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Story Publication logo August 20, 2009

Endangered in South Africa: Watching Wildlife With White People


The black rhino is emblematic of how civil war and corruption in Africa decimate endangered animal...


At about 5:30 in the morning, I was idling at a stoplight and squinting to read the tiny print on my map when the white chap next to me rolled down the window of his beige Land Rover. Two Europeans were seated on the safari seats behind him with cameras already strapped to their necks. "Follow me!" he shouted.

"Going to—er—Pumbi?" I said, having no idea what the name meant much less which of the region's many tribal languages it came from: Xitsonga, siSwati, Sesotho, Tshivenda, isiZulu, Setswana …

"Numbi," he corrected. "Come on!"

The light turned green, and we headed north to the glorious gates of Kruger National Park, a wilderness that stretches for nearly 200 miles along the Mozambique border and covers an area the size of Switzerland, making it South Africa's largest, most-profitable, and best-known national park.

The sky was glowing pink as we passed the rundown houses and informal settlements packed tighter than a weaver bird's nest along the park's southwestern boundary. I was anxious to get inside the gates before sunrise so I'd have the best chance of spotting a leopard—the last of the "Big 5" game animals I was hoping to cross off my bucket list. Unfortunately my friends and I were stuck on a one-lane highway behind a string of moaning, belching buses that seemed to pull over every 10 feet to pack in another 50 villagers. The black folks were going to work, and we were going on safari.

I'd been in South Africa for almost a month now—surviving the young democracy's third presidential election—and race was never far from my mind. Although I'd come to learn about wildlife, apartheid has left its footprint on the geography of this country, from the walled white enclaves that surround every urban center to the sad townships built to house a black work force pried from the countryside. Kruger National Park remains one of the most palpable reminders of the legacy of the white man in Africa.

The area was once the domain of hunter-gatherers, but in 1898 Boer president Paul Kruger—aghast at the decline of available hunting game—established a reserve in what is now the southern portion of the park. By 1926, it had tripled in size, as locals were evicted from their land and denied access to its firewood, wildlife, and water. By the 1950s, blacks had been banned even from visiting the area or any other national park in South Africa. (Some lingered for a few years to sell trinkets at Skukuza, the resortlike camp that sits at Kruger's center—until they, too, were beaten and chased away.) Today, Kruger National Park employs about 4,000 people, but more than 2 million others now live along its boundaries.

A black security guard was manning the Numbi gate on the morning that I arrived. I'd headed inside the ranger station to pay my entrance fee and as I was returning to my rental car he called me over. He reminded me that the speed limit in the park was 50 kilometers per hour on paved roads and slower on dirt tracks, and then began doling out unsolicited advice on how I might best enjoy my visit to the park. I ought to spend my morning at a nearby water hole, he said, where I was bound to see antelope, hippos, and maybe elephants. It was information I'd already heard in the station, but I nodded and smiled as he carried on his monologue. Finally, when I began to turn away, the gate-lifter leaned in to me and said, "You don't have any food in the car, do you?"

For a moment, I thought he might be warning me about baboons, which apparently can be quite fearless when it comes to tuna sandwiches or smoked oysters. Then he placed the palm of his hand on his stomach, and I knew what he meant.

The eviction and exclusion of indigenous people from nature reserves is not just an African phenomenon, of course. Historian Mark Bowie, in a new book called Conservation Refugees: The Hundred-Year Conflict Between Global Conservation and Native Peoples, opens one chapter with a description of how photographer Ansel Adams meticulously avoided capturing images of local Miwok Indians in Yosemite Valley. Indeed, early preservationists saw humans as a disturbance to nature and felt they should no longer be allowed to reside within their national park borders. The reappropriation of wilderness continues today in regions like the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana, where, according to Survival International, the bushmen have been relocated—and denied their water and hunting rights—to make room for tourists and a diamond mine.

At Kruger, the environmental impact of mass tourism through the paving of roads and the fencing camps that can accommodate thousands of people a day likely exceeds that of the park's original inhabitants. Still, Kruger's 800,000 visitors every year bring in $29 million, making it one of South Africa's only national parks run at a profit. And since many of the other reserves are too small for viable populations of elephants, rhinos, or wild dogs, Kruger may well be the country's greatest achievement at wildlife conservation.

But racial inequities are chipping away at popular support for conservation efforts. The apartheid laws that kept black tourists from visiting Kruger have, of course, been defunct for many years now, and the new government has installed blacks in senior leadership positions at the park. Still, the only times I saw a black face during my visit was at the gas pump or behind a counter at the Wooden Banana snack shop—never on a tour. Although speakers of the "white languages"—English and Afrikaans—represent 21 percent of the population, they account for 94 percent of the park's visitors. Locals pay just $4 to enter the park (compared with $16 for foreigners), but that's still about a day's salary for most of the country's blacks—if they have a job. (Unemployment in South Africa ranges from 25 percent to 40 percent.)

The Kruger tourist dollars aren't doing much to lift blacks out of poverty, either. More than 15 years after apartheid, the most profitable tour companies, lodges, and private game reserves surrounding the park are owned and operated by whites. Some displaced tribes are now getting a sliver of those profits, but the less fortunate farmers who live nearby must deal with rampaging elephants and roaming hyenas. According to a Kruger-commissioned study, most locals see more economic benefits in livestock and agriculture than parkland. Given that state of affairs, I guess it also shouldn't be much of a surprise that rhino poaching is on the rise throughout the country.

African wildlife conservation efforts are going to be effective over the long-term only if they go hand-in-hand with economic development. In Namibia, a country that was controlled by the South African apartheid government until 1990, the WWF and UUSAID have already set up 52 communal natural resource management programs that have boosted wildlife numbers, food security, and cash incomes over the last 15 years. Now South Africa, too, might finally be on the verge of updating its separate-but-equal approach to conservation. In 1995, the Makuleke community lodged a successful claim on land at Kruger's remote north end; as a result, the tribe receives payments from the park along with limited rights to use the area and manage facilities.

But most visitors like me stay in the south, where the fenced-in wildlife is more abundant. On my last day in the park, I was lucky enough to glimpse a leopard high in a tree just north of the Crocodile River on the park's southern boundary. You're not allowed out of your car, and pretty soon a string of eight or so vehicles had lined up behind me on the dirt road. The leopard, roused from his sleep, slipped into the bushes.

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