Taking 22 000-hectares of protected wilderness area in South Africa’s beautiful, undulating KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) heartland and turning it into a fully-fledged game reserve is a mammoth task. Just ask Jeff van Staden, CEO of African Habitat Conservancy (AHC).
Born of a vision to sustainably support the conservation of African wildlife through the upliftment and education of communities, AHC is the managing company behind the development of Babanango Game Reserve (BGR), its first conservation project situated on the breathtakingly beautiful mist belt grassland plateau 50km from the town of Vryheid. But that is not all, as it also focuses on restoration of the land under protection, removing alien and invader species to ensure the return to a pristine environment.
With its rolling grasslands, thornveld and 23km of river frontage on the White Umfolozi River, BGR is home to a diverse range of wildlife species and mixed biomes. It is a game reserve in the making and a trailblazing one at that.
“Although the reserve is the most stunningly beautiful I’ve seen, it’s also the most challenging, but when I originally looked at it, the risk-reward was the best I could foresee,” says Van Staden of the decision to choose Babanango as AHC’s first project. “If we can get it right here then we are adding another 22 000ha of conserved land to KZN,” he adds.
With its eye firmly on attracting tourism to the area, Babanango will eventually be the home of the Big Five – elephant, rhino, leopard, lion and buffalo – thanks to AHC’s strategic game reintroduction programme. This kicked off towards the end of 2019 with the release of a seed herd of 23 disease-free buffalo onto a 945ha section of the reserve.
“Leopard already occur naturally in the area, so the remainder of the Big Five species will be introduced over the coming two years,” says Babanango Reserve Manager Musa Mbatha. “In the meantime, we are continually fine-tuning our management of the area under protection through the monitoring of game numbers and the relocation of certain species when populations become too large for a certain area to sustain,” he adds.
“This ongoing process of capture and release has seen large herds of wildebeest and impala divided and relocated to other parts of the reserve to ensure an even spread of game across the various biomes,” says Mbatha.
BGR has also recently completed its first BioBlitz – an intense biological survey carried out to record all living species within a designated area over a continuous time period.
The BioBlitz was undertaken by a team of 12 specialists in partnership with the University of KwaZulu-Natal and featured Masters’ and PhD students specialising in herpetology, botany, ornithology and mammalogy, among others.
“We need to create a comprehensive list of species across the reserve,” says Mbatha. “The BioBlitz programme will help us to do this and to track biodiversity changes throughout the development of the reserve, gaining insight into our landscapes and microclimates,” he concluded.
African Habitat Conservancy promises to ensure the sustainability of all conservation projects, the upliftment and education of communities, and collaboration with all significant parties for the greater good of humanity, wildlife and our planet. By delivering unique, innovative experiences to the tourist market, offering excellent value for money, the company aims to create a sustainable business model that will encourage future projects which make a difference in Africa.
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