands of electrified wire, I found myself standing only a few feet away from a spotted hyena. We made eye contact, which was all the gate permitted. I was in Kruger National Park, the oldest national park on the African continent and one of the most efficiently run wildlife preserves in the world. Situated in northeastern South Africa, Kruger drifts like an embattled landlocked island within the embrace of a vast fence. It’s a strange place for a wild place to be. I had come to see how Kruger, established in 1898 as a fortified enclave for the pleasure of white animal-lovers, was faring in a post-apartheid world.

Kruger has about it the eerie stillness of the eternal. A long, narrow strip of land about as big as Israel, the park encompasses roughly five million acres of bushland—more than twice the size of Yellowstone—and runs some 260 miles from South Africa’s border with Zimbabwe in the north down almost to Swaziland in the south, glancing warily the entire way over its long eastern boundary fence at Mozambique. The thick brown shrubs and stunted trees on its rolling savanna seem to stretch out endlessly beneath the frosted blue of a painted backdrop. Among its catalog of wonders: 147 species of mammals, 507 species of birds, 116 species of reptiles, 1,745 different plants, and 235 kinds of grass.

Most of the million or so tourists who visit Kruger each year don’t come to look at the grass. In safari-going, which is big money, size counts, and Kruger is the cash cow of the South African national park system. Its profits—close to $10 million in 1998—subsidize smaller parks. Visitation at the park has doubled since the dismantling of apartheid in the early nineties, when, as one park manager told me, “we became acceptable to the world.” The typical pilgrim spends his days cruising Kruger’s 1,650 miles of paved and gravel roads hoping to catch a glimpse of the Big Five: buffalo, elephant, lion, leopard, and rhinoceros. Only the truly unlucky will strike out entirely. The animals, you see, can’t get out. As one leading African ecologist told me, “It’s an apartheid approach to conservation.”

An electrical engineer named Louis Van der Merwe is Kruger’s territorial fencemaster, and he suffers the continual headache of maintaining an estimated 650 miles of boundary wire. Sitting in his drab office in Skukuza, the park’s administrative headquarters, one pleasant afternoon in early August, Van der Merwe, who has a close-cropped beard and a severe and suspicious manner, explained that the fencing of Kruger began in 1961. During Mozambique’s long, South Africa–sponsored civil war, a portion of the fence on the park’s eastern boundary conformed to military standards—meaning it was capable of providing interlopers with a lethal shock. The fence on the western boundary, built to keep out domestic foes, was strung with steel barbs. In recent years, Van der Merwe’s workers have been busy installing a fence that is more in keeping with peacetime conditions; it stands about eight feet high and is composed of five thin lines of electrical wire. “The new fence generates an intermittent pulse of 10,000 volts,” he said. “I tell you, it’s not much. Yes, OK, it gives you a hell of a jolt. It’s not pleasant, I assure you—but it won’t kill you.”

Every morning at 6 a.m., when the gate of the visitors’ compound where I was staying was opened (it closed at 5:30 each evening, and stragglers were penalized with hefty fines), I would drive out and spend some time on the park’s beautifully maintained roads, trying to catch a glimpse of the animals that Kruger’s staff of 3,800 works so hard to fence in. I was rarely disappointed. It seemed as if the roadsides were littered with clusters of tawny impalas, their antlers swept back and their hindquarters marked with a black blaze like a brushstroke. Tallied at well over 100,000, they’re the common pigeon of the territory. Blue wildebeests, sables, bushbucks, and waterbucks were less ubiquitous, but I encountered groups of them numerous times, as well as the occasional pride of lions reclining in the shade along the road, cooperating with the clicking shutters of amateur photographers. I would drive up a hill and come upon a vista of open terrain overrun by a huge herd of galloping zebras (Kruger has 30,000) or catch a sudden glimpse of masses of African buffalo (21,000) beside a stagnant pond. Once, when I stopped to watch some hippos wallowing in the mud along a riverbank right beside a pair of enormous crocodiles, I was taken aback by the sight of a giraffe chewing the leaves of an acacia tree not 30 feet beyond them; a few minutes later, five elephants moved out of the trees to wade in the stream. It gave me a hell of a jolt.

