Shamwari Private Game Reserve is the embodiment of how a bold, ambitious conservation project can turn back the clock, restoring a piece of Africa’s natural heritage to what it once was.
This year, as Shamwari marks its 30th anniversary, the reserve is lauded as a conservation success story, but when the project began the outcome was far from assured.
CEO Joe Cloete, who started his conservation career as a field guide and hosted Shamwari’s first game drive, recalls there was a great deal of scepticism if not outright opposition to the project.
“The Eastern Cape just wasn’t considered a safari destination, so it wasn’t just case of marketing Shamwari but the entire region. There were also people who didn’t like the idea of reintroducing predator species to the area. In those early days we spent a lot of time convincing people not only that the project was viable, but also about the benefits of having a big-five game reserve as a neighbour.”
The malaria-free Eastern Cape, where Shamwari is situated, was once one of the richest wildlife areas in southern Africa, but by the turn of the century little remained.
Ironically it was because the region was free of malaria and 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 is now situated, was a far less attractive place for people to live or farm. Consequently, there was less human impact on the fauna and flora.
The Shamwari project began in 1992, when a dedicated conservation team started buying up land, taking down fences and reintroducing indigenous animals.
Of course, it wasn’t just a case of acquiring enough land and letting some animals loose. Each step had to be carefully planned to ensure that there was sufficient space, food and water for the animals to thrive as well as manage the balance between predator and prey species.
Initially elephant, white rhino and hippo were re-introduced. As the large herbivores began moving though what had been chicory and wheat fields these ‘engineers of the bush’ began restoring 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 reserve in the Eastern Cape, something that eight years earlier many had thought impossible.
Not only had the conservation project succeeded but it has also helped to position the Eastern Cape as an international safari destination, with the visitor revenue ensuring that entire venture was sustainable.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing though. As nothing of this scale had ever been attempted in the region and lessons were being learned 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 initiative had failed, until sometime later junior oxpeckers were spotted on the reserve. The rhinos had adapted, the birds had stayed and were breeding.
Cloete says it is exactly this sort of trial and error and the willingness to learn and exchange knowledge and experience that has contributed to Shamwari’s success as well as the safari sector in the Eastern Cape and beyond.
A prime example of this is the Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre which has pioneered new 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 that the animals do not get habituated to human presence. This first-hand, behind-the-scenes gives guests 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 guests none of the conservation work could happen.
This includes not only work the Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre does but restoring and balancing the ecology as well as erecting and maintaining fencing, providing anti-poaching patrols and the myriad and substantial other expenses that are part and parcel of running a 250km2 reserve.
The field guides are crucial to the visitor experience. Safari manager, Andrew Kearney, an 18-year Shamwari veteran, filed guide assessor and one of the most qualified and experienced guides in the country, places significant emphasis on training.
“Finding, training and keeping the right guides is essential,” he explains. “We look first for people with the right personality and then provide the training they need.”
Evidence of this are guides who started at Shamwari doing other jobs but showed an interest and aptitude for guiding. Amongst the contingent of 42 guides are one who worked as a barman and another who was a gate guard. Their attitude and passion for guiding did not go unnoticed.
A large whiteboard in the guide headquarters building with each guide’s name and the level of guiding qualification they’ve earned confirms the emphasis on training and continual personal and career improvement. These are over-and-above the standard qualifications that are required before being able to guide guests.
Shamwari conducts the training in house, covering all training and assessments for accredited training, something that ensures guides are not only well qualified, but which also makes it a sought-after place to work, ensuring experienced guides stay. The average stay for a guide at Shamwari is around nine years.
“We’re very aware that Shamwari wouldn’t exist without our guests, which is why we have to deliver a consummate experience,” says Cloete.
It’s why in 2019 a US$25 million investment programme was launched to refurbish the lodges and overhaul and upgrade the hospitality. Every detail from welcome drinks to the consumables in the bathrooms was considered.
From a small self-catering lodge, guests now have a choice of full-service, luxury accommodation depending on their needs.
This includes the refurbished Long Lee Manor, with its spacious rooms and unobstructed views of a nearby waterhole and across the veld.
The entire, exclusive Sarili Private Lodge is available to families and groups of friends. This experience includes a bespoke itinerary and a private staff, including a personal chef.
Families with children staying at Long Lee Manor or Sarili have access to Riverdene Lodge’s vast adventure playground, with rope walkways, climbing walls, slides and ziplines. The facilities are colour-coded according to age and ability and under constant supervision.
Sindile, the newest and flagship tented lodge is ideal for couples wanting a luxury break or romantic getaway.
Bayethe, has recently reopened and offers newly refurbished luxury tented suites.
On 1 October, the luxury Eagle’s Crag lodge reopens as does Explorers’ a camp set deep in the bush, providing an ideal base for walking safaris.
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 the existing species and will also allow it to reintroduce other once-indigenous species such as spotted hyena and, at some time in future, African Wild Dog.