The Krugers Past
Images of a Great African Park

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.

From Thulamela to the Trekkers

At the beginning of the fifteenth century the Rozvi Kingdom centred on Great Zimbabwe splintered into several fragments. One offshoot migrated south across the Limpopo and built a stone-walled citadel on the cliffs overlooking the east bank of the Luvuvhu River, in what is now the northernmost corner of Kruger. At the entrance, on the hill summit, the King's personal guards would escort visitors into the stone-walled enclosure where skilled artisans fashioned gold necklaces, beads and bracelets.Together with ivory these ornaments were exchanged for commodities such as glass beads from India, porcelain from China and iron gongs from West Africa. Thulamela shows that there were highly advanced indigenous settlements in the Lowveld centuries before the area was first explored by European hunters and later settled by missionaries, traders and miners.

For a variety of reasons, the indigenous peoples had a limited impact on wildlife numbers. Although there is evidence that ivory was a major trade item, and trade with Arab and Asian lands can be traced back many centuries, the amount of ivory consumed did not pose a significant threat to the elephant population.When Europeans began arriving in the Cape from 1652, however, they viewed wildlife as an abundant and limitless resource, and rapidly set about exterminating it with the aid of firearms. By 1800, elephant, buffalo, rhino, hippo and lion were all extinct in the settled regions of the Cape.

In the 1830s many Afrikaners trekked away from the Cape, and established independent republics. North of the Vaal River, the settlers created several rival republics, but by 1860 they were consolidated into the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR), a 300 000-square-kilometre territory stretching from the Vaal River to the Limpopo River. The economy of the new republic depended on the exploitation of wildlife, in particular elephant, and it was not long before big game was exterminated on the more hospitable, plateau regions.

The First Wildlife Sanctuaries

Like lightning striking iron-rich hills, the crack of gunfire soon reverberated across the quiet valleys of the Lowveld. The discovery of gold in 1871, near Sabie, brought many fortune-seekers to the area and hastened the demise of wildlife. When Percy FitzPatrick drove his wagons through the region in 1885, big game had already disappeared from the Lowveld, and there is no mention in his famous book - Jock of the Bushveld - of elephant, rhino, hippo, giraffe or eland.
Although there was growing concern over the rapid destruction of wildlife in the ZAR, the government was slow to respond. The establishment of game sanctuaries was first debated in the Volksraad (People's Council) in August 1889, but it took five years before the first game reserve  was gazetted on 13 June 1894.

This reserve, a 175-square-kilometre corridor comprising seven farms in the extreme southeastern corner of the ZAR, arguably represented the first serious attempt to protect wildlife on the African continent, and a major portion of the original sanctuary has survived to the present day.Four other reserves were proclaimed in the ZAR before the nucleus of the Kruger Park, the Sabi Game Reserve, was established. Several members of the Volksraad were in favour of setting aside a large area in the Lowveld, but the ZAR government appeared to be in no hurry and uncontrolled hunting persisted. Representatives Loveday and Van Wijk introduced a motion in September 1895 compelling the government to act, but no progress was made until Loveday again raised the matter two years later.

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 the same year the Singwitsi Game Reserve, incorporating 9 000 square kilometres of land between the Letaba and Luvuvhu rivers, was proclaimed. Although Stevenson-Hamilton had not been involved in this proclamation, he was delighted at the news and appointed Major Fraser, a fellow Scot, as Warden of Singwitsi. Stevenson-Hamilton was now in command of an immense 22 000 square kilometres of untamed bushveld.In the Sabi Game Reserve, justification for controlling predators was based on the argument that hoofed animals had been severely depleted during the Anglo-Boer War and were in danger of extinction, while predators were regarded as over-abundant and a direct threat to the survival of antelope. Stevenson-Hamilton, however, was not in favour of eradicating predators from the reserve, and instead adopted a policy of reducing them to lower levels until game populations increased.

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 had already begun to view predators as an important component of the ecosystem, but predator control programmes were still carried out and up to 1927 a total of 1 272 lion, 660 leopard, 269 cheetah, 521 hyaena and 1 142 wild dog were culled. Rangers also shot 2 006 baboons, 635 crocodiles, 1 363 poisonous snakes, 558 eagles and many smaller predators.An interesting statistic is the number of cheetah and wild dog that were shot. In both instances the present population of these endangered predators is considerably less than the number culled. It seems that the early control schemes, and subsequent management policies such as the provision of artificial water holes, tipped the balance in favour of lions at the expense of other predators.<

Conservation replaces Preservation

Early in his career Stevenson-Hamilton had shown evidence that he was moving away from a preservationist approach to a more holistic conservation ethic, as evidenced in his belief in 'the balance of Nature', where every species enjoys its rightful place. Not only did this guarantee all species a vital role in the ecosystem, but he was able to deflect attempts to have the reserve thrown open to the English sportsmen who dominated the wildlife preservation associations of the day. At the same time, he began to develop the notion that 'the ideal should be to show the country and the animals in it to the public as God made both.'In May 1926 his tireless dedication to the cause of nature conservation was rewarded, and the South African Parliament passed an act establishing the Kruger National Park. The following year only three cars visited the Park and revenue from tourism amounted to a paltry £3. But by 1928 visitor traffic had increased to 850 people in 180 cars, and by the end of 1929 a total of 78 thatched huts had been completed in eight rest camps.

Viewing wild animals in the wild was a new experience for the urban residents of South Africa, who undertook the often eventful journey to the Lowveld along rutted dirt roads that negotiated rocky passes and flooded river crossings. It soon became apparent that the animal visitors were most interested in seeing was the lion, followed by giraffe and elephant.Stevenson-Hamilton retired in 1946 after serving as Warden for 44 years. By this time the Kruger Park had grown into a popular tourist destination and 10 000 cars now passed through its gates each year. Tourist facilities had been greatly expanded since 1927, and 13 rest camps had been constructed.

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.

A Question of Balance

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.
Kruger National Park - South African Safari