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Conservation and the Big Five on a South Africa Safari


Conservation is a key ingredient in Natural Habitat Adventures’ South Africa safaris. Our motto, “conservation through exploration,” is more than a platitude—it’s at the heart of everything we do.

On our Secluded South Africa safari, we journey into national parks and private reserves where wildlife runs free and where ongoing conservation initiatives (supported by tourism) aim to make sure it stays that way.

Protecting Africa’s Big Five

Rhino, elephant, leopard, lion and Cape buffalo make up Africa’s Big Five. Given that all but one of the iconic Big Five are listed as endangered or vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, conservation travel makes a crucial difference in ensuring the survival of the very species that give safaris their allure. Nat Hab’s partnership with the World Wildlife Fund puts intrepid travelers to South Africa on the front lines of conservation issues, and understanding what’s at stake is part of each day’s excursion.

For instance, guests on our Secluded South Africa safari see black and white rhino during their time discovering the country’s reserves. At the turn of the 20th century, there were around 100,000 black rhinos in Africa; today, the population rests at about 5,630. People thought that white rhinos in Africa were extinct until a small group appeared on the radar in 1895. The number today is between 19,600 and 21,000.

Both species made their comebacks as a result of protected reserves and anti-poaching measures to stop the harvesting of rhino horns. Safari tourism plays a central role in these efforts, funding existing projects and helping curtail illegal hunting. Although numbers are on the rise, black rhinos are still considered critically endangered, while white rhinos are listed as near threatened, so there’s still plenty of conservation work to be done.

Elephants, leopards and lions face similar fates. Poaching, loss of habitat and conflicts with humans all pose significant threats to the exotic wildlife of the bush.

Black rhino in South Africa.

Black Rhinos in the Marataba Private Reserve

Still somewhat under the radar, Marataba Private Reserve started as the result of a partnership between the South African government and Dutch philanthropist Paul Fentener van Vlissingen after President Nelson Mandela asked him to help extend the protected area of the Marakele National Park.

Eighty percent of Africa’s rhinos live in South Africa, bouncing back from fewer than 2,500 in the 1990s to more than 5,000 today. The reserve is at the forefront of the country’s rhino conservation efforts, bringing the species back to five different provinces of the country.

WWF’s Black Rhino Expansion Project establishes new rhino populations by transferring animals from parks with healthy populations to locations where there are none. Working with landowners and local governments, the project has relocated rhinos to 11 different locations where more than 70 calves have helped increase the population since 2012.

Marataba’s intimate Safari Lodge has one bed for every 1,000 acres and offers first-class safari accommodation. Black rhinos thrive here, and you can spot them on walking treks during big days out, in addition to zebras, giraffes, wildebeests and hundreds of species of birds. White rhinos, leopards and elephants also frequently visit the camp, with the latter sometimes seen swimming in the nearby watering hole.

The reserve limits the number of vehicles allowed out each day to five, meaning anyone else you see while exploring the 57,000-acre property is probably part of the anti-poaching units that patrol the reserve and greater national park.

An elephant in South Africa.

© Mark Hickey

Elephants and Leopards in the Private Madikwe Game Reserve

The government of South Africa established the Private Madikwe Game Reserve on reclaimed farmland in 1991. In addition to taking down hundreds of miles of fencing, the reserve imported more than 8,000 animals in the largest wildlife transfer in the world to date. Operation Phoenix established new populations of African wild dogs, hyenas, giraffes, zebras, antelopes, cape buffalo, lions and elephants in Madikwe. Although the initial stage was completed in 1997, the project is ongoing.

The success of the reserve lies in its healthy animal populations, as well as the well-being of the communities around it. Since the beginning, a percentage of the profits from tourism have gone directly toward the neighboring villages, and priority is given to employing locals inside the reserve.

