Hello from Kruger National Park! At almost 8,000 square miles, it is one of the largest game reserves in the country. This swath of land in the northeastern region of South Africa is home to the big five, the African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and rhinoceros. In addition, there are a few hundred other species of animals residing in the park. Some, like the African wild dog and the Sable, are currently on the IUCN Red List threatened species spectrum, while others, like impala and warthog run amok through base camps. Our base camp, Skukuza, is research based and works in conjunction with the governing body of the park, SANParks, to prevent further loss of the biodiversity. During my stay, I’ve had the privilege of assisting in a great deal of fieldwork. The purpose of this fieldwork is to assess species population sizes and the impacts of threats like invasive species and disease. As researchers, we gained backstage passes to just about the entire park. Insanely cool.
Elephant, rhino, leopard, lion, sable, hyena, wild dog, buffalo, mongoose, springbuck, hippos, tortoises, zebra, giraffe, waterbuck, are among the many animals I’ve been able to see in natural habitats. The only way you are allowed out of your vehicle in KNP is with an armed game guard. Thankfully, as a researcher, and not a tourist, we have game guards traveling with us on almost every outing. This allows for us to do our work and some intense animal spotting. Upon arriving at a site, the procedure is as follows. The game guard, exits the GDV, loads his or her rifle, and takes a walk to determine if the area is safe. Only when we are given the “okay” are we allowed to hop out of our open-air truck. It is important to know that this quick scan dose not guarantee a predator free zone. Walking close together and “keeping your head on the swivel”, as they say here, are requirements when conducting fieldwork in the bush. Fieldwork required for one group I was part of called for sampling and collection at water sites. Our biggest threat were the hippos, which were never happy to have us as guests. Huffing and spraying water, our paths sometimes had to be redirected because the resident hippos were particularly agitated. On one occasion, after being redirected because of hippos closing in on us, we had to find an alternate route from our alternate route because a pack of pachyderms were approaching the waters edge for a drink and a swim. We waited, patiently, for the elephants to pass through, and then quickly walked by the annoyed hippos back to our GDV. It was exhilarating to say the least.
Equally exhilarating were the two evening game drives we took. The park closes to the public after sunset, however with a research permit, we were able to receive special privileges to take expeditions after dark. As many of the parks inhabitants are nocturnal and like to hunt in the evening this was a great way to see a side some additional animals. Listed as vulnerable on the IUCN endangered species list, the African leopard is a challenge to locate due to its low population. It’s unmistakable coat also helps it blend in to the brush to hunt and hide. However, on a very special evening game drive, against the odds, we spotted one about 50 feet from our GDV. Crouched down into the grass and hidden, this cat seemed to take no notice to us. On another evening game drive the following night, our expedition encountered two male lions asleep in the middle of the road! When I say I could have reached out and touched them, I’m not kidding. Also, undaunted by our GDV, we had to ride around the sleeping lions, onto the grass, and back onto the road in order to pass them. The lions like the way that the pavement reflects back heat after baking in the hot African sun all day. Although it is neat to see the ways that animals are adapting to the changes to their natural environment, it makes me wonder how much the world continues to change into a place less and less hospitable to these beautiful creatures. Conservation science is critical to continuing to mitigate relations between man and the rest of the creation and that is an understanding I am developing the more time I spend in KNP.