New life stirs ashes of famed park Regeneration: When 20 percent of the renowned Kruger game preserve in South Africa burned a few weeks ago, the authorities decided to let the fire burn itself out.

Sun Journal

November 01, 1996|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KRUGER NATIONAL PARK, South Africa -- A few weeks ago, South Africans awoke to an alarming headline: Kruger National Park was ablaze. The park, 7,300 square miles that stretch along South Africa's border with Mozambique, is one of the premier game reserves on the continent.

The first reports were that thousands of animals were killed as grass fires swept across the park's southern section, the most heavily visited part. Much as when fires roared through Yellowstone National Park in the United States, officials were criticized for their policy of letting the fires burn themselves out.

Lightning started the fires, and thus the decision by park officials not to interfere. Nature would be allowed to take its course. Whipped by strong winds, the fires did not just quietly smolder and quickly extinguish themselves -- the norm in the dry season. The fires joined together, forming walls of flame up to 30 feet high and leaping across the roads that normally serve as firebreaks.

And in one of the ironies of nature, the fires have made the park healthier.

Heavy summer rains had contributed to the fires' strength. A decade of drought had kept grass low, leaving little for fires to burn. But last summer, rains broke the drought and created a bumper crop of grass.

As always, the rains ended by mid-April, and the new forests of grass spent the Southern Hemisphere's winter -- May, June and July -- drying out.

So when lightning struck in September, the fires found plenty of fuel. Some tourists in the game park fled as the smoke blackened the sky; others stayed for the adventure. But many wondered if park policy was going to allow this national treasure to be destroyed.

"This was the biggest fire we've had since 1955," says Christo Van Der Linde, a park spokesman. There were reports that 40 percent of the park had burned, claims that turned out to be exaggerations.

"But it did affect about 20 percent of the park," says Van Der Linde. "Imagine 20 percent of the state of Massachusetts burning -- that's how big the park is. It was a pretty big fire."

L Still, park officials stuck to their no-interference policy.

"We would have only fought the fire if it had threatened one of the rest camps or other structures," Van Der Linde says. "During the fire, some tourists in the park were mad at us, wondering why we weren't doing something. People have to understand that fire is a natural occurrence."

The park does fight man-made fires, which are mostly caused by illegal immigrants from Mozambique, the small bands of people taking their chances with Kruger's lions and lighting camp fires at night. But the lightning fires are left alone. Park officials rely on the idea that what nature destroys, it also rebuilds; that the dryness that turned the park into a tinder box would eventually give way to rains.

Within a few weeks of the fire, that faith paid off. The first good rains -- 2 to 3 inches -- soaked part of the burned area. As if by magic, grass began sprouting in the ashes. That part of the park is now one of the most beautiful.

The bright, deep green of the new grass stands out in startling contrast to the still-blackened ground, forming a striking carpet that rolls up the hills beneath the colorless forms of the singed trees.

The new grass is particularly tender and nutritious, as the many impala and zebra grazing on the green carpet attest. And the blackened trees are still alive, because the grass usually burned at a temperature too low to ignite wood. So giraffe walk on the cinders and nibble the new green shoots sprouting from the tree-tops.

Aside from birds and reptiles, not one animal death could be attributed to the fire. A gathering of vultures told of one impala carcass, but park officials believe it succumbed to predators before the fires started.

"The animals knew what to do," Van Der Linde says. "They made their way to rocky spots or places around water holes where the vegetation had been trampled away. And natural fires just skip ++ certain places, burning in an irregular pattern. The animals were able to find safe places.

"We know we lost a lot of ground-nesting birds, snakes, tortoises and the like. But these are populations that recover quickly," he says.

"I think we were totally vindicated," park Superintendent Harold Braack says of the let-it-burn policy. "The fire cleaned out a lot of detritus and cleared the way for new growth. The park is very healthy."

To be sure, there was some luck involved. Though the fires could have been put out fairly easily when they first started, at some point it became nearly impossible to fight them. If the winds had taken the flames through one of the rest camps, there would have been criticism.

But no buildings or vehicles were damaged. Certainly there are still plenty of burned acres in the park that await the spring rains. They remain black and ugly, mile after mile of desolation devoid of animals.

But the burned parts that have received rain look better than the places that were untouched by fire. There, the thick growth of last summer's grass still lies dry and brown against the ground -- making it difficult, nearly impossible, for new grass to find a place in the warm African sun.

Pub Date: 11/01/96

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