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SOS Rhino : In the News : Wild Africa's comeback

Wild Africa's comeback

  Visitors are flocking to South Africa's Shamwari Game Reserve, an experiment in ecological reversal that is yielding real results

Special to The Globe and Mail
Saturday, September 20, 2003 - Page T4

PORT ELIZABETH, SOUTH AFRICA -- It is an hour before dawn, when sensible folks are tucked in their warm beds with nothing of importance on their minds. But I'm sitting in a Land Rover in the middle of the thick South African bush, and feeling pretty far from sensible. And I have something very important on my mind. We all do.

There are seven of us: two from Canada, a herpetology professor and her husband, a travel writer from Germany's largest newspaper and a young Dutch woman. Along with our ranger, Anton, we are peering at a spot off to our left, where it is as dark as everywhere else. Except, with the engine and headlights off, we are aware that there is something very close -- and rather pungent -- upwind.

The bush crunches again. Not loudly. Not threateningly. But close. Very close. Then a long silence. Whatever it is, this thing is trying to identify us, just as we are trying to identify it.

Anton knows, of course. He always knows. Yesterday, on our first game drive in the Shamwari Game Reserve, he amazed the group by identifying the genders of distant buck at a single glance and pointing out the differences in wing-feather colouring of the kite family, at 1,000 metres, without binoculars.

But right now, Anton isn't telling us anything. He's letting us figure this one out for ourselves.

Suddenly, there is a sound like a washing machine starting its spin cycle, followed by a sudden gurgling. And then there it is: huge and pale in the darkness, cutting out the sky above.

It's an elephant.

Now, you can read all you like about the majesty of wildlife in Africa. You can watch a hundred nature programs on television. But when five tonnes of elephant, standing three metres tall, looks you right in the eye in the gathering light of an African dawn, your senses simply overload. Elephants smell. Their guts make sloshing sounds. Their feet shake the earth (and, indirectly, the padded seat of the vehicle in which I sit).

For a long moment neither side moves. Then there is a rustle, the soft snap of a branch, and five tonnes just seem to float away into a riverine thicket so dense, it would have been a challenge for Br'er Rabbit to slip through.

Shamwari Game Reserve is unlike any other in Africa. Recently, it won three prestigious conservation awards from the American Wilderness Conservancy, the International Skal Congress and the German Travel Bureau Association. British Airways, when presenting its Tourism of Tomorrow award, described Shamwari as the second most important conservation project in the Southern Hemisphere. Richard Branson's Virgin Holidays included it in its 21 properties having "Ultimate Collection" designation. It's visited by royalty and film stars. Before his death in Paris, Dodi Fayed was working on a movie featuring the reserve. Actress Virginia McKenna of the Born Free Foundation carried out a much-covered animal release there. All this at a reserve that is barely 11 years old.

Shamwari means "friend," but not in the local Xhosa language. (Nelson Mandela, by the way, is a Xhosa, and, yes, he has visited Shamwari Reserve.) The word comes from the Shona tribe of central Africa, and was brought here as part of a grand experiment by Shamwari's founder and owner, Adrian Gardiner. Born on the border of what was then Northern Rhodesia and the Belgian Congo (now Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo), Gardiner is an industrialist who settled in South Africa, where he ran one of the country's most successful stud and horse racing stables.

But throughout a decade of turf triumphs, he struggled with the contradiction of what he was doing: importing alien bloodstock into a country that was losing its indigenous biodiversity at an alarming rate. In 1992, he took action to reverse 200 years of "progressive agriculture." He bought six farms, pulled up the fences, and strung a tall game barrier round the perimeter. Then he went looking for a new type of bloodstock. Gardiner needed an experienced veterinarian to spearhead the reintroduction and breeding. In Dr. Johan Joubert, he found a man who believed implicitly that the ravages of two centuries of so-called modern farming could be undone, given time, patience and care.

