A Voyage of Discovery. By Bugs Van Heerden.

Over the last month and a half I have done some traveling or a bit of a discovery mission.

I started with the AGM at the reserve which I own shares in in Botswana. My involvement in this reserve gives me great pleasure, but it comes at a cost, a cost that I easily justify as my little contribution to a good conservation cause. I have always stood by my feeling that the most effective way to conserve habitat is though ownership of both land and animals. However, in Botswana, we can’t realize the value of the animals, because there is no industry behind it. We all accept that, and as a consequence, shareholders are happy to contribute in the form of levies.

The drive from Martins drift to the next reserve (which I won’t name) was close to 300kms and the journey took me through roads lined with game farm after game farm. The reserve is a public private partnership and doing pretty well, apart from the fact that they have far too many elephants. I visited this reserve because I have a friend who is a co-owner, and because we are trying to find a solution about what to do with their surplus elephants. A few months ago, we put out an appeal to see if we could find homes for these elephants as the reserve wants to avoid culling if at all possible. The co-owners of this reserve are fortunate enough that the reserve is self- funding to the extent that they are happy to give these animals away. What I found interesting was that the reserve covers the bulk of its expenses through the live sale of animals alone. This highlighted the importance of a mature wildlife industry, and the obvious benefits it offers to conservation.

Following this I did a short visit to a privately run game ranch. Such ranches are common as they are viable businesses. This farm had about 1000ha in breeding camps, 4000ha of hunting farm, and a 6000ha section where rhino were kept. This particular rancher covered all the costs of protecting those rhino through the funds generated from the other two sections.

The next week took us to Malawi where we visited Majete reserve. This reserve has interested me for a while since our colleague, Michael Eustace, co-founded African parks. Malawi and has been in the headlines for the movement of 500 elephants to Nkhotakota in the North. Again the main focus was to understand how such a reserve is funded. It seems that 30% of the operating costs are through tourism, which leaves 70% to be covered through donor funds. All credit must go to African parks for this great effort. The success of the project is evident in that there is now a surplus of wildlife, as opposed to it being almost empty before AP took over.

The next fascinating tour was to Hluhluwe Imfolozi reserve, with John Forrest as my guide. John first started working in the park in 1963 and has a wealth of experience and stories to tell about the reserve. The reserve is under siege from poaching at the moment, and on the outside, mining companies move closer and closer. The community pressure on the boundaries is also growing. Without going into too much detail, this reserve is state funded and run, and as a result is running on a thin budget. I couldn’t help thinking that the reserve is producing a surplus of buffalo and elephants, and wondering how that could be converted into funds to subsidize them. I know elephant culling is a sensitive issue, but as opposed to incurring the cost of contraception, why not make use of the surplus to fund anti-poaching or other conservation efforts?

In conclusion, its clear that conservation of habitat should be the first focus, and this can be achieved through a number of mechanisms. Tourism seems to be one way, but often tourism takes place inside state parks and contributes very little to efforts outside the parks. Philanthropic funding is welcome, but few of these NGO’s are as efficient as African Parks at preserving habitat. Much of the time, the funds are heavily diluted and don’t contribute to habitat preservation. Then we have the option where South Africa has done so well…i.e. the  concept of a market driven conservation philosophy through ownership of both land and animals, and the ability to utilize the surplus to make a viable business.

When we look globally, or across Africa, its inconceivable that we should consider stopping trophy hunting or hunting as a funding mechanism without providing an alternative. Funding conservation is not as easy as people think, and the consequence of moral objections to hunting will only remove a valuable source of funds that speaks for an enormous amount of land and wildlife across Africa.