One thing that South Africa does very well is private conservancies equipped with luxury bush camps and lodges. There are a good number of these out there, some with iconic names, others small, specialized and obscure. It is these establishments that help place South Africa very much on the front line of African wildlife conservation, as well as offering a unique diversity of eco-tourism options that are not always available in other African destinations.
Kariega Game Reserve is one of the more comprehensive of these private conservancies, located in the Eastern Cape close to the coastal town of Kenton-on-Sea, encompassing two important local rivers – the Bushmans and the Kariega – and within a transitional biome between the winter rainfall regions of the Cape and the summer rainfall regions further north. It is an area of deep ecological diversity, and a starkly beautiful landscape of thorn thicket and euphorbia interspersed with riverine flood plains and wetland. The area of the reserve encompasses 9000 hectares of privately owned and administered land that is very much a work in progress, offering the Big Five in a largely reclaimed context as part of wider efforts to reintroduce wildlife on a large scale to a region that historically has suffered heavy pressure on its wildlife heritage.
What follows is a quote from the Kariega website, which I think is fairly self explanatory in regard to the conservation ethos of the organization:
In the last few decades there has been a radical change in the attitude toward wildlife conservation. Initially concerned with the preservation of trophy game for the sport of hunting, wildlife conservation has recently become inseparable from the ethical argument for the inherent value of all living things. This shift has been coupled with an increase in private game reserves across the continent, not excluding the Eastern Cape. As such, Kariega Game Reserve has joined in the large-scale reintroduction of indigenous species into the province, and is gearing itself against unsavory hunting practices that still persist in the province.
This is the essence of Kariega, the reintroduction of historically common species and the creation of a conservation mindset. As such, as I have said, it very much is a work in progress.
This is not Serengeti, Mana Pools or Kruger National Park, and those not in tune with the underlying program at Kariega might be forgiven for finding it all a little bit canned, and certainly there is a strong commercial angle to the Kariega operation, but in Africa, in keeping with many developing regions of the world, wildlife tends not to enjoy the sort of priority at a central government level as does human development, and so it is usually private or donor capital that underwrites major conservation efforts, and in regard to the former, profitability is always the principal key to its success.
It is also worth noting here that in terms of resource management in Africa there is an increasingly divisive contest between human and animal needs. Conservation, therefore, has almost no indigenous popular support anywhere on the continent. Where communities depend on the direct exploitation of the environment for all or part of their subsistence, or where communities are land deprived, demarcation and restricted access to large areas of prime natural habitat almost universally generate hostility. This is almost always coupled with covert resource exploitation, usually in the form of the poaching of wildlife. It is only when an actual value in conservation can be identified by a community that attitudes tend to soften, which has led to multiple initiatives across Africa to combine the interests of human and natural communities for the benefit of both.
The key here is economics, however, and the main economic thrust of conservation is tourism.
Kariega offers an integrated wildlife experience, showcasing the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of private conservation. This is coupled with sensitively located hospitality options of an extremely high standard, local community development programs and a variety of conservation related projects and foundations that illustrate, and invite involvement in, what it really takes on a hard, practical level to enact meaningful conservation in the African context.
With all this understood, from the point of view of a visitor the main objective is to be educated and entertained. In this regard Kariega offers a variety of activities, mostly centered around wildlife, guided by a cohort of young, energetic and enthusiastic rangers. The Big Five are relatively easily located and viewed – interestingly white Rhino have been de-horned for their own protection, see the image above – with expert tracking and interpretation available at all times.
The quality of the human resource at Kariega is also evident from the onset. There is a deep and intrinsic identification with the work underway here on the part of everyone, from top to bottom, and no effort is spared to impart that enthusiasm to those visiting the property. It is a privately owned, incrementally expanding concept which requires, indeed it demands the support of the traveling public, because if these type of major initiatives are allowed to fail, the ramifications for ourselves, and for the upcoming generation, are to bleak to contemplate.