For as long as I can remember I have been enraptured by nature. The fascination of how an ant colony selects a new queen, how trees create food, why a zebra has stripes or how a bat can pinpoint a mosquito in the dark. My journey into conservation although inevitable in retrospect, was neither simple nor easy. I have sacrificed family time, social life, rest and any hope of making a million bucks. It has been the single most challenging yet fulfilling decision I have ever made. Most challenging for me now is narrowing my focus, finding my niche and ascertaining what role I can play in conserving our planet's natural landscapes and wildlife. Humans are not separate from nature, we are a crucial part of it. It's this relationship between modern man and the natural world that I would like to briefly examine in this blog.
There are several distinct factors to consider when developing a protected area. What would you like to achieve, how will the land be used and by who, what time frame will this model occupy. The biggest threat to our natural areas in Africa, other than a booming population, is the misuse of land. When we look no further ahead than our own generation it is easy to see palm oil plantations or sugarcane farms as viable options. These initiatives are lucrative, create immediate employment and strengthen international trade relations. However, for perspective, let’s try adopting the native American approach at making decisions. They would view their land seven generations into the future and make decisions based on how they would affect those communities at that time. Palm oil quickly saturates the landscapes leaving communities in the future with poorly arable soils and little natural landscape to develop. There is less biodiversity in a hectare of sugarcane than there is in an acre of beach sand.
Many people on this continent are easily convinced to sign over their land for these short term benefits and the result often means that future generations will suffer. To compete with this in South Africa we have endeavoured to give an economic value to animals. This approach began through sustainable hunting, and progressed to current day ecotourism. Also worth mentioning is the great effort of non-profit organisations and government partnerships funding the protection of areas where neither of the aforementioned practices are viable.
Let us zoom in on MalaMala Game Reserve. The first eco-tourism operation in South Africa and renowned as one of the best pieces of wildlife real estate in the world. Sharing an open unfenced boundary to 20 000 square kilometers of national park and encapsulated by private reserves to the west, it has long been a successful model for conservation in the area. It incorporates the community who own the land and have shares in the company. The community also enjoys job preference when we hiring and, through training programmes, they are empowered with new skills. It allows ecology students to facilitate studies on the reserve and collects much needed data for a host of research institutions. It gives crucial economic value to the wildlife that inhabits the region. This amalgamation of community, research and tourism seems to be the sustainable model needed for replication if we are to stand any chance of saving what’s left of our wild spaces for future generations. We must develop eco-tourism over agro-extractive alternatives. It's important to note that not all tourism models consider and balance these factors properly. Many sacrifice conservation for profit or vice versa, in such instances everybody loses, especially those generations still to come.
What is our role we might ask? I have worked and studied in different conservation areas for a number of years prior to joining the MalaMala family in 2016. It would be unjust not to extend gratitude on behalf of all conservationists in Africa to our guests. We understand the flights are long, the planning intensive and the amount of hours worked to fund these trips substantial. I can only say without you choosing to travel here, our fight to protect these areas would be severely hindered. Your contribution positively influences local communities, research initiatives and most importantly the very animals you have come to see. Not only have you expanded your horizons with every question, experience and encounter but you have joined the plight for conservation. You have played your role, as we will continue to play ours, for the benefit of all that inhabit our planet.