South Africa — Horrified tourists have accused Kruger National Park authorities of setting off a raging firestorm that burnt several rhino badly and killed at least one.
The fires were so intense that Nasas observatory flagged it as their image of the day on September 25.
SANParks described the inferno as a controlled weather-related experiment in Afsaal, in the south of the park, to test the effectiveness of very fast and intense fire in controlling brush.
It said it had expected the animals to run away from the blaze.
One of the rhinos that got burnt at the Kruger National Park during a controlled fire.
But one tourist, who did not want to be named, told Independent Newspapers fireballs were literally being fired from helicopters on September 15, which resulted in at least three rhino being burnt.
We came across a rhino that had severe burns, especially on its back legs and stomach, between Renosterpan. We were totally horrified by the sight of particularly the burnt rhino as it had no skin left on its tummy, the flesh literally falling off its leg, a burnt eye and it was walking with difficulty. I say dont keep it in its agony. I just want Kruger to take some responsibility.
Two days later we came across another rhino on the same road, just north of the Renosterpan road. Im convinced this was not the same rhino wed seen previously.
On the little Jock road just south of Afsaal theres a carcass of a rhino that had died in the fire. Rangers were aware of this rhino and had removed its horns. We came across these rhino within a few kilometres of each other.
But Reynold Thakuli, a spokesman for SANParks, said it only had reports of one rhino that succumbed to the fire, and another that was injured.
The dead rhinos horns were removed and are stored in a place of safety. When the vet arrived at the scene, it had already died. I dont have the results on the one that was alive in terms of prognosis. As far as I know, no other casualties were recorded.
The guys in the Kruger were doing an experimental fire in various weather patterns. These people know what they are doing. Its not like they go out of their way to burn the veld and dont take cognisance of the animals there.
These kinds of things happen. Animals are able to respond to floods and fire and run away. Its in the wild and you expect these animals to behave in a certain way and get out of the situation. Unfortunately these two couldnt move quickly and get away from the fire. Its just unfortunate those rhinos were caught in the fire.
Sometimes fires are started by nature and how are we expected to respond? When we have floods are we still going to get blamed? People mustnt personalise these things.
It appears the first time a fire of this kind was set off in the park in hot, dry weather to test its effectiveness in clearing out encroaching woody vegetation.
An injured rhino spotted by a visitor to the Kruger National Park. The rhino was burned when San Parks set a fire to do “weather experiments”.
Kruger Park spokeswoman Laura Mukwevho said veld fires were part of the African landscape and were necessary to keep bush encroachment at bay.
This fire was done on a hot day as part of the experiment. Because fire does occur naturally through lightning and so on, nature warns no one, including animals, she said.
Thakuli said: Weve never had a situation like this before. Its highly unfortunate but we do have fire control policy that ensures what we do is carried out in the proper way.
The tourists have questioned whether park staff acted sufficiently to proactively herd the animals from the area before the veld was set alight and whether any mopping up was done after the fires to either relieve animals from their suffering or treat the injured animals.
Thakuli stated: Sometimes you cant rush in and try to assist the animals you just have to let nature take its course.
One tourist said vast tracts of the southern portion of the park, where she said most of the parks rhino population roamed, had been burnt in the fire. Theres not a leaf or a blade of grass for miles. Thats a huge difference from a little burn. Its burnt to hell.
Our feeling is because these things (the rhino) were so overwhelmed they had nowhere to run to the fire was so big. Youre setting fire to slow moving animals, who are probably asleep, and then totally surrounded by fire.
This week, the government held a summit to discuss the massive spike in rhino poaching that has left over 210 of the animals dead this year alone.
My concern is if were so concerned about poaching, weve got this cavalier attitude that these rhino got caught in fire and not as many died as expected. Thats not good enough for me coming from the custodians of our national assets, said one tourist.
But Thakuli said: Our population of rhinos is one of the biggest successes in the world. We are the custodians of our national parks. Its disturbing to have those kinds of comments from visitors.