The idea of burning half of a national park in order to protect the ecosystem may appear bizarre, but that is what will happen at the world-renowned Kruger National Park (KNP), in South Africa, one of the top names in the bucket list of any wildlife safari lover.
Terrible as it sounds, the controlled burn planned for this year is not absolutely unusual. This is winter in South Africa, and the weather is drying up gradually, making the grass drier and drier.
The park received a lot of rainfall in the latest rainy season, which means there is a lot of grass; that must be great news for the grazing animals, but KNP authorities believe it is time to get rid of some of this grass through burning.
“As the August dry season slowly approaches, this is how we ensure that the burning is managed – but we continually look for ways to contain wildfires,” said Tercia Strydom, an abiotic scientist with KNP, in an interview with The Citizen daily. “This is because fires are primarily driven by how much grass is available. Fuel load depends on how much rain fell in the preceding growing season.
“KNP experienced an exceptionally wet growing season this past summer and the veld has responded by producing high fuel loads. We are, therefore, anticipating an increase in fires this winter,” said a statement from the park.
The controlled burning is done in mid-winter (in the southern hemisphere) to reduce the potential of wildfires in summer to keep the savannah ecosystem healthy.
As one of the largest and oldest game reserves in the world, KNP is one of the most popular tourist attractions for overseas tourists, most of whom come during the summer months due to the bitterly cold winter weather.
This year, about 40 per cent of the park will be subjected to controlled burning of the dry bush. Strydom explained that KNP had one of the most fire-dependent systems. “It controls the density of the trees we have and provides nutrients for plants.” She also said that satellite technology had played a huge role in containing fires that could have been started by lightning, visitors or poachers.
“When we do start deliberate fires, we always check the weather. If we plan to have a controlled fire, we check on technology to predict which direction it would go, while we monitor fires throughout the year. Every month we use satellite imagery,” said the scientist.