Hotels in the KNP and the culling of elephants

Herewith  letter written by 
 Dr Salomon Joubert, a
previous director of the Kruger national Park, who spent his whole
career there, on the building of hotels and the culling of elephants
in the KNP. This letter are intended to be made public, so please
forward them as you see fit.

Mr Glenn Phillips,

Managing Executive: Tourism Development and Marketing,

South African National Parks.


By email:

Dear Glenn,

Please allow me to share a few thoughts with you.


The intention of SANParks to build a hotel at Malelane, and the possibility of another at Skukuza, has (is) causing some rather serious concern. This is a dramatic deviation from the established norms and ethos for the Kruger National Park and is bound to illicit opposition.


I have already expressed my opposition to the idea of an hotel. Unfortunately and unnecessarily this has resulted in some personal spats but I would like to believe that they are now done and buried. The fact that I differ from SANParks on this issue, and possibly in future on some other issues, does not influence my personal relationships with friends and (ex)colleagues, it does not change my attitude towards SANParks and, least of all, it does not in any way impact on the pride and joy I nurture for our national parks, in particular the KNP. The views I express are sincere and honest.


The fact that there are opposing views can only be to the benefit of the decision-making process. In a matter as serious as the development of hotels the more involvement there is in the mix of viewpoints the greater the chances of a rational approach being adopted. It is in this spirit that I would like to submit a short overview of the philosophical development of tourism facilities in the KNP that could possibly play a role in guiding decisions to be taken.


Tourism to the KNP started in 1923 with the institution of the “Round-in nine” railway tours to the Lowveld by the South African Railways. This tour included an overnight stop at Skukuza which proved immensely popular and resulted in a close working relationship with the SAR.


When the KNP was proclaimed in 1926 there were no facilities for tourists. At one of its earliest meetings, in 1927, the newly appointed National Parks Board rejected a proposal by the SAR to erect an hotel at Skukuza. After some experimentation accommodation in the early rest camps was provided in the form of rondavels and squaredavels. At the end of his illustrious career as Warden of the KNP, in 1946, Col Stevenson-Hamilton accepted that most of the rest camps were incorrectly placed and argued that “… any hotels and in future new camps should be sited outside the Park’s western boundary …. the enlargement and/or increase of rest camps in the midst of the Park should in future be avoided.” On his retirement he summarised his basic philosophy, typed in capitals, as flows:




During the Second World War tourism largely ground to a halt. Soon after, however, rest camps were renovated and opened to the public. It was also a time that considerable attention was given to the harmonizing of the roles of conservation and tourism. In this respect Stevenson-Hamilton’s successor, Col Sandenburgh, expressed the view that “the primary object of the KNP is that it shall provide a sanctuary wherein nature will be left undisturbed” but lamented that “there seems a deplorable lack of the real conception of what the word ‘sanctuary’ really means and that there is a need for public instruction. Our object should be to create an atmosphere wherein the people will feel that the KNP is not only a Sanctuary for wildlife but also a Sanctuary for them from the hustle and bustle, the cares and tribulations, and the squalors of civilised life.”


To gain some clarity on this issue the Board appointed Prof F Hoek as a one-man commission in 1953 to advise it on the best way forward in developing the KNP’s tourism facilities. The ‘Hoek Commission’ recommended, inter alia, that the Provincial Administration be requested to build a major road along the length of the western boundary, outside the KNP; that several rest camps be demolished and new one’s be built on the western boundary; that the KNP be divided into five sections (on the basis of ecological divides) and that tourists not be allowed to travel from one section to the next within the Park. Travel from one section to the next would only be possible along the public road along the western boundary.


The Hoek Commission strongly recommended that control over tourist numbers be exercised and was of the opinion that the Southern District had already reached its maximum. It was emphatic that “a standpoint must now be taken: must the KNP become simply a holiday resort or must it be a sanctuary in the true sense?”


