The animal appeared at the bend of a dusty road, under the amber sun of this late South African afternoon. Enormous, his back crusted with mud, all defenses out. Obviously annoyed, he extends his trunk to sniff the intruder. “If he moves along the vehicle, stay calm, nothing will happen to you”whispers the guide, both hands gripping the wheel of his silent 4×4.
The elephant approaches to touch the bodywork. A few seconds of face-to-face are enough to convince him that our presence is not worth the inconvenience. And with a slow disdainful U-turn, he goes back to his snack, offering us his crumpled rump as a business card.
What better place to be confined?
“It is really beautiful”smiles Gert Kruger. “Really, who could dream of a better place to be confined…” For seventeen years that he has been taking his clients up and down the “bush” of the Balule private reserve, along Kruger Park (north-east), this 49-year-old South African has never tired of the magic of these encounters.
The pockets of his khaki shorts are overflowing with stories of grumbling lions and intemperate rhinos. Until the last few weeks, he was counting on adding more, to burst the seams. But now, the coronavirus pandemic has changed everything.
No sooner had President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the border closure in mid-March than tourists deserted his camp in panic. The confinement order that followed two weeks later left Gert Kruger alone amid his empty tents, distraught.
“The coronavirus has caused a terrible shock to all of us who work in tourism. It is our daily bread”, he said. “Clients packed their bags and had to evacuate in two days to get home.”
However, his camp was full for the high season, that of the summer holidays for visitors from the northern hemisphere. Last year, he and his six employees welcomed 700 safari enthusiasts. “There, we had to cancel a lot of reservations for the rest of the year and for 2021.”
In a handful of days, all the rooms in the region have been emptied, the souvenir shops have drawn their iron curtains and the backfiring off-road vehicles loaded with Europeans or North Americans loaded with cameras have joined their garages. .
From now on, only patrol vehicles still roam the tracks of the 55,000 hectares of the Balule reserve. Even more than normal, even. Because, confinement or not, protecting animals has remained an absolute priority.
“We cannot afford to reduce security”, explains the director of the reserve, Ian Nowak. “We must do everything to preserve wildlife and its ecosystem, which are our raw material”, emphasizes the forty-year-old with steel blue eyes, “if all that disappears, no one will be able to restart”.
No question of returning the “ranger” at home, therefore. “We didn’t fire anyone, all the guys are paid”, says Ian Nowak. Most remained confined to the reserve, to continue to wage war on poachers there.
“The threat to the rhinos hasn’t changed…criminals still find a way in here, (the horns) keep all their market value”he recalls, “so we continue to fight as before”.
Proof of this is that the national police announced on Sunday the arrest of three people in possession of six pachyderm horns in the neighboring province of Mpumalanga.
“Hunting to Eat”
And then the confinement brought up another threat than that of gangs ready to kill to feed the insatiable appetite for traditional Asian medicine.
“That’s what I call bushmeat poaching,” explains the boss of the reserve. “These guys don’t have a job anymore because of the confinement, they are hungry, so they hunt to eat. They don’t care about the protection of nature, they just want to survive.”
Ian Nowak says he has not noticed an increase in this type of desperate crime on his land. But for the region’s young state veterinarian, Christiaan Steinmann, there is no doubt.
“It is indisputable, the poaching increases, people poach for meat”he observes, “some reserves would prefer to give the meat to the people but because of the law (which imposes standards), they do not do it”.
To counter all these threats, therefore, the dozens of “rangers” of Balule are not idle. In charge of one of the areas of the reserve, Chief Rian Ahlers, 39, is preparing to go on patrol with two of his men in the heart of the “bush”. “We patrol even more than before confinement”, he says from the top of his twenty years of experience.
“The camps are empty, we have no more tourists, normally their guides inform us if they see anything abnormal. There, we have to compensate for their absence.”
Regular flights over the bush by helicopter or airplane, rounds of the armed “soldiers” of the special intervention unit, systematic inspections of the electrified fences that encircle the reserve, nothing is left to chance.
‘Key under the door’
From the top of a hill, the “ranger” Sam Hlungwani scans through binoculars the bush that unfolds at his feet. Glad to be in the fight, even though he hasn’t seen his family for a month.
“I don’t want to leave the park above all, I’m too afraid of the virus”confides the sexagenarian. “I’m protecting the park (…) and I’m waiting for all this to be over. I hope it won’t last too long”, he worries, however, “Otherwise I will end up losing my job”.
A few kilometers away, Juan Geerts is also gnawing at himself. In his empty “lodge” of a hundred beds, he does and redo his accounts, which remain stubbornly in the red.
In one month, the cancellations of stays have already cost him 6.5 million rand (about 315,000 euros), a quarter of his annual turnover. And he trembles at the thought of soon having to part with his 94 employees, whom he has almost all sent home during the confinement.
“For the moment we are paying the salaries, even if we have closed down until June 30”, sighs the boss of the Nyati Lodge. “But no company is going to be able to keep all of its employees for long, layoffs are inevitable.”
To drive away the dark thoughts that he ruminates in his camp invaded by warthogs, Juan Geerts has started to sketch his employees’ duty rosters for…July. “Beyond that, few of us will survive”he pleads.
He is also working on welcoming his first post-coronavirus clients. Mandatory mask for all, quarantine shed, limitation of passengers per vehicle…
“Keeping customer trust will be essential to any recovery,” he points out, “safety and comfort will be decisive over the coming months”.
‘Go back up the slope’
“It’s not going to be easy to go up the slope”, confirms Sharon Haussmann, the elected president of the Balule reserve. “We are talking about six to twelve or even eighteen months to return to the level of attendance before the crisis.”
In 2019, Balule welcomed some 23,500 visitors. The famous Kruger National Park that it borders, closed since March 25, more than 1.7 million.
And then, calculates Sharon Haussmann, it will also be necessary to fill in the holes of a budget almost exclusively fed by taxes from landowners and the tourism industries, all hit hard by the crisis.
“With the travel ban, it’s a huge obstacle”she sighs, “the biggest challenge we’ve ever faced, and we weren’t prepared for it.”
In the shade of the trees that protect his camp from the autumn sun, Gert Kruger still wants to believe that the government will not let him down.
Last week, President Ramaphosa announced the release of an unprecedented envelope of 200 billion rand – 10 billion euros – to fly to the rescue of companies in difficulty. Starting with those of tourism, which contribute up to 10% to the gross domestic product (GDP) of the country.
“We asked for help but, for the time being, we have not heard back”, grumbles the little boss. “The money will be distributed”repeated this week the Minister of Tourism, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane.
But Gert Kruger knows it, tourism is not about to be delivered from confinement, which will be slowly lifted from May 1.
“I’m afraid we’ll be the last to leave,” he dreads, “If things don’t get back to normal in the next three months, I’m going to have to make some decisions.” Until giving up his life in the open air and saying goodbye to “his” reserve? “That no”he smiles, “I really can’t imagine myself doing anything else.”
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