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A history of the Timbavati

Don Scott | Conservation

I have recently been reading a “History of the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve” and it struck me that, in the decades since the establishment of Private Game Reserves in the Kruger Lowveld area, how much has changed and, yet, how much has stayed the same. You might ask why I’m looking into the history of our reserve. When we look to our future as Tanda Tula, with the rebuild of our Safari Camp taking place as I write this, I am reminded to also look to our past, where we have come from, and what has shaped us into the family we are today.

The history of the reserve is a super interesting story, captured in a “veritable tome” of some 500 pages (this was a work commissioned by the Timbavati some years ago and completed in about 2004 by a Roy Stauth and Shirley Grindley). There is no doubt that the landscape we find ourselves in today is vastly different from that in 1956, when the reserve was first forming, yet the challenges they faced then are often found still playing out today.

In the “History of the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve”, I was reading about an Annual General Meeting which took place in 1972. Then, as now, the concern of landowners about the potential for over-commercialization of the game reserves was voiced with deep concern. There was a sense from some that allowing paying tourists to visit these wildlife areas would be the very demise of the wilderness so treasured by the founding fathers of the reserve. Today, even after some 45 years of successful eco-tourism activities in the reserves, there are still conversations about over-commercialization and the dangers it poses to the Timbavati.

The enormous effort to effect land inclusion into the reserves and the glacial pace at which it occurs has also not changed. I remember my son, all of 4 years old, seeing a neighbouring landowner at a local restaurant and asking him “when are you going to take your bloomin’ fences down?!” – no guesses as to what our morning school-run conversations consisted of in those days. Today, my son is turning 17 and we are, at last, in the final stages of including the said landowner’s property into the Timbavati, with the subsequent offending fence only to be removed later this year.

Then, there is the question of the relevance and legitimacy of the private game reserves within the broader South African economy and political landscape. As a member of the Executive Committee of the Timbavati, I am regularly discussing how we, as a private game reserve, must make a meaningful contribution to the communities in which we operate, as well as stimulate economic activity to justify keeping these lands under a wildlife economy. Looking back, one sees these very same discussions from committee meetings of the 1970’s, where powerful lobby groups supporting agricultural interests were questioning the economic value of vast wildlife areas. The committee of the day (back in 1976) expressed concern that government would need to see economic value from these areas if they were to remain as havens for wildlife to continue to thrive.

And yet, even with these seemingly circular returns to issues of the past, with the determined effort of many players over the decades, much has changed in the 65 years since the formation of our reserve.

Without doubt the biggest change is the sheer size of the open landscape that we are part of. Below is a comparison of what properties made up the Timbavati in 1956 versus those which make up the reserve today:

 

Timbavati Tanda Tula - TPNR Map

 

Compared to the original declaration, the Timbavati has grown by at least an additional 1/3 of its initial land area.

More importantly though, when the reserve was formed and internal fences dropped between individual properties, there remained an external fence which cut the Timbavati off from the Kruger National Park, and other properties that would later become private game reserves too. The big change came in the early 1990’s when the surrounding private reserves agreed to drop fences to increase the area available for the free movement of animals. This was followed, shortly thereafter, by the agreement to drop the fence between the Kruger National Park and the private reserves, opening up a vast area to the benefit of all the animals that reside there. Have a look at the difference in the fenced areas from the 1990’s compared to the unfenced open area of today.

 

All in all, some 250,000 hectares of private reserve area has been added to the original space of the Kruger National Park and this process continues today with the western boundary of the Greater Kruger area slowly but steadily moving westwards as more landowners choose to include their land into the wildlife estate – what a great success story!

Another big change has been the growth (both in numbers and in professionalism of the industry) of the game lodge sector of the Greater Kruger. Back in the early 1970’s there were a mere 2 commercial game lodges in all of the private reserves of the lowveld region – Mala Mala, in the Sabi Sands, and Sohobele Safari Lodge, in the Timbavati (Sohobele no longer exists, having closed permanently in late 1976). These humble beginnings are peppered with humorous and harrowing stories of the few who dared try their hand at offering wildlife experiences to the, often, unsuspecting public. The 1970’s was truly the frontier era of the private game lodge industry. Common practices in those days included baiting of predators to “guarantee” lion sightings, the dubious habituation techniques to try and increase leopard viewing possibilities, and the first attempts at off-road driving to follow game in mobile sightings. These were combined with the challenges of operating in remote areas without reliable communication and with sometimes almost non-existent infrastructure, making the chances of success of these lodges all the more difficult.

The last 4 decades have seen a massive change in the way game lodges operate, with major investments in infrastructure, greater employment and growth opportunities, particularly for members of the previously marginalized local communities, and with lodge teams now able to develop long term careers. We now find ourselves in a thoroughly professional part of the tourism sector. Most of the practices of old are now frowned upon as being reckless at best, unethical and even illegal at worst. Our industry now has codes of conduct, standard operating procedures, minimum compliance standards and all manner of rules and regulations that have been developed from our learnings through past practices. The early operators in the 1970’s would most likely despair at the reems of protocols which now guide our industry. But these changes have brought with them a place for a more sustainable, ethical and truly transformative sector to thrive. Long may it continue to grow and nurture the people who love working in it.

And finally, our relevance within our region and our country has become entrenched as we have established the Timbavati as a relevant, legitimate, and integral part of what is now the Greater Kruger National Park landscape. We are no longer a little known, stand-alone, wildlife reserve. Timbavati has become a world-renowned private reserve, whose private and state-owned reserve neighbours hold it in high regard. Indeed, we are today considered a serious player in a larger system that works together to preserve the wildlife heritage of our country. Each of the reserves in the Kruger Lowveld area no longer operates as an island with only our internal interests at play. Instead, and this is perhaps one of the biggest changes over the decades, the reserve complex acts as a network of collaborative partnerships, sharing knowledge, expertise, resources and practices to better manage what, for the animals and plants, is an integrated and continuous landscape. By doing this, our combined economic benefit to the region and the country has multiplied many times over since the 1950’s and we can now proudly and confidently defend our wildlife economy as having a rightful place in the South African economy.

And so it is, with our knowledge of the history of our reserve, our celebration of the great changes achieved over the years, and our recognition of those things that continue to remain challenges in our landscape, that we are embarking on the exciting changes for Tanda Tula and our journey into the future as a tourism product that honours all of its past. Join us on this exciting journey!

Don Scott

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