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World Perspective | ENVIRONMENT

A Silver Lining to Storm Clouds' Deluge in Africa

A wildlife reserve just across the border from Mozambique was revitalized by the recent flooding, which scoured its fragile river system clean.

March 17, 2000|DEAN E. MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KRUGER NATIONAL PARK, South Africa — Last month's floods across southern Africa struck a heavy blow here in the region's premier wildlife sanctuary, but park officials say the flora and fauna are all the better for it.

Most of Kruger National Park, a reserve the size of Israel that hugs the border with Mozambique, was deluged. Bridges were knocked out, campsites swept away and safari lodges overrun. The high-water mark on the restaurant wall at Skukuza Rest Camp, one of the worst-hit areas, drips 6 feet above the soggy floor.

Authorities estimate that it will cost $12 million to repair the damage to Kruger's roads and other facilities. Moreover, about $1.5 million in revenue was lost during the last three weeks of February, when most of the 101-year-old park was closed to tourists.

"The staff has also been severely affected," said William Mabasa, the park's communications manager. "More than 40 houses have been flooded."

A visit to the office of Danie Pienaar, manager of scientific services for the South African National Parks, gives no hint of doom and gloom, however. Pienaar's feet may have gotten wet, but he is all smiles when asked about last month's weather.

Rangers spotted several buffalo carcasses floating down the park's big rivers, he says, and some frightened baboons barely escaped death by clinging to trees. But their trauma was the exception. Most animals made it to high ground well ahead of the flood waters.

More important, Pienaar says, the park's thorough scouring worked wonders on its half a dozen rivers, a fragile mainstay of the ecosystem.

"It is not all bad news," he said. "The rivers and surrounding areas have been given a face lift. Much of the park has been reset to what it was after the floods of 1925."

Like wildfires in Southern California, floods here are both a destructive ritual of Mother Nature and an essential element to sustaining life. The last big disaster occurred 75 years ago, when rising waters at the Skukuza railroad bridge--one of the park's highest landmarks--came within 9 feet of the tracks. The February flood waters sloshed 3 feet shy of that record.

Scientists say the rush of water cleared away mounds of sedimentation that had clogged some rivers so thoroughly that they had begun to split in two. The biggest beneficiary has been the Sabie River, where bedrock long buried beneath silt deposits has resurfaced, even creating white water in some places.

The floods also uprooted and washed away many destructive plants not native to the area. One of the most damaging, the flowering ground cover known as lantana, is commonly planted upstream outside the boundaries of the park. But it has slowly crept down the riverbanks, strangling indigenous vegetation along the way.

Several years ago, South African water officials began deploying crews to clear the plant from the so-called catchment areas of the rivers, but the process is painstakingly slow and yields little reward.

"This flood in a day did more than those workers would have been able to do in 10 to 20 years," Pienaar said. "The Sabie River, in particular, is a completely changed river. It is young again."

The drenching also eased growing fears that several plant and animal species native to the park would be wiped out in the next few years.

The flowering matumi tree, an evergreen with roots that typically cling to rocky riverbeds, was facing enemies on two fronts: The creeping lantana was making survival difficult for seedlings on the banks, whereas the bedrock essential to the matumi's growth was disappearing beneath the mounds of silt in the rivers.

The habitat of the barred minnow, a colorful striped fish that flourishes in rocky rivers, was also being destroyed by the excessive soil deposits. And although the park's hippo population remains healthy, scientists had feared that, over time, the river mammals would find the waterways too shallow and begin moving out of the park.

Said Pienaar: "The nice thing is that now we don't have to worry about these things for at least another 40 years."

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