Following a previous post on The Big Five, I decided to take a closer look at African wildlife and the safari tourism industry which it supports. What better way to explore this issue than to talk to a safari guide and conservationist, someone who understands the challenges involved in managing natural resources in a way that meets the demand for tourism, serves the needs of local communities and safeguards biodiversity.

Edward with a young Nyala bull. Instagram @africanheartbeat
Edward with a young Nyala bull. Instagram @africanheartbeat

This article is based on a series of interviews with the South African guide Edward Smith. He originally trained as a terrestrial and marine safari guide and has worked on game reserves in the KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo provinces for the last 5 years. Besides his role as a guide and reserve ranger, he was also responsible for training volunteers at the Askari Wilderness Conservation Programme and Bhejane Nature Training.

What are the risks of working as a guide?

Working in the bush, each and every animal you come across has the potential to be dangerous. Whether it’s a small antelope, a lion or an elephant, every wild animal gets the same respect. 

When you go on a bushwalk you might see a herd of impala; it’s not something you need to be scared of, but it is something you need to be aware of, as there could always be a lion nearby.

The stare of a young male lion. Instagram @africanheartbeat
The stare of a young male lion. Instagram @africanheartbeat

As a safari guide, your job is to take preventative measures to minimise risk and keep your guests safe. The most beautiful thing for me is to see wildlife acting naturally in its own environment and that’s the kind of experience I want to give my guests. This means staying at a safe distance; ideally the animal you’re observing won’t even realise you’re there. At the very least, it shouldn’t feel threatened by your presence.

Even so, dangerous situations can present themselves and that’s when you have to trust in your own knowledge and experience to read the signals and react accordingly. Each species has a comfort zone, a warning zone and a charging zone. An animal will almost always warn you before it charges but, of course, you need to know what to look out for.

Often animals, such as elephants and giraffes, will approach just to investigate what they have heard or smelt. If I see that the animal is relaxed and just curious, there’s no problem in allowing it to get closer. If the animal shows signs of charging, as a general rule, you should make yourself as big as possible, make as much noise as possible and never, ever turn your back or run away! 

What conservation activities take place on game reserves?

There’s a lot of work involved in maintaining a reserve. Typical conservation activities include carrying out anti-poaching patrols, clearing up snares laid by poachers, monitoring and counting of certain species, setting up camera traps, controlling soil erosion and recording weather data. 

As a part of our conservation programme at Askari, volunteers would help us with all of these tasks and, as we moved around the reserve, we would teach them about various plants and wildlife we encountered, from the dung beetle on the ground to the vultures in the sky. 

A side view of a white rhinoceros, the largest rhinoceros species. Instagram @africanheartbeat
A side view of a white rhinoceros, the largest rhinoceros species. Instagram @africanheartbeat

I enjoy working with volunteers and students, as there’s more time to go into depth. Most tourists on safari go from one sighting to another – lions, elephants, rhinos – but overlook the smaller details of nature. 

What are the different types of game reserves and parks?

National parks

Without doubt, the most renowned South African safari destination is the Kruger National Park. This 2 million hectare expanse, just a little smaller than Belgium, is the largest in a network of government-run parks called SANParks

In places like Kruger, you’ll see lions coming right up to vehicles. Due to the huge numbers of visitors in places, animals have become ‘habituated’. They’re not tame by any measure, but they’ve lost some of their natural behaviour.

A herd of elephants in the Krugar National Park. Instagram @africanheartbeat
A herd of elephants in the Krugar National Park. Instagram @africanheartbeat

Private reserves

Then there are private game reserves, which are far more numerous thaN national parks. They’re generally a lot smaller in size, normally just a few thousand hectares, but combined they cover a much larger territory.

