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December 2006



Outsourced conservation - Private Game reserves in the Eastern Cape turn the rural economy around

By Dr Garth Cambray

Over the past 16 years a quiet revolution in land use has occurred in the Eastern Cape. The development of private game reserves in the region has generated large income streams and contributed to environmental and social sustainability. The following article summarizes some of the findings of a report commissioned by the Indalo group of private game reserves. The original report written by Jeffrey A. Langholz and Graham I. H. Kerley of the Centre for African Conservation Ecology at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University can be found here

Tourism has become one of South Africa's largest income generators. Eco-tourism in the Eastern Cape between the Fish river and Port Elizabeth has in recent years developed rapidly and state and private game reserves have become global players attracting tourists from around the world to view the unique combination of typical African big wildlife surrounded by highly unique smaller animal and plant communities. The Indalo group represents 13 of the private game reserves in the region.

Prior to conversion to private game reserves the main land uses in the area were stock farming and a very small amount of field agriculture. The conversion process saw small farms of just over a thousand hectares consolidated into larger land units. In total the 10 Indalo members included in the survey covered 116 608 hectares.

Unlike state nature reserves which can exist as unprofitable entities, all the areas surveyed used profit driven ecotourism to generate income for conservation and development. The major attractors in the region were the wildlife, the biodiversity and landscapes. The most popular wildlife attractions were the so called 'big 5', the elephant, rhinoceros, lion, leopard and buffalo. In some cases reserves have animals which do not naturally occur in the area, so called 'extra-limital species' (a polite word for alien species) which clash with the concept of conservation but do attract tourists.

On the nuts and bolts side, the surveyed reserves had a total of 421 beds with an average price of US$375 (R2626) and a potential earning power of US$183 064 (R1,282,950) per night. Total visitors for 8 of the private game reserves for 2006 were estimated at 70 329. The majority (67%) of these visitors were from Europe (incl. UK). Interestingly enough, despite the rather high prices per bed, South African visitors comprised the second largest group, followed by the USA.

The actual financial implications of establishing a private game reserve were considerable and included costs such as fencing, road building, lodge construction, game purchase, rehabilitation of land degraded by stock farming with alien species such as cattle and goats, vehicles and removal of alien vegetation. In all the major investments in these development projects has rejuvenated aspects of the rural eastern cape economy which had been in recession for 20 years.

As a consequence of the favourable financial viability of private game reserves compared to stock farming, the average employment of the area increased by 4.5 times from 260 people employed on the land prior to conversion to 1172 employed by eco tourism currently. It was also found that the majority of the people living on the land at the time of conversion remained employed by the new reserves.

The average salary of an employee in the area increased from US$878 (R6,157) to US$4270 (R29,930). In addition to increased income, the private game reserves provided decent housing with lights, running water and sewerage systems. This was in contrast to much lower standards of living prior to conversion.

Interestingly, despite the fact that reasonably highly skilled staff were needed by the private game reserves, many had managed to source a large percentage of the skills required from within their borders. Others had made active plans to develop staff towards specific jobs. In all, the 1172 people employed by the private game reserves supported an additional 3754 dependents.

The actual conservation impact of the private game reserves was impressive. The group contains representatives of 6 of South Africa's 8 biomes, with grassland, thicket, nama karoo, fynbos and forest represented.

It was noted however that in some cases private game reserves were using land management practises which gave false savannah landscapes (as opposed to natural thicket) and in some cases stocking too many animals of certain types (eg lion) at the expense of others. This in a way is not conservation at all.

A number of other problems such as changing government policies, Eskom powerlines and the strong rand were seen as limiting growth.

Black economic empowerment is discussed in moderate detail showing that generally this important aspect of any business in South Africa is being explored and implemented.

In all the report showed that generally the private game reserves were conforming to good triple bottom line accounting principles, providing financial, social and environmental profits.


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