In 1955 the Fifth International Congress on Tourism resolved that “all authorities charged with the administration of national parks and nature reserves be requested to undertake detailed scientific research into the effects of tourism on wildlife and, based on the findings of such research, to determine the development of tourism in the parks .” In this regard the KNP’s biologist, Dr Nel, quoted from The paradox of National Parks (Boyle) that “the spirit and force behind the National Park idea has, in all countries, been the demand for the preservation of nature; so that something shall remain as it used to be, unspoilt by the advance of civilisation. There has, of course, also been a demand for places of recreation, but that quite different demand can be satisfied in quite a different way, by the development of holiday resorts of many different kinds. …. There is in humanity a very deep-seated love of wild nature, which National Parks must satisfy, or else degenerate to become merely ‘playgrounds’ for the people”.


Dr Nel cautioned that the pursuit of commercial gains was rapidly eroding away the primary objective of nature conservation and warned that the unchecked growth in tourist numbers resulted in the Board “… being forced to provide more and better amenities … which in turn draw more ‘popularity’ and ‘money’ … The result in the long run is the debasement of the higher and lasting values of wildlife conservation, that is the cultural values which call for sacrifices and not reward, and which endanger the purpose of a national park.”


During the early 1960’s the then Director of the National Parks Board, Dr R Knobel, expressed the following sentiments regarding tourist facilities: “Visitor accommodation should in no way detract from nature and should certainly not try to compete with nature as a draw card to any national park or reserve. Visitor accommodation should be simple and not luxurious and it should be such that it does not, in what it offers, attract visitors to the area who do not primarily wish to visit the area, to be recreated through their experience by their contact with nature … I hold the view that when visitors start demanding entertainment in accommodation areas it is a sure sign that the concentration is too large and that city-like conditions have been created. Such conditions call for entertainment to allow an escape from reality.” Knobel also warned that “… we must never try to combine national parks … with pleasure resorts. Both would be the loser.”


In 1981 the Government made a substantial grant available for the expansion of tourism facilities in our national parks, with the purpose of making them more self-sufficient (and less dependent on Government subsidies). A large percentage of this grant was allocated to the KNP for the purpose of renovating existing facilities and creating new ones. Noting the negative effects of overcrowding the Park Warden, Dr Pienaar, warned that, “in the absence of exact criteria (to determine optimal tourist numbers) one must inevitably fall back on more abstract parameters to determine the balance between a unique national park experience … and the feeling of disappointment and exploitation of visitors in an over-saturated area which has the same urgency, restlessness and tension from which the average tourist tries to escape. (One must assess this) … in the South African context as opposed to, for example, the American approach.” A large number of tourist facilities were proposed, including new rest camps, ‘private’ camps, picnic spots and roads.


The Research Section objected to some of the proposals but supported others subject to the following:

§       The preservation of the pristine qualities of the ecosystems receive precedence over any conflicting tourist facilities.

§       The provision of tourist facilities should be subject to a zoning system, based on ecological sensitivities. Proposed zones were high, intermediate and low development areas, and semi-wilderness and wilderness areas.

§       Development on the peripheries of the Park should take precedence.

§       Roads with accompanying gravel pits should be limited and consideration be given to single lane one-way traffic roads and four-wheel drive tracks.

§       That no artificial water resources would be created for the purpose of increasing animal population densities for the sake of tourists.


To address the above issues the Research Section proposed that the existing management plan for the KNP be revised by a Planning Committee, with representation by all sections of the administration of the KNP. The objective of the Planning Committee would be to compile an all-embracing management plan to include all issues relevant to the management of the Park, and to continuously update such issues as the need arose and/or more information became available.


During the 1980’s and early 1990’s three independent assessments of the attitudes of tourists to the KNP were made. In a qualitative, rather than merely quantitative, survey the major results obtained by Dr Odendaal (University of Pretoria) included the following:

§       The natural environment was the major interest of visitors, especially the tranquility and solitude it offered.

§       There was a strong need for more trails and opportunities to make closer contact with nature.

