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Wildlife reclaiming their land as humans get out the way

19 April 2020 - 00:00 By Orrin Singh
A pride of lions soak up the sun on the tarmac just outside Orpen rest camp at Kruger National Park in Mpumalanga.
A pride of lions soak up the sun on the tarmac just outside Orpen rest camp at Kruger National Park in Mpumalanga.
Image: Richard Sowry

The nationwide lockdown has allowed animals in game reserves and national parks across SA to take back what is rightfully theirs — the land.

Sightings of the elusive Cape leopard, the endangered African wild dog and lion prides soaking up rays of sunlight on the tarmac — something tourists would fork out thousands of rands to see — have become an almost daily occurrence for those at the frontline of conservation.

Experts say wildlife has been left to roam vast plains and plateaus in peace — a sight that is being relished by people enjoying virtual safari tours on their televisions, phones and computers.

Richard Penn Sawers, park conservation manager at Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park in KwaZulu-Natal, said the feeling inside the park was surreal. “When fortunate enough to be alone in the park away from any interferences one can only imagine what the Zululand bush felt like 200 years ago.

“The animals are much more relaxed and don’t run away when approached by a vehicle or person on foot. It’s a surreal feeling of isolation and being alone.”

Johan Joubert, head of wildlife at Shamwari Private Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape, said that since the lockdown began a quietness has fallen over the reserve, something that has not been experienced since it opened in 1990.

“It all seems so clear — the birds calling, the roar of a lion — it’s louder than ever before. Even large numbers of kudu can be seen browsing through vygies and acacias — a rare sight.” However, tight lockdown regulations limiting the number of rangers that can be deployed to various areas is making the work of rangers, veterinarians and antipoaching units more risky.

Penn Sawers said a field ranger had been seriously injured by an elephant at Hluhluwe-iMfolozi last week. “The staff member was in the company of a colleague who managed to chase the elephant away, which certainly saved the ranger’s life.”

He said the ranger was stabilised and airlifted to hospital in Richards Bay, where he is now making good progress. Joubert said he too had found himself in a tense situation.

“A few days ago I had to attend to an injured buffalo cow. As the herd was relaxed I managed to sedate her with a dart gun on my own. Once down, I drove closer, got out of my vehicle and started to attend to her wounds.”

Joubert said that under normal circumstances his colleagues would assist and take care of other animals around him.

“As the rest of the herd were also interested in the activities, they quietly came closer. [It was] an awkward situation to be with a sleeping buffalo, her excited calf running around and about 30 buffalo between me and my vehicle,” he said.

Field ranger Mike Fabricius at the Grootbos Private Nature Reserve in the Western Cape said: “One of the special encounters the team have [had] during lockdown is an African wild cat mother and her kittens. This species is seldom seen in the region and very elusive.”

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