Greater Kruger Partners collaborate to achieve conservation goals

On Saturday evening 20 August, partners in the Greater Kruger landscape demonstrated the success of collaboration in a lion relocation exercise that allowed a lioness and her 3 cubs to find a new home in the north of the Kruger National Park. Through the thoughtful actions of the Pafuri section ranger, Richard Sowry, guests from the lodge concessions in the Makuleke Contractual National Park were allowed to witness this historic event. You can read more about the experience through the eyes of Return Africa here.

Whilst I, and other guests, were lucky enough to be part of this successful operation, and it truly was an unforgettable experience, the real highlight for me was realising the significance of the collaborative approach between the various players in the Greater Kruger National Park. The ability of the national park (SANParks) and the private reserve authorities to work together on this type of operation highlights the resilience and strength of the Greater Kruger system. Let me explain further…

The Balule Nature Reserve (BNR), indicated in RED on the map alongside, along with the Timbavati, Klaserie, Umbabat, and Thornybush Private Nature Reserves, forms part of the Associated Private Nature Reserves (APNR) in the central Kruger area. The APNR is part of the Greater Kruger National Park – a vast unfenced open system consisting of the national park together with numerous private and provincial reserves. The Pafuri region lies in the far north of the Kruger National Park, just below the Makuleke Contractual National Park (also part of the Greater Kruger), some 190km north.

The APNR reserves have high lion populations and the Balule, in particular, supports a very high lion pride density at present. In recent months, this high density has led to pressure on a lioness with cubs, seeking to protect her offspring from competing lions. This lioness had been escaping through the northern fence line of the Balule with her 3 young cubs onto neighboring private properties that do not have any lions. Naturally, those landowners were not happy with the prospect of having large predators, like lions, on their properties, and the warden of the Balule, Ian Nowak, was called in twice to dart and return this wayward lioness and her cubs to the Balule. Realizing that the lioness was in danger if she continued to venture into neighboring properties, Ian contacted SANParks and offered to relocate the lioness and her cubs to an area in the Kruger National Park that would be suitable.

The Pafuri Section of the Kruger National Park currently has a low ebb in its lion population, due to past snaring and poisoning incidents. There is a coalition of males that venture as far north as the Luvhuvhu river and sometimes into the Makuleke Contractual National Park. However, without any resident lioness prides to entertain them, these males invariably move south again, leaving the region relatively void of lions. These conditions provide an ideal alternative location for a lioness seeking space for herself and her young litter, and this was the reason for Ian’s request for her relocation. Plans were set in motion, and the exercise was carried out on the evening of 20 August into the early hours of the morning of 21 August 2022. The lioness was tranquillised and loaded into a crate for transport. Her cubs, being too young to be tranquillised for the journey (they are only 3 – 4 months old), were baited into a crate and the small family began their journey from the private reserves in central Kruger to the far north – almost 300km by road. After their successful release near the Luvuvhu river bridge in the Pafuri section, the lioness, now fitted with a radio tracking collar, has been monitored to be settling into her new home with her cubs, and this will hopefully allow her to ween and raise the cubs in relative safety. With any luck, once the cubs are of sufficient age and when she comes into estrus again, some of those northern lions may find her and this could be the start of a new lion pride for the region – what a success story that would be.

This kind of cross-boundary operation is made possible through the co-operative agreements signed in 2018 between the Kruger National Park and the various Private Nature Reserves that adjoin the national park. The cooperative agreements are the foundation of the Greater Kruger National Park landscape, providing guiding principles and integrated management practices across all the signatory reserves.

With an integrated approach to management, the Section Ranger of the Pafuri Section of the Kruger National Park and the Warden of the Balule Nature Reserve were able to collaborate to achieve a positive conservation goal for the two regions. These regions are far from each other and, in the past, would never have been in a position to offer the benefits of working together within such a vast landscape. I feel privileged to live and work in a system of reserves that exercises the benefits of its sheer size. By enhancing the conservation efforts of different regions and leveraging the variety of habitats and game densities that are offered in our system of reserves, the model of the Greater Kruger National Park continues to be a beacon of conservation success on the African continent.