Livingstone Maluleke stands under the giant trunk of a baobab tree and casts his mind back 30 years. "This is where the chief would sit to give judgment on tribal matters," he says quietly, recalling a way of life that ended abruptly when he was 13 years old. "The indunas [headmen or counselors] would come from the 10 villages and sit around him in a circle. This tree was the center of the Makuleke people and our way of life."
Forty years ago somebody carved the word "Makuleke" into the spongy bark, but several letters have since been gouged away by the tusk of a foraging elephant. Only animals are allowed to roam here now. A nearby pile of crumbling mud bricks, once a tiny primary school, is the sole sign of past human habitation.
Apart from a handful of game rangers, nobody has lived here for nearly 30 years. In 1969, armed with apartheid laws, the white government decided to evict the 10 villages of the Makuleke tribe - part of the Shangaan-speaking ethnic group - from their ancestral home at Pafuri, between the Luvuvhu and Limpopo Rivers, and turn the land over to the adjacent Kruger National Park.
It was a high-water mark, both for apartheid and the park. Already bigger than Israel, the Kruger National Park now stretched 200 miles from the Crocodile River in the south to the northern frontier on the Limpopo. White game rangers clad in neat khaki uniforms tended the wilderness, and the only blacks allowed to enter this area were patrol guards and the servants who fixed the roads and cleaned the rest areas.
But apartheid formally ended four years ago, and the tide is now flowing the other way. At the end of May, the National Parks Board signed a deal with the Makuleke people acknowledging their right to the 62,500 acres of land they lost at Pafuri in 1969. It is the first breach in the park's jealously preserved integrity, and symbolizes the new political and economic challenges that it faces in 1998, its centenary year.
A hundred years after the president of the then-Transvaal Republic, Paul Kruger, founded Africa's first public game reserve, the park that bears his name is acknowledged to be one of the world's greatest conservation areas.
Stretching across 19,000 square kilometers (7,326 square miles) and 35 distinct vegetation zones, the park teems with several large mammal species that are either endangered or extinct in other parts of Africa. Following their reintroduction in 1961, 2,000 southern white rhinoceros, on the verge of extinction outside South Africa, and 250 of their even more endangered black cousins, now make their home here.
Elephants and Cape buffalo are so plentiful that in recent years the Parks Board controversially resorted to large-scale culling. Other herbivores are kept in check by plentiful lions, cheetahs, hyenas, and leopards. Crocodiles and hippos bask in the park's rivers and dams.
Drawn by well-maintained roads and comfortable, affordable rest camps, a million people now visit the park each year. With the end of South Africa's international isolation, about 20 percent of these visitors now come from abroad.
Yet for all its evident success as a conservancy and tourist attraction, the park will still have to work hard to secure its long-term future.
South African President Nelson Mandela's new multiracial government says it intends to protect South Africa's national parks as part of the world's ecological heritage, but at the same time it has made it clear that the parks must do more to include the previously ignored peoples who live on their boundaries.
Nowhere is this problem more acute than along Kruger Park's western edge, where hundreds of thousands of blacks are still crammed into the impoverished former "homelands" of Lebowa, Gazankulu, and Venda. According to Elizabeth Mhlongo, head of the park's newly created department of social ecology, Kruger Park now has to coordinate with more than 100 tribal communities that speak four languages and number from 3,000 to 15,000 people each.
Most tribes have memories of access to hunting and grazing in current park lands, and few see much point in leaving scarce land - even marginal scrub - for wild animals. Politically, the black communities are closer to South Africa's new rulers than the white elites that built and - to a large extent - still maintain Kruger Park. The reserve's long-term security depends on persuading blacks to change their minds. This is where the social ecology department comes in.
"Looking at Kruger Park and where it was historically and in relation to the community, this job wasn't easy," says Ms. Mhlongo, a black sociologist who first set foot in the park for her job interview two years ago.
"Starting off, a lot of people were hostile. They lost a lot of their livestock and their land in the formation of the park and for years there was no communication with the park authorities."
With a handful of assistants, Mhlongo set about making tribal communities along the park more aware of their stolen natural heritage and devising plans to help them benefit from the park.
The park is currently pursuing a long-term plan to purchase all its fresh produce from local communities rather than commercial farms, and Mhlongo also hopes to interest tourists in cultural performances by local peoples and visits to reconstructed traditional villages.
Already, the Parks Board has organized the local artists who used to sell curios and carvings along the Numbi approach road into a cooperative, and offered them further training in techniques like weaving and bronze casting.
Mhlongo says that as contacts increase, hostile feelings are beginning to abate. "People are beginning to learn that the Kruger Park is not the Kruger Park of the past," she says.
The gradual darkening of the National Parks Board's face has helped. Two years ago, only 10 percent of those filling the board's top four grades were nonwhite. Today, says Parks Board spokesman Thys Steyn, 70 percent of those in management jobs are black.
Rather than feeding off the park's spin-off benefits, a small number of black communities are now trying to get directly involved in the wildlife tourism business themselves.
Leading the way are the above-mentioned Maluleke people who, in a ground-breaking departure, have signed a deal with Kruger Park for joint management of their ancestral lands in Pafuri.
According to Livingstone Makuleke, the tribe decided that it will abandon its right to resettle and graze the land. Instead, it plans to set up two luxury game lodges and build a cultural museum based on a replica of the original chief's kraal (compound), beneath the baobab tree.
Tribe members (Maluleke estimates that 11,000 now live at nearby Saselamani, where the community was relocated in 1969) will have access to their ancestors' graves - held sacred in most African cultures. The money raised for tourism will be used to improve education, health, and community facilities.
The plan is based on hard-headed commercial realities. Farther south, in places like Timbavati and Sabie Sands, dozens of white ranch owners have pooled their agriculturally marginal land to form private conservancies dotted with profitable game lodges.
Some, like world-famous Londolozi and Mala Mala, can charge more than 3,000 rand ($500) a night for luxury accommodation and game drives led by expert trackers and rangers.
In the new South Africa, the black communities whose lands adjoin the park are beginning to realize that they too are free to get in on the act.