Conservation in practice: Tswalu, South Africa
Writer and photographer Sarah Gilbert visits an area of South Africa's Northern Cape that has been the focus of special conservation efforts.
A photograph dating back around 50 years shows a landscape denuded and ravaged by farming and neglect. Today there’s a joke among farmers in the Kalahari: start with cattle and when they’ve eaten all the long grass bring in sheep, then goats, then sell to Tswalu.
Tswalu Kalahari Reserve is spread over 1,000 square kilometres in South Africa’s Northern Cape. In 1999, Nicky Oppenheimer, chairman of De Beers and a passionate advocate of environmental conservation, bought over 40 farms with the aim of “restoring the Kalahari to itself”. Tswalu, ‘new beginning’ in the Tswanu language, is now the largest privately owned game reserve in South Africa.
It’s a vast area of surreal topography and boundless horizons. The Kalahari Desert, covering most of Botswana, stretching in the west in to Namibia and in the east into South Africa, is not a true desert but semi-arid sandy savannah. The western part of the reserve is lined with russet-red sand dunes scattered with dune grass, while the dramatic peaks of the Korannaberg Mountains flank the east. Dry riverbeds and plains are pockmarked with ubiquitous camel thorn trees, shepherd’s trees and three thorn. From a vantage point, the land stretched as far as I could see and all of it was Tswalu.
“If you give it time and space, nature is very forgiving,” General Manager, Gus van Dyk told me. Today, more than 70 species of mammal and over 240 species of bird can be found at Tswalu. The restoration of the region’s unique biodiversity began by stopping hunting and tearing down farm buildings and fences. Many of the non-indigenous species brought in by the hunting lodges are being phased out and they’ve increased the genetic diversity of desert black rhino and the Kalahari lion, renowned for its large size and distinctive black mane. Leopard, brown hyena and raptors, persecuted by stock farmers, have settled in the reserve, and wild dog and cheetah have been reintroduced. At this year’s wildlife count, there was a first sighting of a cheetah mother with three teenage cubs.
Native species of the Kalahari
Desert black rhino
The hooked shape of their upper lip, designed for browsing on trees and bushes, rather than their colour differentiates them from the white rhino. Except for females and their calves, they are solitary animals and generally feed at dawn, dusk and during the night. Poaching for their horn has put them on the verge of extinction.
Living and working together in groups, several families share the same extensive network of tunnels and chambers, which they leave at sunrise and return to just before sunset. Individuals look out for birds of prey, such as hawks and eagles, while the rest forage for insects, lizards, birds and fruit.
These elusive, nocturnal mammals spend the day in underground burrows that they dig with their powerful feet and spade-like claws. They often travel up to several miles a night in search of earthen termite mounds and the open grasslands of the Kalahari make them easier to spot.
These powerful animals are able to survive the Kalahari’s high temperatures by extracting sufficient moisture from their diet without the need for water. They also allow their body temperature to rise to prevent the loss of water through sweating and have a radiator-like system that cools blood before it enters their brains.
These medium-sized, gazelle-like antelopes have adapted to the harsh environment of the South African plains. During hot, rainy summers they graze on grasses, during colder winters they browse on shrubs and when water is scarce they seek out moisture-rich roots. Extremely fast, they can jump up to two meters high.
The reserve is home to two kinds of zebra, Burchell’s and the endangered Hartmann’s mountain zebra. As well as aardwolves and bat-eared foxes, it’s the best place in South Africa to spot pangolin, even if they only see four or five a year, and aardvarks. Driving back to the lodge one night the beam of my tracker’s spotlight picked out a scurrying aardvark, its rabbit-like ears pinned back and long snout sniffing the ground in search of termites.
The meerkat colonies are another huge draw. Habituated by researchers, they’re an endless source of entertainment, by turns playful and vigilant.
But Tswalu’s flagship species is the desert black rhino, listed as critically endangered by the IUCN (The International Union for the Conservation of Nature). They have the fastest growing black rhino population in the world and have a full-time protection unit monitoring their whereabouts. On an early morning game drive we tracked a female browsing with her calf. They settled under the shade of a bush and, to my delight, allowed us to come within a few metres before they sought out a more private resting place.
A regional road that has no discernable traffic splits the reserve. One side is home to two lion prides and other predators and, while they’re not allowed in the other half, there are rhinos, cheetah, hyenas and leopard on both sides. Despite the vastness of reserve, herds of buck appear every few minutes as you drive: springbok, bushbuck, red hartebeest, oryx, sable and rare roan antelope. In fact, Tswalu successfully breeds buck for selling to help fund the reserve.
While most safari operations are about making a profit, Tswalu’s goals are much loftier. Nicky Oppenheimer is involved in every aspect of the reserve, from conservation and business, to the welfare of the people who live and work there. The Tswalu Foundation, set up in 2008 by Jonathan Oppenheimer, is funded through sales from the Tswalu boutique, and allows local and international visitors to contribute to its health, nature and conservation efforts and involve themselves in environmental and community research in the reserve.
