The use of fire as a management tool to improve veld condition.
We are privileged to operate our safaris in the Maseke section of Balule Nature Reserve. Balule makes up part of the Associated Private Nature Reserves- an area of 197 885 ha to which Balule contributes a sizable 55000 ha. Together with the scientists of the National Park Board, decisions are made on how to best manage the fauna and flora with the ecological criteria of maintaining biodiversity.
The use of fire as a management tool is vitally important and the science of fire ecology is a changing and dynamic discipline. This year, with the high fuel load from consecutive years of higher-than-average rainfall, controlled burning just before the first rains, was employed by many reserve managers including Balule. We executed two successful block burns and are watching with interest to monitor the regrowth and recovery after the first rains we hope to receive soon.
The use of fire as a management tool for removing moribund material and promoting grass growth.
Last week early in the morning, Maseke Game Reserve staff and volunteers gathered at a predetermined site to start and subsequently control a bush fire. For many years range managers made the mistake of overprotecting the African bush from fires. This intervention had consequences which we are still dealing with today. One conspicuous result has been an increase in the woody component of the bush – or what is commonly termed; bush encroachment. Today we know that the African bush benefits from a well-timed and managed fire.
Fire is a useful tool in veld management and how and when you burn will depend on the result you wish to achieve. The removal of moribund plant material allows for better light penetration that stimulates grass growth. We generally try to emulate nature and burn at a time of the year when we could have a natural fire started by lightning. Electric storms occur in late winter and early summer- round about now, before the rains and when the grass is still dry from our winter months. The ground surface after a burn is highly susceptible to wind erosion and extreme fluctuations in temperature. We want to avoid leaving the land exposed for longer than necessary and prefer to burn close to when the first rains are expected.
The burning team assembled at two meeting points on roads on either side of the block to be burnt. A backburn was started next to the gravel road burning slowly against the breeze. Later a head fire was started against the opposite road and burning with the wind, moving much faster. A head fire tends to be less intense and preferable for our purpose so the majority of the burn was to be a head fire. The back burn was employed to prevent the head fire from ” jumping” over the fire break created against the road.
We used vehicles with water tanks and sprays and rubber beaters to kill fire that escapes or changes direction. The fire would flare up when reaching certain more flammable plants and when gusts of wind fanned the flames. It did jump our fire break and we had to then race ahead of the flames to closest road where we back burnt into the block. The smoke, the heat and the speed of a bush fire demands much respect.
We will watch with interest to see the wildlife return to the burnt area. Zebra are quick to move back and are often found on burnt tracts that are still smoldering. We hope for a good rainy season to attain the full benefit of the fire.
After experiencing as many as 36 September months in the Greater Kruger area, this time of the year still thrills me. Seldom have we seen such a prolific flowering of our most common Acacia trees and the air is fragrant, fresh and sweet with the scent of spring. The creamy white flowers are borne on a single unbranched inflorescence called a spike, a misnomer without a doubt for the fluffy soft blossoms clustered on the panicle. Giraffe appear chipmunk-cheeked munching on the yummy creamy white blossoms while birds, ranging from the delicate and nimble sun-birds to ungainly go-away birds eat their fill. Busy bees start at dawn humming happily pollinating and collecting nectar. This Knobthorn acacia is truly the favourite of the time.
At nDzuti Safari Camp, we are privileged to have access to a portion of the Olifants River as it meanders through the bushveld and into the Kruger Park. Hippos and crocodiles abound along this wide shallow river. I recall the reflection of hundreds of sets of eyes shining back at us one night as we shone a spotlight over the Olifants River at Bangu Gorge close to the Mozambiquan border. Crocs are masters of concealment; while searching for them and looking out over the river for a while; a partially submerged or log-lookalike croc might suddenly materialise, having been there in front of you all the time.
Crocs are often encountered sunning themselves of the riverbank. Being ectotherms crocodiles and all other reptiles regulate their body temperature using the environment. When crocs feel too hot they may lie out on the river bank with their mouths wide open. The breeze over the moist surface of the mouth interior causes cooling like the pant of dog does.
Crocodiles and the ambient temperature are closely connected in more ways than this. Crocodile hatchlings have their sex determined by the temperature of the nest in which the eggs grow.
Typically, all embryos start out as female but may become male when certain environmental conditions are reached. At a certain high temperature within the nest, androgenic hormones are produced by the embryos and male sex organs in the baby crocs begin to develop. It follows that the site of the nest, whether in the sun or a shady spot will determine the sex of the crocodile hatchlings.
Crocodiles are fascinating primitive creatures and a joy to watch living in the natural wild environment of the iconic Kruger Park.
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