/ 2 September 2008

How park staff saved animals from blaze

A structure in an animal enclosure burns on Sunday as a fire swept through the Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve in Gauteng
A structure in an animal enclosure burns on Sunday as a fire swept through the Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve in Gauteng

As dozens of deadly fires swept across six provinces on the weekend, staff at the Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve in the Cradle of Humankind area, north-west of Johannesburg, battled to save animals and birds from the flames.

A veld fire destroyed an estimated 5 000ha in the region on Sunday and swept across the park, fanned by strong winds.

Ed Hern, owner of the reserve, told the Mail & Guardian Online on Tuesday that about 150ha of grazing land were lost in the park. A mobile home was also destroyed, and the overall damage is estimated at about R150 000.

Veronique Palmer, a volunteer at the park, described how a plume of smoke appeared close to the park at about 10am on Sunday morning.

”Within an hour the park was engulfed,” she said. ”The wind was howling in every direction. There was no way to predict which was it was going to drive the flames next.”

Staff evacuated the restaurant and animal crèche as visitors rushed to leave the park.

Some animal enclosures caught fire, incinerating four marabou storks. Staff members loaded three jaguar cubs and a cheetah into bakkies, and evacuated five lion cubs to a night room. Horses were let out to run in the main crèche area, and birds were set free.

”The main concern was the tigers. There was nowhere to relocate five grown tigers,” said Palmer.

Thick smoke blew into the leopard, cheetah, monkey, mongoose, caracal, crocodile, owl and bush-baby areas. ”The roan antelope panicked, got trapped in the picnic area and was running around the perimeter and trying to break through the fence,” said Palmer. ”We couldn’t get him to go out the gates we opened, so they cut the fence open so he could escape.”

The blaze stopped halfway through an enclosure holding two seven-month-old tigers, and the big cats, along with bat-eared foxes, hyenas, ground hornbills and other animals, were not harmed.

”Every able body pitched in to help, using anything that would carry water to drench areas that were in danger of the flames. Neighbouring farmers arrived with their families and their homemade fire engines to put out flames,” described Palmer.

Hern said the park, which was open again by Tuesday morning, emerged from the disaster relatively unscathed, adding that neighbouring farmers had lost much more, including firefighting equipment and lucerne.

Founded in 1985 by Hern, the reserve boasts 25 different species of game, as well as lions, cheetahs, tigers, wild dogs and other predators. As part of a breeding programme, 18 white-rhino calves have been born at the park to date.

Dozens of fires fanned by gale-force winds left at least 20 people dead over the weekend and destroyed thousands of hectares of veld in KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, the Free State, Gauteng and Limpopo.

On the net
Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve