Nature conservation: Is bigger (land) always better?
Jim Freeman, The Chronicle
January 23, 2023
The desire for land, it would seem from a conversation that took place in
the Limpopo bush late last year, is not just the prerogative of the
disenfranchised: this tenet of radical economic transformation has been
embraced by the nature conservation community as well.
South Africa boasts 21 national parks which cover four million hectares.
However, according to Stats SA, if you add all the provincial and private
nature reserves, the total protected area increases to more than 11 million
hectares or nearly nine percent of the South African mainland.
To put this into perspective, says Stats SA: “If protected land in South
Africa were its own province, it would be larger than North West,
KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga or Gauteng.”
It’s not necessarily enough, say the conservationists. The problem, they
add, is fences.
“Range extension” is a common topic of conversation around campfires on the
country’s almost 500 private reserves and arguments are based on economics
in addition to tree and bunny-hugging considerations.
Take the Waterberg which covers more than 650 000ha in northern Limpopo.
Eco-tourism (which includes hunting) has become the greatest single
contributor to the provincial economy.
There are a few really large private nature reserves – Lapalala measures
about 48 000ha, while Welgevonden covers 37 500ha of the Waterberg Plateau
– but the rest are considerably smaller.
The newly renamed Qwabi Private Game Reserve, where Dr André Uys is in
charge of conservation, is 11 000ha of what was previously agricultural
land. Most of the reserves in Limpopo are consolidated former farms where
wildlife species have been reintroduced.
“Obviously, species reintroduction has focused on the Big Five because this
is what visitors to Africa – most of whom spend a lot of money being here –
come to see.
“Our aim is to get to the stage where reintroduction mimics as many natural
processes as possible and that our animal populations are both healthy and
sustainable,” says Uys.
This is the crux because the smaller the reserve, the less authentic the
Big Five safari experience and the reserves effectively become lion,
elephant or rhino zoos.
“We had a very healthy private wildlife industry which provided an immense
amount of employment for skilled people but the value of wildlife was
over-inflated for several years.
“People were able to make a pretty good living but the days of making a
nice return on 500 to 1 000ha are long gone.”
‘Conservation is Bigger When it’s Better’
There’s a stark realisation among owners that operating properties this
size is prohibitively expensive and downright risky if they’re carrying
high-value “target” animals such as rhino. A rhinoceros is of more value
dead than alive is a bitter truism on reserves. It demands a fortune to
establish and operate an antipoaching unit, while all it costs the
determined hunter is a single high-velocity rifle round.
“Conservation is better when it’s bigger,” says Uys.
“As is the case in other spheres of business, economies of scale apply.”
Just as reserve owners bought up bankrupt farms and consolidated them to
provide ranges for wild animals, so these same owners are coming together
to discuss dropping their common fences and collaborating on such issues as
health, breeding and anti-poaching.
Each would maintain its own tourism identity and they would have limited
access to one another’s property (known in the business as “traversing
rights”) in terms of game-viewing with tourists. Fence-dropping is both
good and bad news on the business front; especially so for the owners of
Animals migrate and the smaller reserves which could almost guarantee
clients a full Big Five viewing on every morning and afternoon drive might
find their veld denuded of game from time to time.
On the other hand, they might periodically find an impressive pride of
lions popping in for dinner (with the regional antipoaching team in tow)
and the YouTube shares would do wonders for sales!