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New Beginnings for SANParks

30 October 2006

Vaalbos National Park is on the move from its current location near Barkley West in the Northern Cape, to an area south west of Kimberly, currently known as Wintershoek. Along with the move comes a new name (yet to be announced) and essentially a new national park. The move involves huge logistical operations, including the translocation of about 1200 animals, and the establishment of new facilities…

The establishment of the new 19 611 ha national park south west of Kimberly is the result of the de-proclamation of Vaalbos National Park following a successful land claim made on a section of the current park by the Sidney on Vaal claimants.

The new park, currently referred to as Wintershoek, is similar to the old park in size, climate and vegetation and is in an area that has been protected from mining and other industrial activities. “Two independent studies were done to look for an alternative site”, explains Park Manager Deon Joubert, “and both indicated that the Wintershoek area would be ideal for the new park in terms of SANParks biodiversity, conservation and tourism mandates”.

SANParks hopes to be able to open the new park on the 1st of December 2006. “Once the move is complete, the new park will be named and officially proclaimed at a launch ceremony”, explains Henriette Engelbrecht, Media and Marketing Manager for the SANParks Arid Region.

Before that happens, however, a huge number of animals need to be settled into new homes in the Wintershoek and other national parks, and a large amount of infrastructure needs to be put in place or upgraded. Work began early this year, with the first phase of animal relocations completed in March 2006.

In this first phase, 234 animals were relocated to other national parks like Tankwa and Augrabies Falls National Parks in the Northern Cape, Addo Elephant National Park in the Eastern Cape and Mapungubwe National Park in Limpopo. “This is to ensure that we spread the gene pool and maintain healthy animal populations in all of our parks”, explains Engelbrecht.

Phase two, which started on 22 June, was scheduled specifically for the winter season for heat sensitive animals and 346 more animals were moved. Animals relocated during both phases include 5 White Rhinos ; 11 Giraffe; 163 Red Hartebeest; 43 Blue Wildebeest; 39 Teesside; 85 Gemsbok; 36 Plains Zebra; 76 Springbok; 10 Eland and 141 Buffalos.

“This type of operation is extremely challenging”, explains Engelbrecht, “but the game capture team is incredibly professional, and the animals welfare is of prime importance throughout the operation, so much so that different animals are catered for differently depending on their age, temperaments and physical condition”.

The game is monitored throughout the move and after the move to ensure the health and safety of the animals in their new home. “The animals moved in the first two phases have adapted very well, especially as the conditions in the new park are similar to those of the old park”, says Engelbrecht. Many animals have even calved, including a giraffe that gave birth to a healthy calf just days after the move.

The third phase of this massive operation took place at the beginning of October, with the SANParks animal capture team from Kimberley working round the clock to ensure that the move remained on target. This last phase was planned specifically for this time of year in order to move animals like the Black Rhino which are sensitive to cold temperatures.

A typical capture operation takes place early in the day, and much of it is complete before midday. The logistical operation involved an integration of various services, equipment and personnel from SANParks and other specialised wildlife services. Two veterinary doctors; three assistants and 12 park rangers form a core part of the capture team; while 4 large translocation trucks, 2 specialised containers for Rhino transportation, 1 crane truck and a helicopter are also used.

Tobey Matlaisane, SANParks Stakeholder and Media Liaison Practitioner, who attended the capture operation, stresses how polished the team is. “Whether darting or driving game into a boma, there was no stress, no shouting, no drama, just speed, efficiency and a high degree of professionalism. You can see the team has done this many times and that they really care for these animals and consider their comfort at all times”, she adds.

In total the translocation involved moving roughly 1 200 animals. Pregnant, old and sensitive animals like Black Rhino are the hardest to move, but the state veterinarian is present during the entire operation to ensure that procedures and safety elements are adhered to. “The unspoilt condition of the new park has provided plenty of vegetation and a calm environment for the animals and this will assist in their quick rehabilitation,” adds Engelbrecht.

The new park is made up of Kalahari Thornveld, Savanna and Nama Karoo, interspersed with rocky outcrops, and a wetland area that stretches for 18 kilometres. The new park will offer a range of accommodation and activities, as well great restaurants and conference and team-building facilities. A lot of work has gone into establishing a good road network and, and ensuring that a high standard is maintained throughout the park.