When five lions made headline news in South Africa by strolling out of Kruger National Park and relaxing idly by the side of a busy road, one man became so exasperated by the ensuing public hysteria that he called a press conference to set things straight.
Because although the public was having kittens, the lion sighting was nothing particularly out of the ordinary, according to the chief scientist of the country’s national parks agency. In fact, says SANParks’ Danie Pienaar, lions often leave the park confines. With a 1,800km boundary, Kruger’s fencing is never going to be foolproof (it can be broken and lions can slip through small holes), and there’s never going to be 24/7 surveillance, so animals will regularly wander. Sometimes they return of their own accord; sometimes they’re darted, captured and unceremoniously put back. Unfortunately, there are also habitual offenders who are eventually put down, he says – but in most cases, no one is any the wiser that the big cats ever strayed from their normal habitat.
Residents were warned not to stop for any reason while the lions were on the loose (Getty Images)
“Normal habitat” is the key concept, says Pienaar – who says that not only are “straying” animals to be expected, but the idea that it’s possible to contain lions within Kruger’s boundary is absurd.
So now the man tasked with overseeing the park’s 1,800 lions is on a mission to help others understand this as well. Especially those who live on the edges of Kruger, whose lives are most affected by it.
Pienaar knows how they feel, because he grew up inside Kruger National Park itself. A small community of SANParks staff and their families lives permanently in the park – there’s even a primary school at main cam Skukuza. Pienaar’s father, Tol, was the head of SANParks – and Danie lived there until the age of 13, when he was sent along with other camp children to boarding school in a nearby town. His…