How to create a game reserve

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The changing face of safaris over the past 20 years is epitomised by Nambiti Private Game Reserve in South Africa, which is a prime example of how tourism plays an integral part in conservation. Phil Clisby reports

The old adage of ‘build it and they will come’ doesn’t always ring true. This was certainly the case for Rob Le Sueur when setting up Nambiti, a private game reserve in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

His childhood dream to create his own Big 5 game reserve ran into the difficulty of how to get potential investors to take a look at the remote site – a hotch-potch of six cattle farms 230km northwest of Durban.

His solution? He chartered a helicopter, picked them up and flew them in.

“We would land and while we had breakfast the doors would be taken off the helicopter. We would then fly low-level over the farm, up the gorge and over waterfalls, get back in time for a brunch, put the doors back on and fly home. The guys would say it was the best day of their lives,” says Le Sueur.

Once they were there, the site sold itself. Today, there are 10 independently run lodges with access to the park.

The concept of the modern-day, man-made reserve where entrepreneurs buy a few farms and convert them to wildlife use, bringing in big game and building lodges, is not a new story. Indeed, it is a formula that has been replicated in several places, especially in South Africa.

However, it is perhaps the development of Nambiti, in particular with its approach to conservation, that brings something new to the table. Indeed, it has been hailed in some quarters as a “business and conservation triumph”.

The art of conservation
Le Sueur, a passionate conservationist, is a strong believer that tourism and conservation are interlinked.

“One of the most important things I have learned is that conservation has to be a business,” says Le Sueur. “It can’t run on fluffy stuff – it has to run on real things… I learned that while conservation is important, tourism is just as important. Running a venture like this costs a fortune. If we didn’t have the lodges paying levies we would never be able to do it.”

Assistant reserve manager Brett Deetlefs explains further: “Being a closed system, the reserve needs to be managed correctly to ensure that it is sound ecologically as well as economically.

“At Nambiti, ecotourism and sustainable utilisation work hand in hand to provide funding to run the reserve on a day-to-day basis. A fine balance between veld condition and game numbers has been established, taking into consideration ecotourism, and any excess animals are removed yearly through live sales.

“The money obtained from live sales is divided evenly between the running costs of the reserve and the Community Trust.”

Elephant and lion populations in particular need to be carefully managed.

“Their numbers can quickly go out of control and can become detrimental, not only to our veld condition but also to our general game numbers, which of course effects our ecotourism,” says Deetlefs.

“Measures have been put in place such as contraception for elephant cows and lionesses to regulate their birth rate, as well as the live sales to other reserves, to ensure that this doesn’t happen.”

Nambiti is also home to both black and white rhino, the protection of which has proved to be a huge challenge.

“We are going to great lengths to ensure that they are protected and managed correctly,” says Deetlefs. “We have established an anti-poaching team, who monitor the animals 24 hours a day, but, of course, this comes at a great cost to the reserve. Funding needs to be made available to house, train, arm and equip our field rangers to ensure that they have everything they need to try to keep the poachers at bay.”

In addition, all of Nambiti’s rhino have been dehorned to deter would-be poachers from targeting the reserve.

Land of opportunity
Le Sueur grew up on a farm in Nottingham Road, in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, and it was during these formative years that his idea started to take hold.

After studying for an agricultural degree, he became what he calls “a serial entrepreneur”, opening up a number of businesses, including an international security company, and had stakes in a couple of game farm syndicates. But his dream was never far away from his thoughts.

“In 1998, while fly fishing with a friend of mine in Nottingham Road, I told him I wanted to set up a Big 5 reserve,” recalls Le Sueur. “It had to be 10,000ha and it couldn’t be more than two hours from Durban.

“Two years later the same friend phoned me and said there were some cattle farms for sale in the area that he thought could make a good game reserve. I decided to go up and have a look.”

Some of his business interests were in Ezakheni, near Ladysmith, but until then he had never considered it a viable area for a game reserve.

“I drove up on a Saturday morning; it was midwinter, quite cold and we rode the area on horseback,” explains Le Sueur. “Immediately, I could feel that the place had a soul. A place needs a soul to make it work.

“I realised that this was the place where I could make my dream. We secured options on the properties and started buying the farms.”

Nambiti opened to the public in 2005, but to get to that point took a lot of hard work – and money.

All alien vegetation and farm fences had to be removed, conservation research undertaken, animals acquired and introduced and 100km of game fencing had to be erected. It took more than seven years to reach fruition at a cost of about R143 million, with the private lodge owners investing more than R246 million.

“The reserve evolved over the first five years where it was my own private property,” says Le Sueur. “I slowly fenced it into two blocks, removed all the internal fences and started stocking the reserve. We completed the introduction of the Big 5 by 2005 and I then decided to apply for development rights.

“It was an exciting time introducing species that hadn’t been there for many years, and watching the vegetation regenerate. There were several exciting stories when releasing the cheetah, elephant, rhino and lion. We even released four wild dogs, but they escaped and ran off to Umfolozi.”

Then – just after lion had been introduced to the reserve – came a land claim, and the project was in limbo for two years. But rather than fight the claim, Le Sueur embraced it, entering into negotiations with the neighbouring Elandslaagte community, who had inhabited the land for centuries.

As a result, in 2009 Nambiti’s shareholders agreed to sell the land to the community. However, instead of turning it back over to farming, the community opted to keep the reserve fully intact “for future generations to enjoy and benefit from”.

The shareholders agreed to lease the land from the community and entered into a long-term management partnership with them. “We sold the land to them and we kept the lodges. Today, we run it together,” says Le Sueur.

As well as the jobs the agreement has created, the region as a whole has benefited.

“This was an area that had almost no one coming through it ten years ago. The economic benefits have been massive,” he says.

The partnership has also seen off mining companies. “We have had challenges from operations trying to set up coal mines. That has been blocked because the community understands we offer a long-term benefit.”

Today, the 10,000-hectare reserve is home to 52 animal species, 374 types of bird and 40 waterholes.

“Nothing has been easy,” says Le Sueur, “but looking back it is fantastic to see how well the reserve has worked out, and the contribution it has made to conservation, the community and to tourism in KwaZulu-Natal and South Africa.”

But, for the visitor, the appeal of Nambiti doesn’t just lie with its Big 5 status and its contribution to conservation, the reserve lies near the region’s historic battlefields and is also less than an hour from the Drakensberg.

What’s not to like.

Rob Le Sueur’s Cheetah Ridge Lodge is situated in the southern section of the malaria-free Nambiti Private Game Reserve. For more information, go to www.cheetahridge.com

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