Thirty years ago, a ranger tied a chair to the back of a Willys Jeep to take a honeymoon couple on a game drive. It was a seminal event in one of the most enduring, successful, privately funded conservation projects attempted in South Africa.
These first paying guests gave viability to a project that had seen a dedicated conservation team buying up land, taking down fences and reintroducing indigenous animals.
Three decades later, the 250km² Shamwari Private Game Reserve is considered a conservation accomplishment, rehabilitating damaged land and restoring indigenous flora and fauna. At the start, success was far from assured. There was a great deal of scepticism if not outright opposition to the project.
‘The Eastern Cape wasn’t considered a safari destination, so it wasn’t just a case of marketing Shamwari, but the entire region,’ recalls Joe Cloete, the ranger who hosted that first game drive and now Shamwari CEO. ‘There were also people who didn’t like the idea of introducing predator species. In those days we spent a lot of time convincing people not only that the project was viable, but that there were benefits to having a big-five game reserve as a neighbour.’
The malaria-free Eastern Cape was once one of the richest wildlife areas in southern Africa, but by the turn of the century, little remained.
Ironically it was because there was no malaria or tsetse fly that the bountiful wildlife gave way to human settlement. Before there were ways to manage tsetse fly and mosquitos or treat the diseases they carry, the north of the country, where the Kruger National Park was established, was a far less attractive place for people to live or farm. Consequently, there was less human impact on the natural environment.
Establishing Shamwari wasn’t just a case of buying enough land and letting some animals loose. Each step had to be carefully planned to ensure there was sufficient space, food and water for the animals to thrive as well as manage the balance between predator and prey species.
In 1992 elephants, white rhinos and hippos were re-introduced. As the large herbivores began moving through what had been cultivated fields these ‘engineers of the bush’ began resorting the soil, fertilising it with their manure and dispersing seeds.
Black rhino and buffalo followed in 1993/4, with cheetah, lion and brown hyena being brought back in 2000 and serval and leopard the next year. That’s when Shamwari became the first big-five game reserve in the Eastern Cape, something that eight years earlier many had thought impossible.
Not only had the conservation project succeeded but it had also helped to position the region as an international safari destination, with the visitor revenue ensuring the entire venture was sustainable.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing though. As nothing of this scale had ever been attempted in the region, lessons were being learnt and knowledge gathered as the project progressed.
Ecologist, John O’Brien recalls bringing oxpeckers from the Kruger National Park and introducing them to the reserve. Unused to having the little birds land on them and peck at ticks, Shamwari’s rhinos stampeded and the birds flew off. It looked like the experiment had failed, until junior oxpeckers were later spotted. The rhinos had adapted, the birds had stayed and were breeding.
Cloete says it’s exactly this sort of trial and error and the willingness to learn and exchange knowledge and share experience that has contributed to Shamwari’s success as well as that of the safari sector in the Eastern Cape and beyond.
A prime example of this is the Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, which has pioneered ways of rehabilitating injured animals so they can be released into the wild. Guests at Shamwari are able to visit part of the centre under controlled conditions, so the animals do not get habituated to human presence. This first-hand, behind-the-scenes experience gives a unique insight into what goes into managing a large-scale conservation project.
‘Hospitality and the guest experience and the conservation of indigenous fauna and flora are interdependent. Without the guest the conservation work could not happen,’ explains Cloete.
This includes not only the work the Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre does but the continual task of restoring and balancing the ecology, erecting and maintaining fencing, providing anti-poaching patrols and the myriad and substantial other expenses that are part of running a 250km² reserve.
It also requires delivering a consummate guest experience, which is why in 2019 US$25 million was invested to refurbish the lodges and upgrade the hospitality. Every detail from welcome drinks to the consumables in the bathrooms was considered.
The benefits of conservation go beyond restoring the region’s natural environment. A study by the Terrestrial Ecology Research Unit at the Nelson Mandela Bay University found that the economic benefits of conservation outweigh those of agriculture tenfold.
Even after 30 years, Shamwari is still looking for ways to grow the conservation programme and enhance the ecological importance of the reserve.
It recently acquired an additional 1 338 hectares of land to the north and south of the current reserve. This will benefit existing species and also allow it to reintroduce other once-indigenous species including the spotted hyena and later, African wild dog.