These are privately owned, so the type of activity that goes on will depend on the owner (or group of owners). There are completely private reserves, kept by families as a bush retreat. There are game reserves set up for specific types of tourism, such as wildlife photography and birding

A male African golden weaver (Ploceus subaureus), perched proudly above its nest. Instagram @africanheartbeat
A male African golden weaver (Ploceus subaureus), perched proudly above its nest. Instagram @africanheartbeat

Other reserves run breeding programmes, essentially farming and trading in different types of plains game species, such as impala, wildebeest and sable antelope. A significant proportion of private reserves are also used for hunting. That’s hunting herbivores for meat, usually to make biltong, but there’s also a lot of trophy hunting. 

And do these activities go on side by side?

Yes, you need to imagine a vast patchwork of areas, most of which are completely fenced-off from one another. Across ten neighbouring reserves, there could be five for wildlife tourism and the other five for hunting, one activity alongside the other.

I’ve even heard of cases of animal husbandry, wildlife tourism and hunting taking place here within the same space. At one end of the reserve there may be a group of tourists on a bushwalk taking photos and the other end of the reserve a group of hunters shooting animals.

How widespread is hunting in South Africa?

This is a controversial topic and for good reason, but there are forms of hunting that are broadly accepted in South Africa. 

For example, local hunters will tend to visit hunting reserves to kill herbivores, such as impala. They will then sell the meat or use it to make biltong. 

Even in the case of tourism-based reserves, it’s sometimes necessary to control the number of herbivores in order to avoid overpopulation, which would lead to soil erosion, overutilisation of resources, inbreeding and habitat loss. One of the ways to do this is through culling.

Typically, a professional ecologist will come in, look at the area of land and the amount of fuel (i.e. grass and trees), and calculate the number of animals it can sustain. Some reserves choose to call in a hunter to do the culling, which provides revenue which can be reinvested in the reserve.

On game reserves where I have worked, culled animals usually go to feed our staff or they are offered to the local community. Supplying locals with meat can help strengthen relations and reduce the risk of poaching.

In my eyes, these examples are quite different from international trophy hunters coming to Africa to hunt the Big Five. But trophy hunting, too, is widespread. It’s an important contributor to the country’s economy and provides thousands of jobs.

How would you change the situation?

Many of the problems with game reserves come from the fact that, no matter how big they are, they are enclosed areas. Therefore, the natural balance found in a completely open ecosystem is not possible. In the wild, herds of ungulates travel great distances to graze, their numbers kept in check by predators. In closed reserves, it becomes a balancing act, managing resources and ratios of animals. 

However, before the creation of these private reserves, before the fences came up, things were worse. In the past hunting was completely uncontrolled and unregulated. Cattle farmers and landowners would shoot as many animals crossing their land as they wanted. Wildlife populations were decimated.

Around 60 years ago there were only around half a million game animals left. Since then, there has been a dramatic recovery and that number has risen to around 20 million animals. The development of private reserves, including those that allow hunting, have played a key role in this progress.

All private reserves are subject to comprehensive regulation, but there are definitely still things I would change. If reserves were larger, that would be better for the animals and could also be more sustainable. 

When I was back in university there was a proposal to create a nature corridor from the Kruger Park all the way down to Cape Town. This hasn’t happened as yet, but this kind of initiative to connect existing reserves to allow animals to move freely is definitely the way forward. Unfortunately, as with so many things today, it all comes down to money. If it pays, it stays.

Edward and his partner Ivone plan to start their own company called African Heartbeat. Their idea is to break away from the normal safari model, which focuses on the larger animals but somehow miss the big picture. Instead, they want to give people the chance to experience nature, understand the importance each species and realise where we as humans fit in to all. 

Check out the African Heartbeat instagram page for more beautiful wildlife photography!

As a final point, we are aware that this article touches on some complex issues, not least that of wildlife management and hunting. Rest assured that we will address these topics in more depth in a forthcoming post.

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Next article8 fascinating animal facts about 8 different species
James is a freelance language professional based in Barcelona. Besides writing articles for Zoo Portraits, he writes about education and teaches English as a foreign language in businesses, universities and other institutions around the city.


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