I was seeing the world as the fence-builders had intended it to be seen. Yet I was too disarmed by the park’s beauty to ask myself if the zebras could no longer distinguish between wet and dry seasons because of hundreds of artificial watering holes, or what might befall the elephants if the park’s guardians determined—as they traditionally have—that the size of the population was growing out of hand. Nor did I ask myself why it seemed that Kruger provided adequate representation of all indigenous species but one—African humans.

Such questions tend not to occur to those who spend time inside the fence—the fence that, true enough, was nowhere in sight from my vantage point each morning. Still, I knew that somewhere in the background, behind the groves of bushwillow and fever trees, the fence was there, doing its job, protecting the animals and maintaining the territory in a state of astonishing beauty, serenity, and artificially guaranteed wildness. Good fences make good nature.




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.”




In the mid-1970s, when the political chaos wrought by decolonization throughout most of Africa trickled down into nature conservation and poachers began to plunder the elephant and rhinoceros herds, Kruger knew how to respond. The park was, after all, an inextricable part of the culture, and in South Africa the white minority—less than 15 percent of the population—had proved extraordinarily adept at building and maintaining fences, real and metaphoric. Thus the safeguarding of what Kruger faithful refer to as “wilderness values” was left to men of action like Ken Maggs.

The trim, no-nonsense leader of the national park system’s Environmental Crimes Investigation Service, Maggs has been the mastermind behind Kruger’s war against poaching since 1994. The walls of his office, set off on an unmarked dirt road outside Skukuza, are covered with maps of Kruger dotted with colored pins indicating poaching activity. Charts display the black market value of rhino horns and elephant tusks, and the kinds of firearms used by poachers. “Instead of waiting for the criminal to come to our national parks, we go out and look for him,” Maggs said. “We try to disorient him, disrupt him, eliminate him.” Maggs has a degree in wildlife management and did police work for South Africa in the former Rhodesia, so, as he said, “I’ve kind of amalgamated my two interests.” His task force employs spies to infiltrate suspected bands of poachers and pays informants in the black townships surrounding Kruger for tips on criminal schemes that are being hatched. “We’ve been very, very successful,” he said.


Indeed, in 1998, five white rhinos out of a population of about 2,500 and only three of Kruger’s 8,500 or so elephants were killed by poachers. “Even a single loss is unacceptable to us,” Maggs said. “If you don’t respond, the situation can get out of hand very quickly.” There have been gun battles in the veld, Maggs acknowledges, and poachers—typically poor ex-military men from Mozambique with good knowledge of the bush and access to firearms—have been killed.

The commandants of the park’s security force are the 22 section rangers, each of whom is responsible for controlling vast tracts of land, up to 250,000 acres apiece, with only a team of laborers and a squad of eight to 12 field rangers. Gertenbach calls them “the eyes on the veld.” One morning, I drove north from park headquarters to a deserted outpost called Houtboschrand to meet Gert Erasmus, the 51-year-old ranger who oversees a 230,000-acre section in the narrow center of the park, an area with few roads and no tourist facilities. A bullet-headed man with a gray crew cut, Erasmus was wearing military fatigues with the pants legs tucked into black combat boots. He had little time for conversation. He had been roused late the previous night, he said, to investigate an incident. A van driver had been transporting an ailing park employee back from a visit to the doctor when he collided with a rhinoceros. Erasmus had two immediate tasks at hand: to determine the condition of the rhino, and to see if the driver’s actions required disciplinary response.

I hopped into the passenger seat of Erasmus’s Toyota 4Runner. A hand-tooled leather rifle case lay across the dashboard. Behind me, in the backseat, sat a silent and queasy-looking black man—the sick linen-room worker who had been in the van when the accident occurred. Field rangers had been following the rhino’s tracks all morning, Erasmus said, but hadn’t yet located the animal. There was no blood trail at the site of impact, which was a good sign, as was the absence of vultures in the sky. “Most game is extremely resilient,” Erasmus noted, peering in the rearview mirror at the man in the backseat. “Unlike people.”

We drove to the accident scene. Erasmus took out his rifle and instructed me and the worker to follow him as he measured the skid marks in long strides. “Stay close to me,” he ordered. “We don’t want lions eating anyone while we’re walking about.” The driver, Erasmus surmised, might have been drifting off to sleep; the length of the skid indicated he had been speeding. “I can’t say officially,” said Erasmus, unofficially, “but discipline will surely be called for.”

