The lowveld has always been considered a hunter’s paradise despite the depredations of malaria and sleeping sickness that made summer visits to the region a health risk. By the mid-1800s the area had all but been decimated of game by hunters who operated in an unregulated environment. The loss of wildlife was further compounded by an outbreak of rinderpest in 1896 which led to the deaths of thousands of animals.
The disastrous depletion of game was brought to the attention of the president of the Transvaal Boer Republic, Paul Kruger, who in 1898 proclaimed the Sabie Game Reserve, a 4 600 square-kilometre area between the Crocodile and Sabie Rivers. In the face of virulent opposition from private landowners and hunters, he also proclaimed a second reserve, the Shingwedzi Reserve, which stretched between the Shingwedzi and Luvuvhu Rivers. These original reserves formed the core of what is the Kruger Park today.
Control of the region only became effective after the end of the Anglo-Boer War when James Stevenson-Hamilton was appointed head ranger of both reserves in 1902. With a small force of rangers he enthusiastically enforced his mandate to let animals rule – and made himself unpleasant to anyone getting in his way. He vigorously set about removing people from the demarcated reserve including the indigenous populations who had lived in the area for hundreds of years, earning him his nickname of “Skukuza” (“he who sweeps clean”).
Stevenson Hamilton’s battle was not only against hunters and poachers, but against sheep farmers and mining entrepreneurs who all perceived that they had a prior claim to the land. His vision of creating a national park that would be sustained by tourism came to fruition in 1926. That was when the Shingwedzi and Sabie Reserves were merged and the 70 privately owned farms between them were purchased by the government to form a consolidated block of land – the Kruger National Park.
The Park was opened to tourism in 1927 and, after a slow start (only three cars entered the Reserve in that ﬁrst year), Kruger soon turned into a popular destination. Within a decade, 3 600 kilometres of roads had been built and several camps established.
By 1950 a research station and rest camp had been developed at Skukuza, transforming Stevenson-Hamilton’s base into the “capital” of Kruger. By 1969 the Park was fenced in by 18 000 kilometres of wire and poles. In the 1960s and 1970s there was enormous pressure on the government to allow the northern part of Kruger to be mined for coal, but this was resisted and the Park was rededicated to conservation.
In the 1990s Kruger went through a process of commercialization by which certain services and activities were outsourced and a number of new private camps were allowed to develop. In 2002 visitor numbers to Kruger topped the one million mark for the ﬁrst time.
During this same year the dream of a transnational park was realized when agreement was ﬁnally reached between South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique to merge conservation areas in their respective countries to form the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park. Once this process is complete the transfrontier park will be the biggest game reserve in the world.