Copyright © 2004 Struik Publishers Cape Town. All rights reserved.
Above: A simple bronze plaque on the imposing Shirimantanga Koppie - Stevenson-Hamilton's favourite retreat - honours the man who devoted 44 years to the development of the Park.
The Lowveld plains have been traversed by a host of travellers in search of fortune, but few memorials indicate their paths or recall their endeavours. A clump of tall marula trees, a colossal baobab, a patch of ash - all are silent witnesses to the many explorers who have passed by in search of gold, ivory, trophies and adventure. Likewise, while Kruger appears to be an unspoiled relic of a formerly vast wilderness, and still retains many of the natural ecological forces that governed the region in the past.
The Park is also very much the product of the historical events that took place in South Africa during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In order to comprehend how much of the present was fashioned by the past, it is necessary to delve into history and trace the human pathways that have intersected and merged together to produce one of the world's foremost wildlife sanctuaries.
Eventually, a proclamation signed by President Paul Kruger was published on 26 March 1898 establishing the Sabi Game Reserve. At Paul Kruger Gate this granite statue commemorates the president of the ZAR. This game reserve, a 4 600-square-kilometre wedge of land bordered by the Crocodile and Sabie rivers, was the largest of the reserves established by the ZAR. It had taken nearly nine years from President Kruger's speech in the Volksraad, in which he proposed setting aside reserves throughout the republic, to the date of proclamation.The post of Warden was created later in the year, but progress in developing the reserve was soon halted by the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War on 11 October 1899. When the war ended in May 1902, Milner's caretaker government in Pretoria reproclaimed three of the ZAR's reserves.The following morning I saw, in the flesh, a reedbuck ewe, a duiker and two jackal and in the evening was much heartened by the appearance of a herd of nearly thirty impala.' With the military discipline that he had acquired at Sandhurst, and while serving as an officer in the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons in Natal, Stevenson-Hamilton devoted his energies to his newly-chosen career and within a year he convinced his superiors in Pretoria of the need to triple the size of the Sabi Reserve.
In 1902 Stevenson-Hamilton estimated that the Sabi Game Reserve contained a relic 5 giraffe, 5 tsessebe, 8 buffalo, 12 sable, 15 hippo, 35 kudu, 40 blue wildebeest, 100 waterbuck and large numbers of impala, reedbuck, steenbok and grey duiker. A decade later he was able to report that the Sabi and Singwitsi reserves together sustained 25 elephant, 200 hippo, 250 giraffe, 250 buffalo, 1 500 sable, 3 000 zebra, 4 500 blue wildebeest, 1 000 tsessebe, 1 500 kudu, 6 000 waterbuck and 7 000 impala.In 1912 he presented a plan to the British Colonial Secretary, Sir Patrick Duncan, and General Jan Smuts, Minister of Finance, Interior and Defence, recommending that the two consolidated reserves should be declared a national park. As antelope numbers increased, so predators increased proportionately.
Stevenson-Hamilton's belief that lions are an essential ingredient of the Park's ecosystem was not supported by many of his game rangers. But in 1949 Sandenbergh re-instated the predator control programme, arguing that predators were living off the 'capital' and not on surplus game as nature had intended.
When Sandenbergh resigned in 1953, Senior Ranger Steyn became Warden. His appointment coincided with the end of a severe 10-year drought in the Lowveld, and significant declines in sable, roan, tsessebe, waterbuck and reedbuck were noted, all water-dependent species that also require tall grassland.
Steyn was concerned, arguing that the Kruger National Park in South Africa owed its existence to predator control programmes, and these controls were therefore essential for maintaining a balance between predators and prey. While public opinion in the 1920s had favoured lion eradication, in the 1950s opinions had undergone a dramatic swing in favour of their protection.To avoid further criticism, it was decided that details of the control programme would be kept secret, and would not be included in the annual reports presented to Parliament. The programme was stepped up and cheetah, leopard and wild dog were also killed. In 1956 a new proposal recommended removing 40 per cent of all lions, and it was only after a lengthy presentation by the Park's assistant biologist, Dr U de V Pienaar, that the culling plan was amended two years later.So, despite Stevenson-Hamilton's early reservations, it was only in 1960 that the last vestiges of the original Victorian 'deer park' philosophy finally disappeared and the regular culling of predators ceased. With the wisdom of hindsight, it appears that arguments for controlling predators were unfounded. No natural system will continue in a state of imbalance indefinitely. A shortage of available prey will soon result in a decline in predators as it becomes increasingly difficult for them to locate food.
After a century of dedicated conservation, Kruger Park is currently home to 100 000 impala, 21 000 buffalo, 13 000 wildebeest, 4 000 kudu, smaller populations of 13 other antelope species, 29 000 zebra, 9 000 elephant, 5 500 giraffe, 2 600 white rhino, 2 300 hippo, 1 500 warthog, 2 000 lion, 2 000 spotted hyaena, 1 000 leopard, 360 wild dog and 180 cheetah.
Although the Park safeguards an abundance of wildlife, some regions, especially the northern mopaneveld, are classified as dry savanna where fluctuations in rainfall and wildlife numbers are common. Accurate rainfall records have been kept at Skukuza since 1908, and careful analysis of records indicates wet and dry cycles that last approximately 10 years.
Within a 10-year cycle there may be one or two years that deviate from the norm, but the general pattern will indicate either a wet or dry phase. In dry years, despite decades of careful management, declines in certain species can be dramatic.
During the drought of 1992/3, buffalo plummeted by 48 per cent, while some species such as kudu, waterbuck, tsessebe, roan and sable had begun to decrease from 1986 onwards. Conversely, the drought had virtually no effect on zebra, wildebeest, giraffe, elephant and white rhino.
As part of a new move to minimise human interference, six elephant management zones have been proposed for Kruger. While Stevenson-Hamilton believed in 'a balance of Nature', evidence suggests that the natural environment is never in a constant state of equilibrium, and is continuously influenced by weather patterns, fire and fluctuating wildlife populations. Nature is therefore never in a balance, or at least not in the way that humans interpret the term.Copyright © 2004 Struik Publishers Cape Town. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without the permission of the author is prohibited.Siyabona Africa recommended books on Kruger National Park: Authors: Nigel Dennis & Michael Brett.