Friday, August 04, 2006

Kruger Leopard stares back at tourist prey

Ever since I came back to southern Africa, I promised myself to visit the ever-famous Kruger National Park in Mpumalanga province, South Africa. I think the guilt set in when I came home to Vancouver realizing that I had lived an hour away from one of the best place to see the Big 5 in the world. So last week, I flew in to Nelspruit and arrived at the Paul Kruger entrance of the park. Sean’s brother worked at the park as a manager so we were warmly invited to stay at his pad where he shared with two other staff members. It is fantastic knowing people working within the park because you get to do things that the ordinary visitor would not get the chance to experience. The night that we arrived, we went on a game drive. Usually cars are not allowed on the road past 5:30pm unless you had a permit or were on a night-drive tour. Of course, staff have their privileges as well and we drove around for an hour before we spotted three lions on a side road. One of them came right up to the car, gave a sniff near my passenger door and then gave a small little growl. Small growl sounds like a terrifying rip-your-head-apart message when the lion is centimeters from your head and the only divide is the steel of the car side door. Then followed the spotting of a leopard! Absolutely ridiculous to see this cat walk past the car, large furry paws and all. Never got as close to the cats as that evening during the rest of the trip, amazing. We were able to spot all 5: buffalo, lion, leopard, elephant and rhino. One crazy part of our trip was the rhino capture where we jumped into an open high-seated 4X4 and we followed a helicopter to where rhinos were spotted. The first rhino was shot by a tranquilizer dart from the air and then whobbled its way towards the dirt track. He was then maneuvered into the truck to be transported to a local game farm who had purchased him by tender. Apparently it is possible to buy a rhino for the going rate of around R120,000. Of course the conservation officers would have to ensure that you have all the proper facilities to hold such an animal. Another fact that I learned is that the park has an abundance of elephants and the packs are growing quite large. In terms of selling such an elephant, it is very difficult because elephants tend to follow the same routine for the rest of their life and adaptation to new places is hard for the animal. It could possibly lead to much damaged fence and all. The best part of the rhino capture was a ride on the helicopter and follow the animals by air! So stoked because I have not been on a helicopter before! Another great thing of knowing people within the park is that we get to stay at the ranger’s guest house and hear about the ups and downs of living in the park from their perspective. The ranger has to consider the perception of not only the animals but the public and how to get visitors to understand the environment of this ecosystem that they see. Seemingly small problems like one animal having TB could have devastating effects on the somewhat balanced equilibrium of the animal life and park life. Lastly, our final night consisted of a farewell party for Sean’s brother and a feast of delicious venison and meats from the main chef of the camps topped off with a sweet peppermint dessert. Unbelievable treatment at the park and can’t wait to visit again.

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