§       There was a strong need for more environmental education.

§       Visitors were averse to recreational facilities (with the exception of swimming pools) and expected an “… introspective experience in which they could find peace of mind and tranquility’.

§       Most visitors were of the opinion that rest camps could be “… even smaller and more primitive”.

§       There was a general feeling that camping areas were being neglected.


In a survey by Du Toit and Van Aswegen a positive correlation was found between the responses of visitors to matters such as service delivery, tariffs, etc. and the quality of the ‘nature experience’. The higher the rating of the ‘nature experience’ the higher the ratings (acceptance) of other services and tariffs!


In two separate follow-up surveys Ms Willemse and Prof Puth, both of the University of Pretoria, reported that visitors were satisfied that the Park complied with nature conservation expectations, that they felt that the Park should, first and foremost, be a national park with conservation objectives and that recreational and entertainment facilities do not belong in the Park.


TV sets in chalets have consistently been rejected in KNP attitude surveys.


Throughout the past 86 years that tourists have had access to the KNP the emphasis by the Park authorities and the demands by tourists for a quality experience have consistently been to promote an intimate engagement with nature, both in terms of the facilities provided and the experiences offered. Recreational facilities and ‘modernisation’ have been strongly rejected in favour of the tranquility, serenity and wilderness ambience of the natural surroundings.


Around 2000 SANParks allocated a number of concessions to private operators in the KNP. Luxury lodges were built and exclusive traversing rights were awarded to the concessionaires. This development was criticised on the grounds that it violated national parks principles and policies. However, the then CEO, Mr Mavuso Msimang, personally conveyed to me that the justification for the concessions was to make SANParks financially more self-sufficient as government grants were likely to be withdrawn. At the same time outlets, such as the restaurants and shops, were also made available to private entrepreneurs, ostensibly for the same reason.


It is difficult to imagine how the proposed hotel will differ from the series of concession lodges run in the KNP. These lodges offer exclusivity, full board and lodging and have their own road networks. The concession lodges, as a matter of principle, are already difficult, if not impossible, to come to terms with (private enterprise operating in our flagship national park!). The proposed hotel at Malelane, in the busiest and already overcrowded region of the Park, can hardly be regarded as anything but bizarre!


Against the background outlined above, the very concept of an up-market hotel, with all associated mod-cons, flies in the face of every value the Board (SANParks) has ever stood for in the provision of tourist accommodation.


It would appear that the major motivations for the hotel are to strengthen constituency building, in particular to create opportunities to attract the higher income segment of the Black market and to make provision for income generation to achieve financial self-sufficiency for SANParks. As far as the first priority is concerned the network of concessions is already available, which provides for the exclusivity and services SANParks wishes to provide with the hotel [these lodges are running at an annual occupancy rate of something below 35% (KNP Tourism Management Plan)]. As far as the second is concerned the government is holding the pistol to SANPark’s head with the threat that it cannot afford to subsidise our national parks to the tune of some R153 million over the next three years (say, R60 million/year).


In recent months the following has been aired in the media:

  • In a speech by our Minister of Finance, Mr Pravin Gordhan, he castigated his cabinet colleagues for irresponsible over-spending on projects (e.g. building schools for R40 million when they should cost no more than R25 million);
  • The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, released a report in which it was stated that the government has incurred expenditure of some R1.5 billion on non-essential items, such as motor cars, hotel expenses and the likes since President Zuma has taken office, and
  • In the 2008 / 2009 financial year a sum of R100 million was stolen from the State by civil servants, and of those found guilty around 90% are still in office (Public Service Commission report).


And this government cannot afford to subsidise its national parks with something like R60 million per annum? I find this totally unacceptable and personally I think it is time for the public to be consulted on this issue. In the same vein, it is also time for the government to clearly inform the public regarding its commitment (or otherwise) regarding our national parks. The government cannot continue threatening the withdrawal of grants to our national parks without clearly stating its case.


