We awoke in the dark of the night at the Pretoriuskop Rest Camp to the clap of thunder which rolled and rolled across the open brushveld. Several more rounds of thunder occurred, then the soft patter of rain on the rondewel’s thatched roof. We were up and ready for our 5:30 a.m. game drive, as a light drizzle continued into the dawn. “This is good… The animals will be moving around more because it is cold,” our guide assured us. Not only were we the first out when the gates were unlocked, but by ourselves. Humans must think rain is a reason to stay inside. Today was a day of abundance in the park. The rain continued for a few hours in the morning, and the animals were congregated in larger groups.
Rain. Water. All earthly life starts with water. Water sets the plants to growing, which provides the beginning of the food chain. Insects, grazers and browsers consume the plants. Predators consume them. Scavengers clean up the mess. And, decomposers return the final bits to soil. Regions uninhabited by people preform this cycle without restriction or regulation. Our suburban and urban environments are nearly devoid of this process. Our parks allow nature to carry on eons of activity within their boundaries. In a park the size of Kruger National Park, the scale seems immense from the passenger seat of a vehicle. Except for small, fenced rest camps and the criss-crossing of paved and dirt roads, the animals have their run. The private game reserves that boarder the park add to the acreage which is available.
Along the first road that we traveled, we soon came upon a herd of buffalo. Most were bedded down along the road. Over the last couple of days, when we came across buffalo, we would see half a dozen to ten at a time. Today, I lost count after a couple of dozen. Their range extended deeper into the brush than I could see. I would not be surprised if we did not pass over a hundred buffalo, lying watching us. This was our observation throughout the day. Most of the animals which we viewed were in larger groups than on previous days.
We passed groups of impalas frequently. Again dozens upon dozens on both sides of the road. Sometimes they were eating. Other times bedded down and resting. Other time playing dominance games with young rams butting heads and locking horns.
We passed a family of rhinoceros, stretched out among the grass, protecting the young.
We came across several packs of elephants. Again the largest stood between us and the younger calves. The up-and-coming bulls stepped out toward the road to challenge vehicles that came too close.
We spent a couple of hours at a bird blind watching various song and water birds build and tend to nests.
All this abundance is not idyllic though. Most of the wild animals and birds are migratory or have large territories. Park boundaries do not necessarily correspond with the habitats in which they used to live. For birds which might migrate to Europe or Asia, they are as dependent on those regions providing them suitable places to live as to this region. For mammals which would have previously moved about the southern parts of the African continent, fences force them to stay within a region which can sustain only so many families and herds. Additionally, should they leave the park, they would most likely disrupt the farms and orchards that fill the landscape and economies in the rural areas. Elephants like citrus groves.
This brings up the issue of the carrying capacity of any habitat. Most species have the ability to reproduce young rapidly, even for elephants and humans whose young take 14+ years to reach sexual maturity. Some of the excess births will die early or become food for predators (lions would rather take an elephant or buffalo kid than to battle with the adults). Some will die from injury. Some will die during periods of draught, harsh winters, and floods. Still, most species will breed until the land can no longer sustain their numbers.
Again, in a nature park as large as Kruger, this might seem to be a vast number. Many wild animal species in South Africa were hunted nearly to extinction a century ago. Part of the intended purpose of the parks and game reserves was to provided places to allow the animals to restore their populations. The elephants and rhinoceros provide two examples of how this can occur, and how tenuous their continued existence is.
The elephant population was allowed to increase to the level the biologist estimated that Kruger National Park could sustain. Packs of elephants were captured and relocated to other reserves that did not have populations. Environmental organizes joined in helping to finance these efforts, essentially paying the parks to keep the elephant packs. However, when the population reached the number considered healthy for the habitat and the rangers began to thin herds, the environmental organization protested that no elephants should be culled from the park. They threatened to spread bad press about rangers killing elephants, with the parallel threat that tourists, who support the park operations would boycott visiting. The officials stopped thinning and kept accepting the financial assistance.
Now Kruger is estimated to have more than twice the number of elephants that the land can sustain. If you have never seen an elephant pull down a full grown tree to eat the top leaves, this may not make sense. Those trees may have taken a couple of decades to grow to that height. Two easy ways to track elephants are to observe how fresh their scat it (and it is everywhere to be seen), and to follow the trails they make of torn up grassland, brush, and trees. If their population is allowed to continue to increase, they will destroy the vegetation that sustains the rest of the food chain. To study this, park scientists have set up fences that prevent taller animals from getting to a few acres, while leaving access to shorter animals (the fences are open up to four feet, but then run from four to eight feet). As you can see in this photo, the area in front of the fence is cleared to the grass, but behind the fence immediately has tall brush and trees.
The rhinoceros is another story. For generations, Asian cultures have prized rhinoceros horn and penis as a source for sexual enhancement. Rhinoceros have been hunted, killed, and left to the scavengers after the selected body parts were removed for shipping, processing, and sale. Adding the Big Five hunting, the rhinoceros was nearly eliminated. Repopulation plans have brought their numbers back to sustainable levels in the past few decades.
Poaching became the means by which blackmarket trade obtained rhinoceros horns and penises. To reduce the supply of horns, at one time rangers tranquilized rhinoceros and surgically removed their horns. They left the penises for breeding purposes. While not condoning the killing of rhinoceros for just their horns, the populations were increasing until an African leader proclaimed that he was cured of cancer by using traditional medicine that included rhinoceros horn. Now the poaching is to such a level, that when activity is suspected, cell phone services are shut down in and around the park to disrupt communication of the poachers; no sightings of rhinoceros locations are posted for the day. Unfortunately, if the current rate of poaching for cancer medication continues, the rhinoceros in Kruger may be gone in a decade.
Two stories, both of which highlight the connection of nature with human activity. Restrictions on natural processes eventually lead to the need for humans to regulate the process. The other option will be habitat destruction and species crashing. The other story is about humans exploiting nature for personal gain. Whether the issue is the amount of land that we use to produce the food for our expanding population or the destruction of a species so that a few individuals might feel assured that they have done everything medically possible to keep them alive a little longer, we must recognize that abundance and carrying capacity eventually reconcile each other.