We got back into the car, drove for awhile, and then pulled off the road and waited by a dry riverbed for Erasmus’s field rangers to report to him. He relaxed considerably, pointing out wild figs and a thick-trunked sausage tree, commented on the quality of the grasses, and observed that lala palm trees like the one in whose shade we were resting provided a potent beer for local Africans. Erasmus was a naturalist with a big gun.

Soon, a pickup truck pulled up with a group of rangers, each carrying a .760 R1 automatic rifle capable of putting down a charging elephant and making a mess of charging poachers. They’d tracked the rhino all morning and found nothing, a good indication that it hadn’t been badly harmed. All the field rangers in Kruger—who are organized as sergeants, corporals, and privates—are black. Erasmus bantered with his troops in Tsonga, a local language. There was evident affection between the commander and his staff, and it was just as evident who was in charge. I asked him whether the application of a military model of management to a national park seemed excessive, or at least incongruous. “This park is man’s creation,” he explained. “We put up a fence and we created something. Now we have no choice. We have to manage it.”



Kruger’s “general code of conduct” for visitors lists 18 items, 17 of which begin with the phrase “It is an offense.” (The 18th employs, for variety’s sake, the injunction “You may not.”) I felt like I was reading Leviticus. “It is an offense,” begins item number 11, “to drive or park in such a manner that is a nuisance, disturbance, or inconvenience to other people.”

On entering the park, you will have your trunk searched for contraband, and you will be handed a “travel document” that you must carry everywhere. Your travel document will remind you that when heading off on a self-guided “game drive,” the primary form of recreation in the park, you must “stay in your car at all times,” or at least until you’ve reached an official, fenced-in rest camp. That is, of course, for your own protection; there are real wild animals out there. (In 1998, a refugee was devoured by lions, and a park ranger was killed by a leopard.) The speed limit is a strictly enforced 50 kilometers (31 miles) per hour. On my third day in the park, I was caught cruising ten miles per hour over the limit and flagged down by a pistol-waving patrolman. I surrendered my passport; he gave me a stern lecture. “How long do you stay in Kruger?” he asked, initially addressing me in Afrikaans, which is, much to the chagrin of Afrikaners, no longer the sole official language of South Africa. Two more weeks, I replied. “Then you are in trouble,” he said. “You speed again, we expel you from the park.”


If you are inclined to experience Kruger on foot and you’re one of the lucky few who has reserved a coveted spot on a “bush walk,” you will walk in a single file, accompanied at the front of the line by a voluble white section ranger and trailed by a silent black assistant, both carrying automatic rifles. I went on one such stroll in the remote northwestern fringe of the park. My chipper guide, Frank Watts, wore tight khaki shorts and bright green gaiters and took my group along the banks of the sluggish Letaba River, which was lined by thickets of mapane trees. Watts enthusiastically pointed out the remarkable, sand-castle-like formations of termite mounds, which spiraled ten feet above the ground; implored us to admire a herd of grazing waterbucks; and instructed us to listen to the exhalations of hippos wading in the current. Wilson, the black assistant, scouted the terrain for signs of danger like a Secret Service marksman. It was hard not to feel like a prisoner allowed out for his hour of recreation.


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.



I was so preoccupied by the dazzling sight of one-legged Carlos Bastos operating the manual transmission of his Kruger-issue Toyota four-wheel-drive that I almost failed to notice our passage through the fence surrounding the Sand River By-Products Plant, a low-slung building that looks like an airplane hangar, located not three miles from Skukuza. Bastos, a stout, bearded man of Portuguese descent, arrived in Kruger 25 years ago, via Mozambique. He was my favorite Krugerite—cheerful and utterly free of bullshit. Bastos was the foreman at the park’s slaughterhouse (euphemistically referred to as the game-processing plant), where for 26 years elephants were made into steak, stew, jerky—lots and lots of jerky—as well as pet food, soap, and some of the more distasteful souvenir-stall items known to man, such as the elephant-foot end table. “We use everything!” Bastos exclaimed. “Nothing is wasted!” The slaughterhouse has been idle for the past five years, but it may be back in business soon.