A hundred elephants made up Madikwe’s original population, which has grown to more than 1,200 in the park today. The two kinds of elephants in Africa today are the savanna elephant, listed as endangered, and the forest elephant, which is critically endangered. The density of elephants in Madikwe’s 185,000-acre protected area is higher than that of any other reserve in the country, giving those who visit a chance to see these gentle giants in the wild at many different junctures during the day.

Currently, one of the area’s biggest conservation projects is creating a protected wildlife corridor between the Madikwe Game Reserve and Pilanesberg National Park, which is located nearly 50 miles away. The corridor would clear the way for elephants to migrate from the more populated Madikwe to Pilanesberg, which only has around 240 elephants.

The leopard is the only native member of the Big Five found in Madikwe, and it’s also one of the hardest to spot. However, because the reserve is still relatively untraveled, the odds of seeing a leopard here are better than in less-private parks in the country. Southern Africa is one of the last remaining strongholds for leopards on the continent. Listed as vulnerable by the ICUN, African leopards have lost 67% of their territory on the continent to date, largely due to farming.

Madikwe Game Reserve bucked the prevailing trend, turning farmland back into wild savanna and creating a safe haven for the cats. While leopards here still tend to stay out of the fray, there are a few resident individuals who often make appearances during morning or evening outings into the bush.

More animals that call the reserve home include hundreds of giraffes, a growing population of cheetahs and packs of African wild dogs. Often called “painted wolves” for the colorful splashes of brown, black, white and yellow on their coats, African wild dogs are also listed as endangered.

Lions and Cape Buffalo in the MalaMala Game Reserve

The MalaMala Game Reserve is one of the oldest and largest reserves in South Africa. Its fenceless border with Kruger National Park allows wildlife to roam freely between both protected areas and gives safari guests a backstage pass to the stars of the show.

At last count, there are currently four prides of lions spotted frequently on safari in the MalaMala Reserve and two male coalitions. Groups of females and cubs form prides, while two to seven males make up a coalition.

The MalaMala Main Camp, where Nat Hab safari groups stay, is close to the Sand River. Prides and competing coalitions gather here to hunt, drink and sometimes fight for territory (and the prides’ females). Skirmishes often cross the Kruger National Park border, with guides on both sides reporting in on the details of the melee.

Single lion looking regal standing proudly on a small hill in South Africa.

Unfortunately, the lion population in Africa is on the decline, shrinking as much as 40% in the last three generations. The total population in the wild is hard to pinpoint, but best guesses hover between 30,000 on the optimistic side of the curve and 16,500 on the lower end of the spectrum. Poaching, trophy hunting and human-wildlife conflict all take their toll on lion populations, and when natural prey thins and human civilization crowds their historical territories, these apex predators may attack livestock and even people. Listed as vulnerable by the IUCN, some experts believe they could go extinct by 2050 if we don’t take drastic measures.

Game reserves like MalaMala—where the lack of fences allows lions to roam free—even the odds, giving the big cats room to hunt away from farms and villages. It’s estimated that around 2,300 wild lions still live in South Africa, one of seven countries on the continent where they haven’t gone extinct.

Cape buffalo remain the sole species of the Big Five that isn’t listed as endangered or extinct. Although they are often compared in appearance to cattle, these hulking animals are far from docile. Their place on the Big Five is due to their dangerous temperament in the wild: Cape buffalo are capable of charging at 35 mph and have been known to gore those in their path!

MalaMala’s Cape buffalo herd numbers more than 1,200. Sticking together in groups to avoid falling prey to lions, Cape buffalo are often spotted feeding near the reserve’s dams and cooling off in the mud of watering holes.

A journey to South Africa for a secluded safari gives travelers an experience that evokes a deep sense of place. The African savannas, reserves and camps echo with the tales of past travelers, while showing those who make the trip the wilds of a continent that still captures the imagination today. Conservation and adventure are part of the culture here—one that beckons travelers from abroad to be a part of the next chapter.

Cape Buffalo by Greg Courter

© Greg Courter

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