There’s never a typical day when you live and work in the bush …. particularly in an area as wild and remote as the Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area (GMTFCA), northern Limpopo.
If you’ve been to the area you’ll know just how special it is. Its beauty is in its barren, rocky dryness – a contrast to the lush and green lowveld, whilst its uniqueness is in its lack of full-blown tourism and lodges, so that to come here is to experience the true wild, the isolation of an Old Africa, which is untouched and also extremely unspoilt. To present just a taste, 26 Red Data plant species occur within the Mapungubwe National Park; there is a great diversity of birdlife and over 350 species have been recorded to date. South of the Limpopo River the Mopane veld stretches away into the distance, in summer as green and flat as a giant billiard table, with a few isolated koppies sticking up here and there like stacked billiard balls. The Limpopo River Valley itself is nothing short of spectacular, with remarkable orange sandstone outcrops dominating the landscape and dwarfing even the 2000-year old Baobab trees, while north of the river the Mopane veld continues far into south-western Botswana and south-eastern Zimbabwe.
The unpredictability of the bush means that I see new things every day and the old boy scout’s motto of ‘be prepared’ is very applicable to life here.
And so, I found myself in a position of ‘unexpectedness’ the other evening. With the sun just setting, and driving west on the tar road to visit a friend, I came across a large, old giraffe bull, ambling along the road. With the sun in my eyes, I had to squint, to establish whether he was really walking ‘down the road’ or whether he was on the National Park. I didn’t have too much time to think, as suddenly a bakkie appeared out of nowhere, speeding along the road, full-pelt towards the giraffe.
The giraffe had clearly broken through the electric fence, and was now trying to work out how to get back. However, being on the paved road, with a vehicle speeding towards him, the giraffe was spooked and he careened further off down the road, narrowly missing the bakkie.
Whilst the road is not excessively busy (approx. 200 vehicles per day), the fact that it was dusk (and therefore limited visibility) and people returning home from work, meant that the giraffe was at risk of being hit and killed by a vehicle, as well as causing possible injury or death to the driver.
Annually, around US$150 million is spent on accident insurance claims, with US$7.7 million attributed to possible wildlife-vehicle-collisions (WVCs).
South Africa is a country with a ‘fence culture’ with hundreds of thousands of kilometres of fencing dividing private farms, national parks and individual properties. Whilst this may be a favoured method to reduce WVCs, the disadvantages of fencing are that it can constrain the movement of animals – usually by preventing access to adjacent habitats and impeding dispersal. In addition to causing increased population isolation, many South African fences are electrified and animals can be killed trying to move through or under the fences.
In our study to assess roadkill rates in the GMTFCA, more roadkill were detected when there was a gate, barrier or cattle fence, and less when there was an electric or game fence. This suggests that the higher and more permanent the structure, the more effective it is at preventing wildlife from crossing roads. However, fencing does not stop all animals from crawling through or jumping over them. Many South African antelope can easily jump over 2.4 m fences and other species will often dig under a fence, providing an opening for other animals.
Wildlife often frequent the roads in the GMTFCA, and it is not uncommon to see elephant, that have pushed over the electric fence, walking on the road, or kudu browsing on the road verge. So, whilst it was no shock to see this giraffe on the road, my concern for its safety was paramount.
Calling the reserve manager of an adjacent reserve, he quickly sent three of his game scouts and a vehicle to assist me with trying to force the giraffe back onto the reserve. The situation was becoming critical as the daylight gradually disappeared and a school bus almost collided with the giraffe.
The call for immediate action meant that we needed to stop any more vehicles passing, and use our vehicles to herd the giraffe to safety. Driving a Suzuki Jimny behind a 1,200 kg animal requires a bit of nerve. Most animals will move away from a vehicle, but this guy was ‘spooked’ and those giant back legs of his, that can disable a lion with a kick, were ominously close to my bonnet.
It took some time to force him towards a dirt road turn-off … mainly because other drivers insisted on trying to overtake us despite seeing what we were trying to…. and consequently spooking the giraffe further.
With two of the game scouts stood at the junction, to encourage the giraffe to turn, I eventually managed to edge him with the car towards them. He was still nervous …. So abandoning the car in the middle of the road, I ran down the road behind him, clapping and waving my arms like a lunatic.
Eventually he turned, and then started running along the dirt road. Quickly jumping back into the car, I hurried in pursuit after him …. only stopping to allow the two game scouts to jump in.
Harrying the giraffe for almost 3 km along the dirt road, we finally saw the cruiser with the other game scout. He’d opened the gate to the reserve, and we slowly inched behind the giraffe, pushing him towards the gate. Finally, with more arm-waving, we convinced him the reserve was a better place to be, and he galloped through the gate, to safety.
Little data are available from many areas of South Africa for collisions with large mammals but these are some of the things you can do to prevent a collision:
• Drive within the speed limits to increase your own and the wildlife’s reaction times.
• Slow down and hoot at wildlife that has been momentarily blinded to coax it into fleeing.
• Avoid littering, since food thrown out of car windows creates a roadside feast for scavenging wildlife.
• Be alert and slow down when you see an animal crossing in front of you, there may be more animals in the vicinity.
• Be alert at dawn and dusk and early evening, these are the times you are most likely to encounter wildlife on the roads.
• Take special care near animal crossing warning signs or signs warning of the absence of fences. The signs are there for a reason.
• If a collision seems inevitable, don’t swerve to avoid the animal; your risk of injury may be greater if you do. Maintain control of the vehicle. Report the accident to the police and your insurance company.