Better Wildlife-Viewing for the Self-Guide Safari
1. Purchase a detailed map that indicates all rivers, dams, dirt roads, and lookout and picnic points. These are available at all rest camp shops and entrance gates. The comprehensive Prime Origins Guide to Exploring Kruger is highly recommended to those who want to take a self-drive safari; you will also find plenty of inexpensive introductory booklets for sale at all the park shops.
2. Between picnic spots there are no restrooms, fuel stops, or shops, so plan your journey along the way and make sure you have something to drink and eat in the car, should you wish to stay with a sighting for some time.
3. Be there at the right time. The best times to view wildlife are in the early morning and late afternoon; animals don't move much in the heat of the day. Set off as soon as camp gates open (4:30-6:30am, depending on the season).
4. You're bound to bump into something if you follow a river. Always stop on bridges when crossing (traffic allowing) and look for crocodiles, herons, water monitors (lizards that can grow up to 3m/10ft.), hippos, and so on. Certain bridges, particularly those over the Letaba and Olifants rivers, allow you to get out of your vehicle -- but please exercise caution. In winter, you're almost always assured of seeing animals at a water hole or dam; just park your car and wait.
5. Spot a spotter. A stationary car with binoculars pointed in a certain direction is an obvious clue. It is not considered bad form to ask what they have spotted (but you're unlikely to get a polite answer if you obscure their view).
6. Appreciate the rare. Most first-time visitors want to tick off the Big 5, but it's worth finding out more about other species. Sighting a wild dog becomes that much more exciting when you know there are fewer than 400 left in the park.
7. Bring a good pair of binoculars and drum up some enthusiasm for the vegetation -- that tree you stop to admire may reveal a leopard.
8. Drive slowly -- sharing the shadow of the tree you just whizzed past could be a pride of lions. (The recommended speed for viewing is 25kmph/16 mph.)
9. Dirt roads give a great sense of adventure, but don't shun the tar roads: Besides being quieter, less dust makes for tastier grass verges.
10. Consult the animal-sightings board at your rest camp reception area -- many animals are territorial and don't cover huge distances. Some experts advise that you concentrate on a smallish area, getting to know the movements of the animals, rather than driving all over the park.
11. Animals have the right-of-way on the roads. If a group of elephants is crossing, keep a respectful distance, switch the car off, and wait. If you're lucky enough to spot a black rhino (which has a hooked lip rather than the wide, square lip of the white rhino), be very wary.
12. Never feed the baboons and monkeys that hang out at picnic sites; this is tantamount to signing their death warrant, as they then become increasingly aggressive and have to be shot.
13. Most important, be patient. The only way you'll ever witness a kill, or any interesting animal interaction, is by watching a situation unfurl.
Of course, you can't expect to know in a few days what professional trackers have gleaned in many years of tracking animals or growing up in the bush, but nature does provide myriad clues for the amateur tracker.
1. Look for "hippo highways." Hippos don't pick up their feet when they move; they drag them. So if you see a trail of trampled grass leading to a water hole, it's likely a hippo has been going back and forth from the water (where it stays during the heat of the day) to the grass it feeds on. Don't tarry on a hippo highway; once they set off on their well-trodden paths, very little will stop them.
2. Use your nose. Elephant urine has a very strong scent; waterbucks have a distinctive musky smell.
3. Train your vision. Vultures wheeling above may indicate the presence of predators, as may fixed stares from a herd of zebras or giraffes. A cloud of dust usually hovers over a large herd of moving buffalo. And, of course, paw prints provide vital information, not only to what has passed by (you should purchase a wildlife guidebook to recognize the differing imprints), but how recently it was there. This latter skill takes years of experience to hone.
4. Examine trees. Bark and branches sheared off trees or trees rubbed raw are evidence that elephants have passed by -- they eat the bark and use trees as scratching posts. And certain trees attract specific species -- giraffes, for example, love to browse the mopane.
5. Listen to the sounds of the bush. The lead lioness makes a guttural grunt to alert her pride. Baboons, monkeys, squirrels, and birds give raucous alarm calls in the presence of predators. Kudus bark when frightened.
6. Look for droppings and dung. Elephant dung is hard to miss -- extralarge clumps full of grass and bark -- while a trail full of fresh black, pancakelike dung marks the passing of a herd of buffaloes. A good wildlife guidebook will have illustrations of many species' dung.
7. Watch bird behavior. Follow the flight of oxpeckers and you're likely to locate a herd of Cape buffalo; oxpeckers survive off the ticks and other insects that cling to the buffalo hide. Cattle egrets dine on the insects and earthworms kicked up by grazing herbivores.
Rhinos in the Greater Kruger
Over recent decades, Kruger Park has emerged as one of the world's most important rhino sanctuaries. Ironically, however, these lumbering beasts had been hunted to extinction within the park by 1945. The present-day populations descend from animals reintroduced from Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve, and as recently as the early 1980s, the rhino was probably the most elusive of the Big 5 in Kruger.
The first 100 white rhinos were reintroduced to southern Kruger in the late 1960s. For many years, the slowly growing population stayed rooted in the south, particularly around Crocodile Bridge. As numbers increased, however, the rhinos gradually colonized the central and northern parts of the park, as well as the adjacent private reserve, and today the greater Kruger is estimated to hold between 6,000 and 8,000 white rhino, or some 35% to 40% of the global total. The Kruger has thus been instrumental in the white rhino's IUCN Red List status rising from Endangered to Near-threatened over the past 2 decades.
Kruger also supports a population of around 300 black rhinos, descendents of the fewer than 100 individuals reintroduced between 1971 and 1998. This represents between 5% and 10% of the global black rhino population, but even so, sightings are rather scarce, with the area around Pretoriuskop and Crocodile Bridge offering the best chance of a glimpse of this thicket-loving creature. Scientists believe the park could accommodate a further 2,500 black rhino, so there is plenty of room for this endangered species to emulate the population growth of its white cousin in decades to come.
The situation with Kruger's rhinos isn't all rosy, however, as highlighted by reports that the number of rhinos poached within the park increased from 10 individuals in 2007 to 37 in 2008. Given the rapid population growth of the park's rhinos in recent years, this is scarcely cause for major alarm; nevertheless, it represents the most significant bout of rhino poaching in South Africa since the 1980s. Police believe the poaching to be the work of one single cartel that sells rhino horns to Asia (where they're valued as an aphrodisiac) for around $2,000 apiece. It remains to be seen whether the March 2009 arrest of 11 suspects -- including 5 Mozambicans, 3 Chinese, and 2 South Africans -- will put an end to the poaching.