Leon Marshall ponders the beauty of waterholes and our flagship reserve’s (Kruger National Park) policy of shutting many down.
Pictures: Leon Marshall and Petro Kotzé/SANParks
At first there were only the two old buffalo bulls lazing in the mud, every now and then flicking an ear as oxpeckers busied themselves around their heads. Then along came a mighty herd, raising a cloud of dust as it crossed the dry plain towards the waterhole. The two old fellows withdrew to watch as the newcomers bundled together around the edges and others waded belly-deep into the water to drink and enjoy a mud bath.
It was the herd’s turn to make way as elephants arrived in three separate groups from different directions. They seemed pleased to meet up, touching trunks and sounding the deep rumblings that are said to be the way they talk. Three small ones were so happy to see each other that, in the excitement, one took a headlong tumble into the mud as they cavorted around the waterhole. It stumbled out, unable to see where it was going before managing to wipe the mud from its eyes with its trunk. It ran to its mother and pressed tightly against her leg. She caressed him with her trunk as if to comfort him and make sure he was unharmed.
Some of the elephants drank and sprayed themselves with clear water by curling their trunks over the wall of the cement dam that feeds the waterhole. Others preferred the murky water, having mud showers between drinking. They were not going to be rushed.
The zebra and wildebeest trooping in had to be content with sticking to the pool’s furthest end. The impala stood around patiently, some nibbling at the bare sticks of nearby brush to while away the time. Two sable antelope assumed majestic poses, but they too had to wait their turn. Birds fluttered in and off for quick sips while others took their time between drinks to explore the pool’s muddy edges.
All of a sudden the restful mood changed. The elephants shrieked, flapped their ears and tested the air with their trunks as they formed into separate groups and started to move off in the different directions from where they had come. At the far end of the bare patch, the faint shape of lions looking on from the shade of trees explained the likely cause of their agitation. Such is the magic of waterholes and pans in game reserves.
This was the artificial waterhole at Kruger National Park’s Talamati Bushveld Camp near Orpen Gate. It is separated from the camp by a high-security game fence, which allows visitors to watch proceedings at close quarters from the comfort of a raised viewing hide. At night it is not unusual to spot leopard among the nocturnal callers to the floodlit pool.
It explains why there was such an outcry when the park’s management started shutting down man-made waterholes and destroying earthen dams in the mid-nineties. By that stage there were more than 350 such drinking places, the construction of which went back to 1931-32 when the first concrete barrage was built in the Ntomeni Creek near Pretoriuskop camp. The old water-provision strategy was considered of such worth that the site was marked with a special commemorative plaque.
The new approach represented a drastic about-turn. It was to be expected that it would not sit well with all animal lovers and nature tourists. Deliberately denying animals ready access to water would seem inexplicably uncaring. And just how much joy tourists were getting from watching the activity around such drinking places was evident from the number of cars usually parked there. With Kruger drawing more than a million visitors a year, such sensitivities could not be taken lightly.
In periods of drought, as the park has been going through of late, the conundrum gets worse. The sight of dry waterholes and of vultures feasting on nearby animal carcasses could not sit easily with many a visitor.
But the change was not decided on lightly. It indeed went to the root of a new management philosophy that saw the 20 000km² park as a single natural system that was best left to its own devices to as far as possible maintain its own ecological processes.
It would go so far as to see periodic droughts as necessary for keeping gene pools healthy, by weeding out the weak and keeping in check populations of species such as buffalo that proliferate during good years but are not particularly good at standing up to tougher conditions.
An explanation offered by Kruger’s science manager (systems ecology and geographic information system) Dr Izak Smit throws interesting light on the reasoning behind the policy reversal.
“During the height of the water-provision programme, most of the park was within 5km of a permanent water source. For a semi-arid savannah like Kruger, this was unnatural. It interfered with the natural movement and distribution of animals, which affected the plant life, and in turn badly affected the health of the animal population and diversity.”
Smit explains that the reasoning now is that having water too readily available across the park means animals can always be everywhere rather than having the more natural – and healthy – situation of seasonal movement resulting in rotational grazing.
“It has even been shown that wide-scale water provision could result in more animals dying during drought than might otherwise happen. Most die because of lack of food, not lack of water.” Smit says the reason is that, with water readily available, the weaker and more water-dependent species are able to forage in areas they might otherwise not be able to reach, so depleting food stocks all over.
“With less water around, food in such areas remains available longer because only the stronger, more mobile and less water-dependent animals can get to these. It is therefore argued that fewer animals will die if water is less widely supplied.”
The number of man-made waterholes and dams has been drastically reduced. But prolonged drought conditions require contingency strategies, and plans have been afoot to upgrade key waterholes to ensure they are able to meet the increased demand. “Temporary watering points might even be excavated in sandy river beds to allow animals to get to the subsurface water.”
Smit also has some words of comfort for Kruger visitors who set store at animal drinking places as their favourite viewing sites. “There are more than a hundred artificial waterholes in the park that have not been closed, most of them next to tourist roads,” he says.
“But there are many other spots in the park where water occurs naturally, such as perennial rivers, pools in seasonal rivers, pans and springs, and these make for attractive natural settings for tourists to see and photograph animals. It is also so interesting to see how elephants dig holes in dry river beds to expose water, and how many other animals – big and small – use these mini-waterholes to quench their thirst.”