We stood outside the abattoir on a sloped loading dock that led to an enormous steel door. “The elephants would arrive here in the middle of the night,” Bastos recalled, “and the process would begin. Once it starts you don’t stop until you’re done. At maximum capacity we could process 800 elephants each season, a maximum of three bulls each day, or a herd of 12 to 15 elephants of various sizes. A big bull weighs about 11,000 pounds and can produce between 1,750 and 3,300 pounds of meat.” Most of the meat was packed in tins with gravy—over 3,000 eight-ounce cans for a typical batch—and distributed to staff as rations. The rest was made into biltong—jerky—and sold in shops in the park. “I like elephant meat,” Bastos said. “It’s leaner than you’d think, and quite tasty. I can’t tell you the recipe for the biltong. It’s a secret.”

In 1994, Kruger, bowing to pressure from wildlife advocacy groups, imposed a moratorium on the culling of its elephant herds. Unpleasant as it sounds, however, there is broad agreement by scientists inside and outside the park that elephants represent the gravest threat to Kruger’s preservation of biodiversity. Mature elephants consume about 300 pounds of vegetation each day, and herds can turn a woodland into a barren moonscape with alarming speed. Alone among the species in Kruger, elephants have no natural predators, and their population is largely unaffected by drought. If Kruger’s elephant herds were to grow without controls and remain fenced in, they could drive the park’s other species to starvation.

The best estimate that Kruger’s wildlife managers could formulate, based on data from other countries, was that the landscape can tolerate on average one elephant per square mile—in Kruger’s case, about 7,500 animals. So, in order to maintain that population, from 1967 to 1994 Kruger killed between 300 and 600 elephants a year. And starting in 1968, the carcasses were gutted in the field and shipped to the Sand River By-Products Plant.

No matter how efficient the process, elephant killing is a messy business. The rangers and their field staff are the ones charged with the task of culling, and they do not relish the work. “We’re the same guys who are putting our lives on the line to protect the animals,” ranger Gert Erasmus told me, “and when the time comes, we’re the ones who have to kill them. It’s a hard thing to do.” A wildlife photographer who witnessed a cull in the 1980s described the roundup of elephants as terrifying. “After a while, the vultures knew what the presence of helicopters meant, and they would follow the choppers as they chased the elephants into clearings,” he said. Sharpshooters would dart the animals from the air with scoline, a potent muscle relaxant that induces paralysis. Rangers would then rush in to brain-shoot the paralyzed elephants, to minimize their suffering, before they died of suffocation. The carcasses were gutted and the pecking order of scavengers—vulture, hyena, jackal—would descend.

“Kenya and Tanzania control their elephant populations by poaching,” one park manager told me with disgust. “We controlled ours by culling.” Then South Africa got caught in the wide net cast by groups like the World Wildlife Fund, which started the elephant-preservation campaign in the late eighties. But after exhaustive attempts to sell its excess elephants to other wildlife preserves proved futile, and after efforts to develop elephant contraceptives produced grotesque results—elephant cows in perpetual heat, besieged by confused bulls—Kruger recently decided to resume killing its herds. This time, the roundup will proceed, more palatably, in the name of biodiversity. Instead of maintaining a constant population of 7,500 elephants, Kruger will allow the numbers to fluctuate, culling only after managers have determined that the habitat needs relief. The process is new, the rationale is new, only the carcasses remain the same.

“I’ve done the slaughtering, the deboning, all the jobs here,” Bastos told me. “I’m ready to get back to work.” Until the slaughterhouse reopens, Bastos has been given tasks for which he has no heart, like conducting a count of the 4,000 or so pieces of ivory, weighing around 60,000 pounds, that lie in a vault in a nondescript park building. Park managers eagerly hope that when CITES, the international treaty organization governing the sale of endangered species, meets in April 2000, it will recognize their good management practices and allow Kruger to sell off its ivory stock, which would be a financial boon. “It’s a peaceful life,” said Bastos, philosophically, as a guard chained the gate of the slaughterhouse behind us. “The pay isn’t so high, but, you know, you can’t buy happiness.”



