Conservation in South Africa: I’ll scratch your back…

This story first appeared in Vacations & Travel magazine, winter 2019, issue 111

Tourism plus wildlife plus community equals Team Africa. We explore a region where conservation initiatives are making a difference.

In the well-swept annex of the Madilika Craft Centre in the Justicia community bordering the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, coloured glass bottles from nearby safari lodges are being recycled into beads.

These bottles are being crushed and hand-rolled before they are dried and fired in a kiln that’s treated as lovingly as a newborn lion cub, then washed and threaded ready to join woven wire baskets, leather Christmas decorations and quilts in the gift shop.

The crafts are also sold to guests of the many private lodges in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, which abuts South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Among them, the andBeyond properties Kirkman’s Kamp and the new, sleek-as-a-leopard Tengile River Lodge. Between them, these support some 16 communities with wells, schools, teachers, clinics, bursaries, infrastructure and small business start-ups (encompassing everything from pig farming to vegetable gardens).

Conservation in South Africa: I'll scratch your back...
Several conservation groups are working to keep the rhinoceros and elephant populations thriving in South Africa

Safari operators have long recognised that the conservation of land and wildlife should involve local communities if tourism is to benefit them.

andBeyond has been designing high-end tours since 1991. The company owns and operates 29 lodges and camps and is known for its commitment to land, wildlife and people in equal measure.

They work with not-for-profits such as the Africa Foundation, which gets ventures such as Madilika off the ground. The community will approach the foundation about the best way to go about getting something it needs. Africa Foundation, established in 1992, smooths the path, approaches the most effective contacts, gets things underway. All projects are brought to a stage where they are handed over to the locals to operate.

Says Les Carlisle, group conservation manager of andBeyond, “Ninety-eight per cent of all projects that we have started in the past 25 years are still running. This is because we work with the communities and not for them.”

Carlisle believes communities have become much more relevant in securing land for conservation. They are increasingly partnering with organisations such as African Parks, a non-profit outfit that takes responsibility, with governments, for the rehabilitation and long-term management of protected areas.

Says Carlisle, “The African Parks model has had the biggest impact and will secure more land for conservation than any other project has or will be able to do. They secure the land first and then rebuild the conservation initiatives and restock wildlife numbers while interacting with the local people to keep the park relevant.”

Nelson Mandela’s oft-quoted summary says it all: “Ultimately conservation is about people. If you don’t have sustainable development around the [wildlife] parks, then people will have no interest in them, and the parks will not survive.” 

Conservation in South Africa: I'll scratch your back...
The Africa Foundation works on projects that communities need and ultimately, hands over to locals to operate. Image: Howard Cleland Africa Foundation

In 2019, numerous projects are focused on redistributing wildlife – lions, rhinos, elephants, leopards, cheetahs – in a bid to restore population balance decimated by poaching, habitat destruction, mining and human conflict.

In the 1960s there were an estimated 65,000 black rhino across Africa. By the early 1990s, poaching had reduced that number to just over 2,000.

Some say that Operation Rhino – established in the 1960s by conservationist Ian Player (brother of golfer Gary Player) – was one of the biggest conservation successes in the world. It helped bring the southern white rhino back from the brink of extinction in South Africa’s Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, boosting numbers to 20,000 by 2014.

Gorillas in Rwanda have been another success story. In the 1960s conservationist Dian Fossey brought the attention of the Rwandan government to seriously declining gorilla numbers due to poaching. They intervened and gorilla tourism is said to now be worth more than $US400 million per year.

As part of a $US4.5-million project, Rhinos Without Borders has, since 2014, transported 87 rhinos to Botswana where they had been hunted out. The goal is 100.

The World Wildlife Fund Black Rhino Range Expansion Project partners with landowners who have the right habitat to create new rhino populations. Since it was launched in 2003, 11 new black rhino populations have been created in South Africa and more than 160 black rhinos have been translocated. 

andBeyond’s flagship Phinda Game Reserve is said to have sent more cheetahs to other wildlife areas in southern Africa than any other.

The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation (LDF) dispenses grants for wild land conservation, marine conservation, climate change, innovative solutions, indigenous rights, and public advocacy.

In 2017, the fund partnered with the Wildlife Conservation Network to establish the Lion Recovery Fund (LRF), the aim of which is to double the number of lions in Africa to at least 30,000 by 2050, thereby regaining those lost over the past 25 years. To date, the LRF has invested US$4 million in 42 projects with 29 organisations in 18 countries to benefit lion conservation.

Recently four leading ecotourism competitors joined forces to help cement a future for Africa’s lions. The Lion Recovery Fund announced a partnership with andBeyond, Conservation Travel Foundation by Ultimate Safaris, Singita, and Wilderness Safaris to give further shape to the Lionscape Coalition mooted last year.

Each member of the Lionscape Coalition makes an annual philanthropic investment.

Sustainable Stay

The new Tengile River Lodge has a masculine glamour. Opened in December, the nine-suite lodge sits unobtrusively on a bend of the Sand River.

Guests who can tear themselves away from nature’s soap opera (visits from curious elephants, vervet monkeys hankering for granola, and the odd entitled leopard) can admire the interiors of stone, green marble, wood and leather, and guidebooks bound in dimpled khaki ostrich skin.

Each lodge is 200 square metres and has a lap pool, deck and a well-stocked bar.

Conservation in South Africa: I'll scratch your back...

Game drives at dawn and dusk bring guests face to face with frolicking elephants, courting lions, solitary rhinos, rare birds, leopards, hyenas, and the fast food of the savannah, the doe-eyed impala.  There are buffalo, kudu, a Nile crocodile, waterbuck, geese, and flocks of vultures.

In the Tengile River Lodge library, andBeyond Game Ranger Brett Devitt is outlining the collaboration between the Sabi Sand Game Reserve lodges and Panthera, a US outfit devoted to the conservation of the world’s 37 wild cat species, including cheetahs, jaguars, pumas and tigers.

Using high-resolution satellite imagery, surveys, and motion-triggered remote camera traps, Panthera’s scientists can follow lion and leopard populations, identifying those in jeopardy and seeing how conservation strategies are working.

Just as lions can be identified by a whisker spot pattern – a unique pattern like a human fingerprint – each leopard has different markings.

No detail is spared. Explains game ranger Brett Devitt: “After a drive, the guides open their laptop and capture on a map of the reserve the spot where everything was seen. If it’s a leopard, we can bring up all leopards in the system, identify which one we saw and make notes about cubs, its sex, and kills. Were the kills new, existing, scavenged, were they hoisted up a tree? It gives us mortality records.”

School programs are now educating young students about conservation and the value of the creatures on their doorstep.

Devit tnotes: “At the end of the day, if the animals aren’t making money for people, they won’t exist. The communities have to benefit.” 


Where to stay:
Tengile River Lodge –

Planning your trip:
Contact Sydney Africa specialists Jones & Turner Travel Associates –

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