is a freelance writer and photographer specialising in wildlife, conservation and responsible travel
Maoko, the black rhino bull, was not in a good mood. We were doing nothing more offensive than taking a few photographs of him when he decided enough was enough. We had rather foolishly parked between him and cover and, rather than go round our Land-Rover, he decided that we should move out of his way. He trotted idly in our direction before suddenly putting his head down and charging headlong at us. In the back of the vehicle I could clearly hear his angry snorts and thundering footfalls before, with engine racing, we left him behind. Honour satisfied, he wandered off into the bush. Quite why Maoko should be so cross is not obvious for he must be one of the safest black rhinos in Africa. Black rhinos are becoming increasingly rare but Maoko lives in the 75,000 hectares of Madikwe Game Reserve which is surrounded both by an electrified fence and a series of local communities for whom the reserve is something of a fairy tale come true, a real golden goose.
Madikwe now lies in post apartheid South Africa but, in pre-Mandela days, it formed part of Bophuthatswana, one of the nominally independent homelands. Bop, as it is known locally, was an administrative nightmare, a series of separate areas forming islands in white South Africa. In the early 1990s, a large piece of poorly managed and impoverished white farmland was purchased in the so-called Marico Corridor to link two of the islands. The intention was to hand the land to emerging farmers but Bop Parks felt that game would thrive better in this arid area with its unreliable rainfall. A quick calculation by private consultants supported this view and Africa's very first game reserve to be established for socio-economic reasons came into being.
After four years, Operation Phoenix, as it is known, is now substantially complete. It was an ambitious programme in which endemic wildlife has been re-introduced and the former eco-system recreated. Project co-ordinator Richard Davies explained to me that 10,000 animals have been brought in from elsewhere. Early introductions of herbivores included 180 elephants which were transported in family groups from Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe, the first time this has been attempted. Local disease regulations with regard to cattle meant that disease free buffalo had to be located world-wide and came from as far afield as the United States and Europe. These were followed by predators including lion, hyena and wild dog, the last two being successfully re-introduced for the first time. The predators are closely monitored by Marcus Hoffmeyer and he took me into the park to radio track the wild dog pack. We found them feasting rapidly on a newly killed impala. In typical wild dog fashion, the adults had killed first for the five almost full grown puppies and then gone off to find other food for themselves.
During the period when game was being introduced, the first two lodges were set up. Richard Davies believes very strongly that the Parks Board should concentrate on its core business, conservation, and all other matters, including the maintenance of the 140 km boundary fence, is better handled by the private sector. Consequently he has left the high-risk business of establishing and running accommodation facilities such as Tau Lodge to private companies.
The most important element in what is seen as a tripartite exercise, is the involvement of the three local communities. I visited Molatedi village with Bernard Marobe, the Parks Board Community Liaison Officer. On the way we met Agnes Medupe, an astute local business woman who won the first concession to collect firewood in the park which she sells to the lodges who are forbidden to collect their own. She does not come from the immediate area because none of the local people would take the franchise. As she told me rather scornfully "Once they found out there were going to be lions and elephants in the park, they were too scared to come in." She now employs six men and is hoping to start a sewing business next to make uniforms for lodge staff.
At Molatedi, Bernard and I found a meeting of the Vegetable Growing Committee in full swing. Each village has formed a company to grow and supply vegetables to the lodges. Already around 85 local people are directly employed in the lodges or in other park duties and these new enterprises will provide additional jobs where none existed before. Previously the farm workers mostly came from Zimbabwe and, for local villagers, the only way to earn money was to become a migrant worker in one of South Africa's mines. In order to further encourage an enterprise culture Britain's Department For International Development (DFID - formerly the ODA) is spending £680,000 to provide the communities with skills, drive and confidence to come up with ideas for small businesses and carry them through. Such training will help them obtain finance from banks and other commercial sources.
Important as they are, however, these small businesses are only icing on the cake. As Richard Davies explained, the real money comes to the communities from a 10% levy on park entrance fees and on the lodge leases. These will be significant sums, possibly running into several million rand, and a special committee has been democratically elected in each village to decide how the cash should be spent. It is desperately necessary. Ruth Maimane told me how Molatedi needs both a health centre and a secondary school. Currently the only way to reach the nearest hospital is by taxi - fare 300 rand (£43) - while school children have a two hour bus ride (leaving at 5.30 am) to reach school along roads which are impassable in the wet.
Madikwe is an attractive park. It is malaria free, has all of the large African mammals, contains the second largest elephant herd in South Africa and is just four hours by road from Johannesburg and 40 minutes from Gaborone, the rapidly growing and prosperous capital of neighbouring Botswana. And there could hardly be anywhere safer for wildlife. The local people are the reserve's eyes and ears, tuned in to protect Madikwe. Woe betide any poacher who tries anything here. Maoko should be suitably grateful.
Michael Woods flew to South Africa courtesy of South African Airways. He stayed at Tau Lodge as a guest of the Conservation Corporation Africa. First published in The Financial Times Weekend FT Travel Section.
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