No-one in his right frame of mind will doubt the priority given to the pressing issues of the day, such as health care, education, housing, service provision, etc., and the huge amounts of expenditure they will incur. But many will seriously question the sincerity of this government’s commitment towards its national parks by threatening to withdraw a mere R60 million per year for the maintenance and perpetuation of the most precious assets of all the people of South Africa!


Since the early 1980’s several developments have been undertaken in the name of achieving independence from government grants. The KNP Tourism Management Plan 2007 – 2011 also clearly states that since 1994 “the new democratic government granted less Government subsidies to the KNP and the financial situation deteriorated.”


So far, however, all attempts to reach financial self sufficiency have been unsuccessful and are likely to continue that way. This is primarily due to the fact that if the preservation of the natural, unspoilt attributes of our national parks (wilderness atmosphere, tranquility, serenity, sense of place, etc.) are to continue to be the primary objective underpinning the values offered to tourists trendy commercial ventures, resort activities and mod-cons (such as TV’s) will be shunned as they do not comply with the established ethos of national parks. This is clearly reflected in all the attitude surveys conducted in the KNP in the past. This was also borne out in the SWOT analysis undertaken by the KNP and in which stakeholders across the board participated. Priorities highlighted were a call for an

▫      “appreciation of peace and tranquility or ‘sense of place’;

▫      a demand for “more camping and caravan sites”;

▫      “more roads and tourist infrastructure (picnic sites, hides, stop-over points with toilets, etc.) built in a ‘close to nature’ rustic style”;

▫      “… reduced crowding at view sites and congestion on the roads”;

▫      “provision of heritage guides in camps”,

▫      “cell-phone free zones”, etc. (KNP Tourism Management Plan 2007 – 2011).


The KNP Tourism Management Plan also repeatedly refers to “nature based tourism”, sense of place, dangers of overcrowding, etc.


From the statistics provided by the Management Plan it is clear that the level of overcrowding in the Marula region has already reached, possibly even exceeded, its limits.


In line with the above the following from the same document is profoundly relevant: “the concept of overcrowding in a national park leads directly to the very relevant debate around the merits of ‘more visitors, more revenue’, against the opposing view that ‘high wilderness values guarantee quality visitor experiences’. Also see the conclusions reached by Du Toit and Van Aswegen, referred to above, which indicated that a high quality nature experience resulted in more appreciation for other services. In this respect, please refer to the Management Plan for the comments of stakeholders on aspects such as service and maintenance standards and staff attitudes in the KNP – something that you can hardly be proud of!


Furthermore, under the caption of Tourism Thresholds for the KNP the following, amongst others, are listed as negatives:

▫      “vehicles on the roads (especially in the Marula region)”;

▫      “noise levels in some camps”;

▫      “number of visitors in some camps”;

▫      “exposure of visitors to Park non-core personnel (stakeholders find some staff behaviour in the Park unacceptable, e.g. speeding)” and

▫      “standards of service delivery”.


In the light of the above I believe the concept of high-income (4-star) hotels with breakfast and guided drives are totally alien to the spirit and ethos of the KNP. That these kind of developments may be a priority in the emerging tourism markets elsewhere in South Africa is quite acceptable but entirely out of place in the KNP! As in the case of government grants I believe that the general public should be consulted on this issue if SANParks decides to persevere with the Malelane hotel.


On the issue of state funding the following enters one’s mind: what if the proposed hotel (and any others that may be in the pipeline) do not succeed in achieving financial sustainability – what are the next gimmicks that will be enforced upon our national parks? Where is this going to end? Either we have national parks, in the true and proud sense of national parks, or we have a conglomerate of business / recreational resorts. And, in the case of the latter, accept that the heart and soul of our national parks have been shamelessly sacrificed!!


Thank you for bearing with me and I am grateful for the opportunity of putting these thoughts on paper.


Kind regards,

Salomon Joubert



Letter copied to:

Dr David Mabunda

Mr Joep Stevens


Minister of Environmental Affairs

Minister of Tourism








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