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Reserve strictly managed in drought


NEWINGTON, South Africa -- At dawn, before the searing African sun hits the eastern lowlands, the bush is a parade of the dangerous and exotic.

A rhinoceros lingers in the distance with its newborn, a miniature battle tank on legs. The two elude an approaching Land Rover, trotting deeper into the bush whenever the vehicle tries to come near.

"This one is skittish because of the baby," says James Marshall, a ranger at Londolozi Game Reserve. "Let's approach it on foot." He reaches for his rifle and descends from the safety of the machine.

Rhinos do not see well, but their hearing is good and the sound of the motor is scaring them off. Trackers moving slowly on foot might be able to approach.

But the mother rhino doesn't cooperate. She and the baby trot farther into the scrub land and disappear in a cloud of dust.

These are among the few rhinos remaining at Londolozi, which has moved most of its rhino stock farther south to a location where they are less likely to die off in the current drought.

"They say this drought is probably the worst since the 1920s," says Mr. Marshall, a wiry, middle-aged, bearded man. He gave up farming to work with wildlife a decade ago and has never regretted the choice.

At Londolozi, he says, officials are reducing the animal population that must survive on the parched land this season. In addition to moving 30 rhinos, the park has culled 100 buffalo -- killed them and sold the meat to blacks in the adjacent tribal homeland of Gazankulu, where people are suffering from the drought.

"Hopefully, we won't lose any game to the drought if we manage strictly enough," he said, as he drives his open-topped Land Rover to a water hole full of yawning hippos.

Londolozi is a small, private reserve known for its successful conservation methods. On the edge of Kruger National Park, which covers more than 4 million acres along South Africa's eastern border, its name means "protector of living things" in the Shangaan language of Gazankulu.

At Kruger, a famous tourist attraction 40 times the size of Londolozi, park officials expect massive deaths among its large animal population because of the drought.

"As far as the lowveld [lowland] is concerned, this is the severest drought ever recorded. We've had only 44 percent of the rainfall normally expected. And we've experienced one of the hottest summers ever," says Salmon Joubert, park director.

The summer months are December to March, when the heavy rains are supposed to fall. This year, it remained dry throughout southern Africa. Millions of people could die without assistance, but shipments of food have already been pouring in from international donors.

The only drought plan at Kruger is to study its effects.

"This is part of the normal cycle of nature," says Mr. Joubert, who says Kruger's mission is to preserve and study nature rather than interfere with it.

"We have one of the largest natural parks in the world.," he said. "It's almost entirely as pristine as it was when founded" in 1926.

Small, private game reserves, with animal populations a fraction of the size of Kruger's, cannot afford the magnitude of losses that Kruger expects this year.

Mr. Joubert predicts that starting late next month there will be "major die-offs" of animals not well adapted to drought. But predators, such as lions and leopards, are expected to do especially well against weakened antelope herds that proliferate throughout the park.

"Nobody likes to see animals dying, but our sentiments are not important to the ecosystem," he says. "When the animals die off we are left with the strongest genetic stock. Nature weeds out the weaker ones.

"We see one of the severest droughts on record, but we also see the drought as an integral part of this ecosystem."

The park also sees the drought as an attraction for tourists, who will be able to view large concentrations of animals at water holes around the park as river beds dry up. "We're going to see tremendous concentrations, and more predators in action."

The only species that the Kruger management plans to meddle with is its elephant population. Officials plan to cull 350 of its 8,000.

Mr. Joubert says elephants can consume the entire food supply in the park if there are too many and the food is insufficient. They have such a tremendous impact on their environment that other species could be wiped out.

Kruger is in the enviable position of having too many elephants on a continent where the elephant is endangered.

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