It is now 11 years later. The riverine thickets that mantle the deep gorges and steep hills are stocked with a variety of game. There have been failures, but there have also been spectacular successes. Both the common white rhino and the rare black rhino have bred successfully. The elephant herd has multiplied. The lions have cubbed. The herds of impala, bushbuck, nyala, waterbuck, springbok and large numbers of other buck have bred, some in the hundreds, after good rains. There are leopard and buffalo and hyena. Where before there had been six failed farms, now there is growth.

The reserve has grown as well. It now encompasses more than a dozen properties and more than 20,000 hectares, and is still growing. There's a joke in the rangers' bar that border patrols need a new job description every month. There are luxury lodges to accommodate visitors in four-poster splendour. The meals are lavish, quite out of keeping with the rugged countryside. And the trickle of visitors has grown to a stream, as the word has spread about what Joubert is creating.

At the Animal Breeding Centre, I am surprised to hear a Canadian accent. British Columbian Jacqui Taryn has been at the reserve for six months, helping the vet and his team. She is on a year's break after finishing school. She plans to be veterinarian, she says, and is here for the big-game experience. Watching her manhandle squirming bush pigs over a fence makes me wonder what differences there must be between veterinary science in Africa and Victoria.

Some differences are obvious. Joubert had his knee kicked in by a waterbuck during a night capture. He has spent time in a cast, unable to drive his Jeep. When I spoke to him, he struck me as the sort of man who does not enjoy spending several months in a cast.

Still, he is extremely lucky, he tells me. "How many vets are handed the opportunity to play God?" he asks rhetorically There is no vanity in this remark -- that is what he is doing. He is recreating the Eastern Cape bushveld the way it was before white men arrived. It is an immense project and, judging by the international honours recognizing the work, it is going well.

In a world where we are busy slicing land into progressively smaller pies, where animal diversity and the indigenous ecology are in traumatic shock, Shamwari Game Reserve is reversing the clock, un-slicing the pie, giving Nature a chance to rebalance.

Back at the centre, a fly-covered carcass is being dissected by staff members, looking for the cause of death. "We are learning as we go along, you see," Joubert says. "There are no manuals for what is happening here. First we created the space. Then we introduced the game. Now, we are starting to worry about the details, the small print, if you like."

The detail that is occupying Joubert right now -- ticks -- is not for the squeamish. I had always thought African wildlife was relatively immune to ticks. This turns out to be wrong. Some species, such as the eland, are particularly susceptible to tick-born diseases. Worse, the females can become so infested on their udders that their newly born calves cannot suckle and die of dehydration.

"When the white man introduced cattle here in the 1800s, he brought arsenic dips to fight the tick problem," Joubert explains. "And it worked. Sort of. But the arsenic also killed the birds that fed on the ticks, notably the oxpecker. By the turn of the 20th century, there wasn't an oxpecker left in the Eastern Cape.

"Now, here we are at the start of the 21st century, and we have to get the oxpecker back. But how?"

It turns out there are game reserves in the north -- Kruger National Park, for example -- that have a surplus of oxpeckers. But Shamwari needs permits to capture and move the birds, which takes time.

The centre has come up with a non-toxic drench that kills ticks on eland but will not harm birds. It is labour-intensive to apply but appears to be working in the short term, until the birds arrive.

Out at the boma (a wooden stockade some four metres high), a small herd of eland is being treated. Peering through a gap in the poles, I see these tall and stately antelope with savagely scarred bellies. "Tick damage," our Canadian ranger says casually. "You should've seen them when we got them in here. In a few weeks time, we'll have them out on grass in a camp. And maybe they'll breed."

Back at my luxury suite, lounging in a hot bath before dinner, I gaze up at framed prints of African game. Images of strange beasts look back, etched by 19th-century lithographers who lived in a world where nature was bountiful, where the herds of African game were endless. And I wonder what it must be like to do as Joubert is doing, to play God.