There's a classic song that goes "tie a yellow ribbon round the old oak tree", but a group of people are now tying yellow ribbons around the aerials and rear view mirrors of their cars and adorning their bush equipment with yellow ribbons when they visit the Kruger National Park. They are members of the widespread Kruger fan club but belong to a special sub-group, united through the Sanparks website, known as forumites.
Since the new Sanparks website went online and the interactive message board, or forum, was launched in late 2004 over 5,000 people have signed up to view webcam pictures and to talk about matters that affect Kruger and other national parks. As the chats on the forums evolved, a certain spirit grew amongst the forum members, and they decided to progress beyond the anonymity of cyberspace.
The decision was made that forum members should identify themselves with a yellow ribbonwhen they visited a national park. With the internet reaching into homes around the globe, people from different cultures and different countries, united by their passion for wildlife and Kruger, have met online and followed through on land with their yellow ribbons.
At any given time, there is almost certainly someone online on the forum. The website has recorded over 100 people online simultaneously, with peak traffic times being 08h00 to 10h00, 12h00 to 13h00, 15h00 to 16h00 and again in the evening from 18h00 to 22h00.
The forum contains more than just chitchat about day to day events, although there is a place for that, but factual information about a variety of issues is posted and updated. Popular topics on the forum include recent sightings in parks, the elephant culling debate, camps and roads, birds, animals, wildlife photography, service in the Kruger's shops and cafes, safari vehicle operators, Kruger's rhinos for sale – the number of webpages devoted to forum comments is enormous and debate is wide ranging.
Discussions around birds are one of the most popular forums, with over 200 separate topics. Each forum is divided into a number of topics, depending how conversations progress on a particular subject. There are six forum moderators, who keep an eye on the forums on a volunteer basis, and help choose when to split topics into sub-topics.
Originally ordinary forum members, the quality of their posts onto the website made them stand out from the others, and they were approached by Nedret Saidova, the Sanparks e-commerce manager, to moderate the forum. The moderators ensure that the quality of posts is high, that no one is breaking the rules of the website or posting offensive or annoying material.
Four of the moderators are South African, and two come from overseas, but they are all intimately familiar with Kruger. Along with the moderators, there are also gurus. A guru is a Sanparks employee who participates online and helps clarify matters or explain more about park policies and other matters. Not all Sanparks employees who go onto the forums are gurus, but the plan is to increase the number of gurus.
To know who's who online, each forumite has a user name. This is usually a nickname rather than the person's proper name. Accompanying the name is often an avatar – a small image designed to represent the user's profile. Users can personalise their presence online using these avatars, but also by adding little sayings at the base of their messages.
Messages are usually peppered with emoticons, showing how the person is feeling, as well as abbreviations (like LOL – laugh out loud) that are explained for novices on another page. Another way in which forumites show appreciation for each other is through nominating people for virtual ranger status.
If one forum member feels that another has made a particularly apt comment, they can nominate the person for a kudu. The moderators then score the nominations, and members are awarded virtual ranger status. A little kudu logo appears below the person's user name when they post a message so that others can see their status.
Forum members do not just make meaningful comments online, they have also made meaningful contributions in the real world. Their passion for the Orpen webcam led to contributions to buy the Satara webcam, and they have bought bricks for My Acre of Africa. On a more personal level, they have also recognised the contribution Frank Mabasa was making to the birding experience at the Pafuri picnic spot, and chipped in to buy him binoculars and bird books.
Binoculars and bird books were also given to Daniel Mabasa at Hippo Pools. Plans are currently being made online for a mini-meeting of forumites in Berg en Dal in August. Here many forum members will meet in person, proudly displaying their allegiance to the Sanparks website and the Kruger National Park with their trademark yellow ribbons. To learn more about the forums log onto www.sanparks.org/forums.