Apartheid may be over, but the Kruger experience, at least for visitors, remains white, white, white. Joep Stevens, general manager of commercial development and tourism, guessed that as a percentage of the park’s overnight visitors, blacks are represented in single digits. I saw no more than a handful of rather uncomfortable-looking black visitors during the two weeks I spent in the park. I asked Cindy Hart, a young Afrikaner intern in Kruger’s public relations office, why she thought so few blacks visited Kruger. “The blacks came from the bush,” she said. “Why would they want to go back and visit it?”

“Until ’94,” confided William Mabasa, the park’s black public relations director, “there were two groups in the park: masters and servants.” Black park workers were housed in cramped, run-down quarters, and the school in the staff village at Skukuza was for whites only, with Afrikaans the language of instruction. Since then the park has aggressively recruited blacks for management positions. David Mabunda, who was appointed park director in 1998—and who once called Kruger “the last paradise of apartheid”—is black, as are two of the seven highest-ranking managers and five of the 22 section rangers. Many whites have quit, and others continue to worry about job security. “My son, who is in university, would love to work here, but there’s no place for him at Kruger for at least the next ten years,” ranger Gert Erasmus told me. “For myself, I know I won’t become a director because I’m white and Afrikaner and we ran the park in the past. That’s reality.”

Whites who have remained at Kruger know another dictate of the new reality: that cheerful lip service be given to the notion of “improving relations with local communities.” For the first time in its history, Kruger needs to prove that it deserves the support of a new society. (It has already received substantial cuts in its government subsidies.) Four million of South Africa’s poorest rural blacks live in townships adjoining the park. “In the past, there was a lot of animosity between the park and our neighboring communities,” said tourism manager Stevens. “We said, ‘Here’s the fence line. We’re here; you’re there.’ We’re trying to diversify our product for disadvantaged South Africans. People want to drop off their picnic basket, put on the ghetto blaster, stretch out on the lawn, and relax. This doesn’t fit into the way it was in the old Kruger. But we have to understand that we are in a new situation. The park can’t afford to isolate itself.”

Among the new initiatives developed at Kruger is a division called Social Ecology, which manages outreach programs with the bordering townships. On one of my last afternoons at Kruger, I drove around on the other side of the fence with Philemon Ngomane, a rail-thin, world-weary bricklayer and carpenter who had been hired by Social Ecology to train a group of woodcarvers to make and market souvenirs for tourists. It was like entering another country. Instead of thickets of green and red bushes and vast expanses of stunted mapane trees, the earth was a dust bowl, cracked and bare from overgrazing. The sides of the highway were crowded with men herding goats, children pushing wheelbarrows full of water jugs, women haggling at fruit stands. We turned down a rutted lane strewn with trash. Houses were constructed of cinder blocks or scrap wood or dried mud. None had indoor plumbing, Ngomane said, and very few had electricity. We pulled over to talk to a group of residents. Kruger was six miles away.

“No, I’ve never been to the park,” one man said. “None of us have been. I’d like to see the animals, but I can’t afford to go.” Another man, who identified himself as Lucas, stepped forward and said angrily, “When it rains, sometimes lions come here from the park and kill our cattle, and the park does nothing—and they won’t even let us shoot the lion.” Elephants, Lucas continued, have also breached the fence and trampled the crops in nearby villages. (News reports credit holes in decrepit stretches of fence for the occasional lion or elephant escape.) “We have no ‘relationship’ with the park,” he said.

Ngomane and I returned to the park, entering through the Paul Kruger Gate, near a garish granite statue of the father of Boer independence. Ngomane’s apprentice woodcarvers were whittling away at blocks of jacaranda wood under a canvas tent by the side of the road. Despite the initiative that the park had taken to encourage their work, the woodcarvers had little goodwill toward Kruger. “We remember what the park did to us,” Ngomane said, “and we have a hard time getting past our anger.” What was he referring to? I asked. “Skukuza,” he said.

Skukuza was the name given by Africans to James Stevenson-Hamilton, park warden from 1902 to 1946 and the man responsible for evicting the indigenous people from the territory of the newly established national park. Skukuza translates roughly as “he who scrapes the earth clean.” It is not a term of endearment for Africans, though it became the name of the park’s headquarters. The park also boasts a Stevenson-Hamilton Memorial Library and Centre.

