Fires in Kruger Park

It's the time of year when smoke plumes set off alarm bells to many visitors in the Kruger National Park (KNP).

©Navashni Govender

Bushfires are common in South Africa, especially between May and October, which is also the dry season. The Kruger National Park (KNP) falls within the African Savannah biome where the fire is extremely important in shaping the landscape. 

Drawing on many years of fire research in Kruger, park management adopted a new fire policy in 2002, which encourages the setting of early season fires (April to June) to break up the fuel load and allow for lower intensity fires.

Every year park management uses data gathered from more than 500 vegetation monitoring sites to determine where and what percentage of the park should be burnt, as well as the preceding two years' rainfalls determines the target percentage to burn in each section.

Areas that have produced grass coverage of over four tones per hectare are considered to be ecologically necessary to burn in the park.

When the year's fire regime has been worked out, section rangers set fires at the beginning of winter in chosen locations to break up the veld into a patch mosaic. This scattering of burnt and unburnt sections acts as a means of preventing and reducing the area burnt by unplanned runaway fires that may occur later in the season.

Burning earlier in the year also makes for cooler fires, which are less likely to turn saplings into multi-stemmed trees and allow for trees to recruit into the next height class.

Rangers will generally stop setting fires when the lightning season starts (October to November) to allow lightning a chance to contribute as one of the natural sources of fire.

Only a few Savannah plant species are fire sensitive with most being fire tolerant. Animals can hear, feel and smell a fire when it is still very far away and most mammals normally have enough time to escape. Snakes and many kind of insects escape into holes in the ground, where they are safe, because the heat from the fire seldom penetrates the soil deeper than five centimeters.

After a fire, animals benefit in many ways from the burnt area. They lick the mineral rich ash and feed on the new shoots which have a much higher nutrient content.

The build up prey numbers on a burnt area may also attract predators - so keep your eyes peeled when you drive through burnt areas.

Kruger National Park - South African Safari