Kruger Park: jewel in SA’s wildlife crown

The world-renowned Kruger National Park, South Africa’s largest game reserve, offers incomparable game and bird viewing, and accommodation to suit every taste, within a biodiversity hotspot the size of a small country.

The Big Five (and Little Five)

Known for spectacular sightings of the famous Big Five (African elephant, lion, Cape buffalo, leopard and black or white rhino), the Kruger Park offers incomparable game viewing, with about 145 animal species, 110 reptile species, and more than 500 bird species occurring in the area.

In addition to the Big Five, all major African big game species are found here, including hippopotamus, giraffe, zebra, warthog, numerous antelope species – including rare antelope such as Tsessebe, Sable and Roan – and large carnivores including cheetah and spotted hyena. It is one of the few remaining viable habitats for the African wild dog, the continent’s most endangered predator.

For those who enjoy a challenge, the area is also home to the Little Five (buffalo weaver, elephant shrew, leopard tortoise, ant lion and rhino beetle) and the birding Big Six (ground hornbill, kori bustard, lappet-faced vulture, martial eagle, Pel’s fishing owl and saddle-bill stork).

Biodiversity hotspot

Kruger National Park is divided into six ecosystems: baobab sandveld, mopane scrub, lebombo knobthorn-marula bushveld, mixed acacia thicket, combretum-silver clusterleaf woodland on granite, and riverine forest. Altogether it has 1 982 species of plants, including the baobab, kiaat tree, fever tree, knobthorn, marula and mopane trees.

First established in 1898, the Kruger Park is now also part of the 35 000km² Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, a park with no internal borders that joins the Kruger to Zimbabwe’s Gonarezhou National Park and the Limpopo National Park in Mozambique.

The Kruger is also part of the Kruger to Canyons biosphere, an area designated by the United Nations Education and Scientific Organisation under its Man and Biosphere programme. Biosphere reserves are recognised internationally as important areas for conserving biological diversity and developing the necessary scientific and technical knowledge, as well as human values, for successful conservation efforts.

The Kruger to Canyons biosphere, encompassing a remarkable 55% of South Africa’s total terrestrial biodiversity, is located in eastern South Africa and bridges the Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces. It contains a diversity of landscapes, ranging in altitude from more than two kilometres above sea level along the Drakensberg escarpment to 300 metres above sea level nearer the coast.

Tourism asset

Besides being a highly respected contributor to conservation efforts over the years, Kruger National Park is one of South Africa’s most valuable tourism assets. In 2003 the number of tourists to the park exceeded a million for the first time, a feat that has been achieved every year since then.

The Kruger Park offers accommodation to suit the needs and preferences of just about anyone, ranging from five-star luxury to self-catering bungalows, tented camps, and caravans.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the park holds a special place in everyone’s hearts,” Tourism Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk said at a ceremony in June 2008 to mark 110 years of the park’s existence, “and over the last 110 years it has become an icon for the country on many levels, including conservation, tourism and national pride”.

As big as a country

Covering almost 19 000km², the Kruger National Park is comparable in size to the whole of Wales or Israel.

It came into being in 1898 but was then known as the Sabie Game Reserve. Development came a standstill during the South African War, but afterwards the victorious British took up the reins again, tasking Major James Stevenson-Hamilton in 1902 with the responsibility of looking after the area.

Stevenson-Hamilton, the first warden of the park, retired in 1946 after holding the post for 44 years. He is commemorated in the name of the park’s main rest camp, Skukuza, which is a Xitsonga word meaning “he who sweeps clean” and refers to his tireless efforts to control poaching.

The warden worked hard to gain official status for the park, and in 1926 his efforts were rewarded when the government passed the National Parks Act and proclaimed the Kruger National Park, naming it after the president at the time, Paul Kruger.

Stevenson-Hamilton was joined in 1902 by new assistant warden Harry Wolhuter, who famously survived an attack from two lions in 1904, armed with nothing more than a pocketknife. He killed the first lion with the weapon, and his dog kept the second lion at bay until help arrived. The knife and the lion skin can be seen in the Stevenson-Hamilton Memorial Museum at Skukuza.

First published by MediaClubSouthAfrica.com – get free high-resolution photos and professional feature articles from Brand South Africa’s media service.