“Skukuza pushed us off our land, and he killed our cattle,” Ngomane continued. “Why’d he do that? For an African, our cattle is our bank. If I have ten cattle, I’m rich. He made us poor, and he pushed us outside the park, where we live crowded close to each other. There’s a lot of hatred for Skukuza.”

I stopped to watch the woodcarvers. One was working on an ostrich; another was scooping out a pair of eyes on a bird. They would blacken them in a fire, shine them with shoe polish, and finish them with a few strokes of paint. A man named Maxon Nyathi had spread his carvings on the ground. I bent down to grab an oddly beautiful bird with flaring orange and blue tail feathers and a red beak. Was this, I wondered, what people who live on the other side of the fence imagine birds to be? I offered to buy one of Nyathi’s carvings, a strange mottled creature with a football-shaped body and a beak curved sharply down. Ngomane intervened. “You want that one?” he asked. “It doesn’t even look like a bird.”



After two weeks inside the fence at Kruger, I went home to New York. I found myself drawn to the Bronx Zoo, where I strolled through the African section of the park. I saw a lion lapsed in the shade and a cheetah circling again and again on its few hundred feet of dirt path. I watched large families of Hasidic Jews, dressed in heavy black clothing, watching giraffes, and picnic-basket-bearing Latinos watching zebras. I passed people speaking Russian and Chinese, and I passed many blacks, far from Africa, who’d come to see the African animals. It was as if we shared the belief that a few hours of looking at beasts might make us each a little less beastly ourselves. In Kruger, the experience of wildlife had offered me no such consolation.

When the zoo closed we all headed to the subway and decamped to our various neighborhoods, where in all likelihood we lived surrounded by others with the same skin color as our own. On the long ride home I considered how rare it is that I venture into a black area in my own city—as rare, I suspect, as a white South African visiting a black township. And I thought how white the faces tend to be in our own national parks—often located on land from which our own indigenous people had long ago been removed. And before the subway went underground, I gazed out the window at all the fences in the tenements and schools and rubble-strewn vacant lots.

The best game drive I took in Kruger was with Ronnie Lubisi, a 29-year-old Swazi I’d befriended. He worked as a security guard at the Skukuza rest camp and lived just outside the park. When his eight-day tour of duty was over I offered him a ride home. He wanted to drive my rental car, and Avis be damned, I agreed. Ronnie had never driven a car before. We rolled down the windows, and he proceeded to troll through Kruger in a wonderfully jerky zigzag. Each time he craned his neck to look at an animal, the car swerved. He was having a great time. He opened a can of beer and gained speed. The patrolman manning a radar gun glanced at us querulously as we drove past. “I love the animals,” Ronnie said. “One day I will bring my wife and son here to see the animals.”

Ronnie wanted to surprise his wife by returning home behind the wheel of a car, and as we pulled up she seemed afraid at first, and then incredulous. Ronnie’s house was a two-room wooden shack on a squatter’s dirt plot in Mantangaleni, which had recently been renamed Mandela Village, less than a hundred yards from Kruger’s fence. He had plans to build himself a bigger house; bricks that he had formed by hand were piled in a corner of the yard. When his wife told him that one of their hens had been stolen while he was off working in Kruger, Ronnie became glum. “Poached!” he shouted. “Very poor people living here,” he added, gesturing toward the neighboring shacks. We sat on a tiny square of lawn that Ronnie had planted in front of his house, a patch of dust-fringed green as neatly trimmed as any lawn in a Kruger rest camp. “I cut it with scissors,” he said. “I’ve got no machine.”

We sat and drank beer and talked about animals and about apartheid and about Ronnie’s hopes for the future. His wife was seven months pregnant. She stood a few feet away from us, barefoot and shy. I asked her name.

“Mercy,” she said.

“In English,” asked Ronnie, “what is the meaning of ‘Mercy’?”

I thought about it for a minute. I could see a line of cars, Mercedes and BMWs and Toyotas, rushing to reach Kruger before the curfew. I had to get back there, too. “Mercy,” I said, “is a combination of love and forgiveness. If someone has harmed you, and you forgive him, that’s mercy.”

Ronnie paused. He stared at me hard. “Yes, I understand.”

Contributing editor Mark Levine teaches at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Trending on Outside Online