The dedicated team on the ground has been given a free reign to interpret Nicky Oppenheimer’s mission. “Conservation is one of the main focus areas at Tswalu,” Gus explained. “We don’t want to interfere with the natural ecological processes but our goal is to have an ecosystem that is resilient and in constant flux. It should thrive during good seasons and have the ability to bounce back during harder times.”
Dylan Smith, the wildlife conservations projects manager, told me that they often get calls from local farmers about predators on their land and take in animals that have been injured. During my visit, three brown hyena were being held in a boma to be studied and monitored before being released back into the wild.
They make wildlife available for translocation across southern Africa, such as disease-free buffalo. They also run a wide range of research programmes with visiting African and international scientists, researchers, animal specialists and conservationists, as well as universities. This list includes a meerkat habituation programme; collecting and identifying spiders, reptiles and unexpected species in the area; the effects of climate change; diversity and abundance of scorpion fauna and a white-browed sparrow weaver project.
Africaspacious legae (‘homes’) made of thatch, red clay and local stone, were designed to blend into the landscape, with high ceilings, floor-to-ceiling windows, designer decor, enormous beds, gigantic bathrooms and wonderful outdoor showers. The grounds surrounding the lodge are filled with ornate cacti and other indigenous plants.
The meals are gourmet, served al fresco on the deck, in the boma, even atop a dune one evening where, gazing upwards, I was mesmerised by unfamiliar constellations and a vast swathe of the Milky Way. Around game drives, you can indulge in a relaxing treatment at the award-winning spa, get a closer look at the landscape on a horse safari, or spend the night surrounded by the calls of nocturnal animals at the Malori sleep-out deck.
There’s a swimming pool but no individual plunge pools to conserve water. Reclining on your own private deck, however, you can watch a procession of warthogs, tsessebe, kudu and other antelope make their way to a strategically placed waterhole.
Green initiatives at lodge include extensive use of solar energy – all the waterholes use solar-powered pumps – low-energy lighting and waste recycling. New staff housing has been built on eco friendly principles: double-thickness walls provide insulation and extended roofs offer shade in summer but let in low winter rays.
Socio-economic development is also high on the agenda. There’s a kindergarten, a state-of-the-art community clinic – supported by a German doctor, the South African Department of Health and Tswalu – that provides a healthcare and education service, and an adult education programme that’s seen basic literacy among staff rise. Money is ploughed back into the neighbouring communities through employment and buying as much of their provisions as possible locally. They’re also developing field guides from neighbouring communities, helping to foster an ethos of conservation in future generations in the process.
The lodge may be a five-star safari experience but the real luxury of Tswalu is having your own private vehicle, guide and tracker for the length of your stay, allowing for intimate and thrilling encounters. The normal safari routine can be reconstructed and if you want to sit at a particular watering hole for hours (complete with a gourmet picnic lunch) or track certain species, you can. Housing only 30 guests in such an enormous space also means that you can go all day without bumping into another Land Rover.
A plate-sized print in the sand and a series of guttural roars led us to the scene of lion kill. We’d missed the dramatic demise of a young wildebeest by minutes and a lioness, two sub-adults and four younger cubs, their fur stained and matted with a mixture of blood and sand, were already ripping at the tender flesh.
The commotion soon attracted the dominant male and his brother, who loped in front of our Land Rover to join the feast. I watched enthralled for well over an hour as the pride fed and squabbled until sated, one by one they sought shade, leaving only the youngest siblings still nibbling at the wildebeest’s lips and tongue.
The hostile nature of the environment brings many challenges – there are no natural rivers and mean annual rainfall is just 240mm, although seasonal streams flow down from the mountains, mostly between November and April. This year there has been less rain than expected, so the land is stressed and has to be monitored through the winter.
While countless hours of conservation work over the past 14 years has seen the land restored to a pristine condition and created a safe haven for endangered species it doesn’t stop there. As Nicky Oppenheimer says, “Looking after the Kalahari is an ongoing process.”
Cost rating: *****
Sample package tour: Africa specialist, Rainbow Tours offers a four-night package to Tswalu from £3,495 per person, based on two sharing at Motse, including international and domestic flights, land transfers, meals, local drinks and all guided activities.
Getting there: The main departure points are Cape Town and Johannesburg, which are serviced by most main international airlines, including British Airways and Virgin Atlantic. From there, Tswalu operates its own daily scheduled service direct to the reserve’s own airstrip.
Visa requirements: UK and other EU passport holders don’t require a visa.
Tips & warnings: The reserve is free of malaria and other tropical diseases but it’s wise to cover up against the strong sun, use sunscreen, wear a hat and drink plenty of water. Insect repellent comes in useful around dusk. WiFi is available around the lodge.
When to go: Seasons in the Kalahari are distinct and offer different experiences. Spring (September-October) is warm with the occasional cold snap;summer (November-March) is the rainy season, bringing very hot days and mild evenings; autumn (April-May) has mild days and cool evenings and is the greenest time of the year; winter (June-August) brings cool days and nights can drop below freezing but offer the best stargazing. As the bushes dry out, sightings of rarer, smaller mammals increase.