As Ian Stewart stared out over a wave of mountains at the sparkling river below, his love for his land was clear.
“The bush is a glistening green, with a lot of plants flowering really early this year. The aloe’s bright orange flowers are out; a lot of little white daisies are out. So the bush is really looking good at the moment. This is bush, what it should be,” the conservationist said, smiling.
Stewart’s family owns Bucklands Game Reserve in a unique part of South Africa’s Eastern Cape province. According to historians, the region, because of its biodiversity, was once home to some of the largest numbers of wild animals in Africa, including lion and elephant.
“The Great Fish River (and surrounds) was probably one of the greatest wildlife areas in Africa. But it was also one of the first colonized areas in Africa, and so it was the first to lose its wildlife population,” explained Angus Sholto-Douglas, director of Kwandwe Game Reserve.
In the 1800s, the “Frontier Wars” between invading British forces and local Xhosa tribes and the subsequent transformation of the area into farmland by the victorious British drove most of the animals out of the area.
Now, however, some private conservationists and game reserves are at the forefront of returning Africa’s famed Big Five – lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros – and many other species to their natural habitat in the Eastern Cape.
“Having farmed in this area and knowing how difficult that was, for me the great thing is to…bring back the animals that our forefathers shot out,” said Alan Weyer, manager of the Kariega Game Reserve.
Third most diverse ecology in the world
Scientists refer to the region of the Eastern Cape between the Keiskamma and Sundays Rivers, which includes the Great Fish River, as the “Albany Hotspot.”
The fact that it contains five different ecosystems – from savannah to moist river forests to dry Karoo scrub – in a relatively small area means it carries the most diverse animal and plant species in the world after the Amazon jungle in South America and the Cape Floral Kingdom, also in South Africa.
“Because of the [ecological] diversity in this area, just about every recognizable mammal in Africa exists here,” said Weyer. Sholto-Douglas added that unlike in other regions of the continent, where open plains sustain game, the “Hotspot” was a “very different” part of Africa.
“It’s made up of mainly succulent thicket, so it has these incredible wide open spaces and incredible rolling hills with these magnificent vistas. The vegetation sustains a huge amount of browsers so it’s very, very good for elephant and black rhino in particular.”
Dale Howarth, an environmentalist who owns Pumba Game Reserve, told VOA, “I have never been anywhere else capable of carrying so many antelope and therefore so many predators than this tiny part of the world.”
The World Bank has contracted Howarth to manage the expansion of what’s already the biggest elephant conservation project in the world, the Addo Park, also in the Eastern Cape.
For Howarth, the restocking of the “Albany Hotspot” with animals that last roamed the area more than 150 years ago represents “one of the greatest triumphs for conservation in Africa, if not the world.”
But there was a time when such a victory seemed a long way off…because just a few years ago, Howarth and others like him were fighting to repair their land from the ravages of generations of commercial agriculture.
Until very recently most of the reserves in this corner of the Eastern Cape were cattle, sheep and ostrich farms. Today, those farmers have either retired or moved to more farm-friendly areas. Others have become game ranchers.
To prepare the land for the restocking of wild animals, the conservationists had to clear it of thousands of kilometers of fencing.
Howarth explained, “When you’ve got a stock farm and you’re farming stock animals, you can’t just have them feeding everywhere because you’ve got to conserve the grazing land. So you have to fence the animals in different camps for different times of the years.”
Getting rid of all the fencing, said Stewart, was a “nightmare.” His sentiments were echoed by Sholto-Douglas.
“There were 15,000 ostriches on [our] property and an enormous amount of internal fencing to make up the paddocks…We spent two hard years ripping all that up and taking all the signs of organized agriculture away, and then of course went through the fantastic process of bringing back all the animals….”
Restocking the animals
Game reserve owners have collectively spent millions of dollars on restocking the “Albany Hotspot” with the Big Five and other animals, such as Africa’s largest antelope species, the eland.
They’ve mostly bought the animals from game marketers and at auctions in parts of South Africa where game is still plentiful. The beasts were put onto large trucks, transported hundreds of miles and released onto the Eastern Cape reserves.
“It was hugely emotional to see elephants back on that landscape again, rhino, lion …” said Sholto-Douglas.
The Amakhala Game Reserve received an entire herd of elephant from Phinda park in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province.
“They were having a drought and they very kindly said we could have the elephants for free, which we thought was marvelous. But we had to pay for the [animals’] transportation and that cost us one hundred thousand rand [more than US$ 10,000 at the time],” said Dr. Jennifer Gush, Amakhala’s resident zoologist.
She continued, “It was a huge job. One of our members is a wildlife vet, so he went up with a couple of others to Phinda and helped with the capture, with helicopters. Then, after they were darted and sedated, the elephants were crated and put onto lorries [big trucks] and brought down here…”
The lions escape
All involved in restoring the Eastern Cape’s natural heritage have intriguing stories to tell of how the process unfolded.
Weyer recalled an incident from a few years back when he was still a pineapple farmer. Lion had just been reintroduced to the Kariega Game Reserve, which is “split” by a main road linking [the city of] Grahamstown with [the town of] Kenton-on-Sea.
“One morning I heard a strange report over the radio,” Weyer remembered. “One of our pineapple trucks had called into our local radio station saying, ‘There are lions in the road!’ And there were! The [reserve’s] automatic gate had jammed [open], and the pride of lion had sort of stuck their heads out and then taken a stroll down the road heading to Kenton-on-Sea! Lions weren’t commonplace in the area [at the time] and it caused huge consternation.”
Eastern Cape is now home to an even wider variety of wild animals, such as hippo.
Fortunately, he explained, it didn’t prove difficult to get the lions back behind the park’s electric fences. “The rangers found the lions down the road and simply chased them back in! It was unbelievable. Luckily they went back in…Otherwise things could have really turned interesting …”
Besides the Big Five, the “Albany Hotspot” now abounds with all manner of animals, including giraffe, hyena and hippo, thousands of types of birds - including rare crowned eagles and blue crane, insects and plants. Scientists continue to discover new species here.
The region now represents hope to conservationists and animal lovers from all over the world, who are increasingly visiting it – both to learn from the lessons on offer here, and to impart their own knowledge.