Our Third Safari Adventure
On the day after Christmas, we visited the Hluhluwe–Imfolozi Park. Formerly Hluhluwe–Umfolozi Game Reserve is Africa’s oldest proclaimed nature reserve. It consists of 960 square kilometers or 96,000 hectares of hilly topography in central KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. It is known for its rich wildlife and conservation efforts. The park is the only state-run park in KwaZulu-Natal (also known as Zululand) where each of the big five game animals can be found.
At 96,000 hectares (960 square kilometers) the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park is small in size compared to the Kruger National Park which is 1,948,500 hectares (19,485 square kilometers). However, the park cautions visitors choosing to drive their own vehicles through the park to purchase a map showing the many hides, loop roads, picnic areas, restaurants, and, shh, bathrooms. It should go without saying, but visitors are strongly encouraged to remain in their vehicles at all times.
It was a couple of hours by bus to reach this oldest and largest publicly owned park; it was our only rainy day out. I again sat next to the conservationist driver and thought all was well since a tarp extended over our seats–until he stood up and pushed the windshield down onto the truck’s hood. Instead of windswept locks, I was quickly drenched from the rain spray on my face. This had to be karma for some offense. Although the driver stopped nearly at the end of our three hours and handed out ponchos, I was a lost cause, thoroughly soaked, and hadn’t looked that bad since Girl Scout camp. (Alas, no photos to show.)
Unlike the other two private reserves we visited, this park was overgrown with trees and brush. Once, we stopped by elephants so close I could have almost touched them, but I never knew they were there until the driver pointed them out. Yep, I’m staying in the truck.
Through conservation efforts, the park now has one of the world’s largest populations of southern white rhinoceros. This park was established in the early 1890s as a sanctuary primarily for the last remaining Rhino. This Park initiated the Save the Rhino campaign when less than 100 Rhinos roamed the planet. Undoubtedly the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park saved the near extinction of these species. (See my previous post, “The Elephant Whisperer,” and Lawrence Anthony’s conservation work.)
Animals found within Hluhluwe Umfolozi Park
More than 1,500 white rhinos and 360 black rhinos, buffalo, elephant, lion and leopard, blue wildebeest, zebra, giraffe water-buck, nyala, kudu, bushbuck, warthog, cheetah, hyena and 23,000 impala and 300 species of birds have been recorded. With 96,000 hectares to explore, we travel within the oldest proclaimed game reserve in Africa. The reserve world is known for conserving black and white rhinos; in less than 120 years, only 100 rhinos existed worldwide. Today the reserve is home to hundreds of Black Rhinos and the largest population of White Rhinos in the world. (Read more about the danger Rhinos face in Lawrence Anthony’s book, The Last Rhinos.)
The park is home to Africa’s big five game: elephant, rhinoceros (black and white), Cape buffalo, lion, and leopard. In addition, it is home to 86 species, including the Nile crocodile, hippo, cheetah, spotted hyena, blue wildebeest, jackal, giraffe, zebra, waterbuck, nyala, eland, kudu, impala, duiker, suni, reedbuck, common warthog, bushpig, mongoose, baboons, monkeys, a variety of tortoises, terrapins, snakes, and lizards.
The park is a prime birding destination home to 340 bird species. The Hluhluwe River Flood Plain is one of the only areas in South Africa where yellow-throated, pink-throated, and orange-throated longclaw species can be seen together. Bird life includes night heron, Wahlberg’s eagle, Shelley’s francolin, black-bellied korhaan, Temminck’s courser, Klaas’s cuckoo, little bee-eater, and crested barbet.
Historically, tsetse flies carrying the nagana disease protected the area from colonial hunters. Later, as European farmers settled in the Zululand area, wildlife in the reserves was blamed for the prevalence of the tsetse fly, and the reserves became experimental areas in the efforts to eradicate the fly. Farmers called for the slaughter of game, and more than 100,000 animals were killed in the reserves between 1919 and 1950, although the rhino population was spared. The introduction of DDT spraying in 1945 virtually eliminated the tsetse fly from the reserves, although subsequent outbreaks have occurred.
The southern white rhino, first identified by Western naturalist William John Burchell in 1812, was virtually eliminated during the 19th century by European hunters and by 1895 was believed to be extinct. A population of between 20 and 100 was identified in South Africa and preserved by establishing the Umfolozi Junction Reserve and Hluhluwe Reserve, which are now parts of the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park.
By the 1950s the white rhino population of the reserve had recovered to around 400, and the park’s warden, Ian Player, established Operation Rhino in the 1950s and 60s, with the park’s Rhino Capture Unit relocating hundreds of rhinos to establish populations in other reserves across their historic range. In 1989, the corridor between the Hluhluwe and Imfolozi reserves was added to join the separate reserves into the current single park.
The park is the birthplace of rhino preservation, having been responsible for breeding the southern white rhinoceros back from near extinction in the first half of the 20th century. There are reportedly 1,600 white rhinos in reserve.
The rhino population remains severely threatened by the increase in rhino poaching within and elsewhere, with 222 rhinos killed in the province in 2017, most of them in the park. On March 6, 2020, two of three suspected rhino poachers were killed in a shootout after an infrared camera alerted the operations center, providing the number of persons, grid reference, and direction of the incursion. Hluhluwe–Imfolozi has implemented Smart Park, which facilitates the integration of systems, including drone technology, for early detection and rapid response of reaction units.
African Wild Dogs
In 1981, the Natal Parks Board (now Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife) attempted to reintroduce African wild dogs into the park. Twenty-three dogs were released in reserve, most of which had been bred in zoos. However, this was met with limited success; by 2015, the population had fluctuated between three and 30 individuals. More dogs were released into the park in 2022.
So ends my reports on our safari adventures. Each was different, but I learned a lot about African wildlife and fell in love with South Africa and its people. Each of the guides I talked with was happy to share about the land and animals they were entrusted with.
One conservationist driver told me he once took out a group of Japanese on a game drive, but all they wanted to see was Pumbaa. “Pumbaa, what’s that?” I said. The driver said the warthog from Lion King.
My Zululand guide asked me what my favorite animal was on this particular day. And, I couldn’t say. And I still can’t say. The more I was around them, the more I admired the animals—even the warthogs from Lion King.
So I ask you, do you have a favorite African animal? Tell me in the comments below.
Debora Ragland Buerk
The Write Stuff
Looking at life from a different POV.