Lots to be done, says Kruger's new boss as park slowly reopens

Gareth Coleman became executive manager of the Kruger National Park just before lockdown. Now he's a man on a mission

23 August 2020 - 00:02 By and aspasia karras
Giraffes are among the wildlife waiting to greet Kruger National Park visitors now that the park has been opened to 50% capacity during level 2 of the lockdown.
Giraffes are among the wildlife waiting to greet Kruger National Park visitors now that the park has been opened to 50% capacity during level 2 of the lockdown.
Image: 123RF/vencavolrab78

The only kills sharp-eyed Joburgers may have been fortunate enough to witness during the lockdown are the violent habits of the carnivorous grey-headed bushshrikes.

As nature bleeds (in this case quite literally) into the city, and rare sightings of birds previously unrecorded in this habitat are made, the peri-urban nature lovers among us may have spotted tiny corpses impaled on thorns and branches — small  feasts of flesh for these bloody-minded birds. This is the way of the bushshrike — all’s fair in love, war and evolution.

For the rest of us who may have missed these gory developments on a branch nearby, the level 2 interprovincial travel rules presented an opportunity to crash the SANParks website. Such is the desire to escape into the wild.   

Gareth Coleman, on the other hand, has found himself in the glorious and unprecedented position of having been locked down in the bush. He started his new job as the executive manager of the Kruger National Park as the lockdown began, a lifetime ago in pandemic terms.

And yes, he has seen a few kills. On an amplified scale. Like the impala carcass — a  leopard trophy in a tree — and the casual visitations from cheetah and lion in the back garden of his house.

But mostly he has also been working long hard days taking the opportunity of the hiatus in day-to-day park operations to really take stock of the challenges this dream job actually entails. It’s a delicate ecosystem that he has to marshal — a complicated equation between conservation, human development and tourism that can so easily unravel.

Just look north. Kenya’s oldest national park, a vestige of colonialism outside Nairobi, now has a Chinese-built railway and a highway running through it. The great 30,000 strong Wildebeest migration was last seen in the 1960s, and the Maasai are being sorely tempted into selling their tribal lands adjacent to the park to housing developers, while also resisting the proposed fences that are a last measure resort of the conservancy to salvage what is left of the wildlife. But as the Maasai point out, fences are precisely what kills the natural migratory paths of the animals — turning the park into a large zoo as opposed to a natural habitat where humans and wild animals coexist peacefully.

We won’t be seeing any railways in the Kruger Park any time soon, or ever, Coleman assures me as we catch up on the phone on Wednesday. It is 6.30am. He had offered me a 5.30am slot which I politely declined.

Shortly he is setting off towards Lower Sabie to look at the staff living quarters and to take an open meeting from 9am to discuss issues the staff want to raise, and ideas on how they can work together to address the problems facing the park. He is carrying on to the Malelane rangers' camp, then to Bergendal and finishing off at Pretoriuskop.

This is what his days look like.

“It is fantastic driving through the park meeting employees, and to see campers and tourists returning. We can open at only 50% capacity and not all employees are back. I am learning every day.”   

He has not left the park for more than five months so he is looking forward to seeing family and friends. His sister-in-law is visiting this weekend. I advised caution with the invitations, given the situation with the website. He may risk crashing.

Coleman laughs at my aside, but he is essentially a serious man. He is concerned  I will not be able to reflect some of the lightness of spirit he feels as a result of living so completely in this environment on a daily basis.

“I grew up in the parks in KwaZulu-Natal, and always appreciated the importance of these spaces for the soul.”

But as I read him from our conversations several weeks apart, he cannot help but temper his spirit with the sense of immense privilege and responsibility he feels about his task here.

“The park is unique in both its colonial history but also in such a concentration of people on the western boundary.

Gareth Coleman, the new executive manager of the Kruger National Park, says the park's employees inspire him.
Gareth Coleman, the new executive manager of the Kruger National Park, says the park's employees inspire him.
Image: Supplied

“We need to change the manner in which tourism is managed in the park, and create infrastructure programmes which will alleviate the poverty in the surrounding areas. The model has to go further and faster than the past 25 years. If you look at the extent of the unresolved land claims and distribution issues, we need a democratic process and to give the people who work in the park better working conditions. The park is the legacy of colonialism and apartheid. If we started it today we would not have the same issues. It is  history established it in an undemocratic manner and I am passionately conscious of the need for dismantling that past and taking action.”

The park is the legacy of colonialism and apartheid. If we started it today we would not have the same issues
Gareth Coleman, executive manager of the Kruger National Park

At the heart of Coleman’s vision is the need to uplift and engage the surrounding communities through the greater conservation project.

“The environmental and biodiversity challenges don’t only endanger wildlife but the future of humanity. It is a global challenge. Pockets of savannah are important for humans to have a sense of place for their own mental health and wellbeing. Human wildlife interaction is the nut that needs to be cracked. We face a socioeconomic and human challenge, and if we can’t resolve it we will lose the environmental battle.”

We venture on to the poaching question  and his line is consistent: “We have to build a different vision for the park which is more inclusive as it is a major economic lifeline for communities. The relationship with the park needs to be renewed. We are here because of the goodwill of the poor.”

I wonder if he thinks the pandemic has forced a reset and a change of outlook.

“This time has forced a rethinking for the whole world. For conservation, we need to rebuild. We can’t just go back to where we were. We need a different vision and a different set of objectives. A shared responsibility for conservation and a shared dividend for the communities  based on a more decisive and negotiated framework within in which it needs to happen.”

His team — the employees of the park — have inspired him over this period.

“The people and the employees in the camps, despite the harshness of what we have been through these past few months, have such hope and such a strong desire to protect the communities' dignity. They have a very positive outlook on what we need to do, and the welcome I receive gives me inspiration to carry on.”

On the weekends, when he isn’t criss-crossing the park, Coleman goes for a run.

I have been picturing him over this lockdown, on a dusty path in the early mornings, the susurrations of the bush as it comes to life, clearing his head, opening his heart and breathing deeply as he prepares to open up the park to the future.