Editor’s Note: Monthly Ticket is a CNN travel series that highlights some of the most exciting topics in the travel world. In July, we hit the trails to explore the world’s longest hikes.
Five years ago, the river valleys and high plains now protected by the Babanango Game Reserve in South Africa’s KwaZulu Natal region were virtually devoid of wildlife after decades of cattle grazing and rampant hunting.
“All the big animals had been killed and most of the smaller ones had fled,” says Musa Mbatha, the sanctuary’s director of conservation and wildlife.
But in 2018, a partnership between local Zulu communities, the provincial government and a private conservation group worked out an ambitious plan to turn Babanango back into a wildlife wonderland, creating the largest game reserve established in the South Africa since the end of apartheid.
Today, on a typical morning or afternoon game drive inside the vast private reserve, it is possible to spot cheetah, zebra, giraffe, buffalo, hippopotamus, black and white rhinoceros, as well as over half a dozen species of antelope, including impalina, waterbuck, wildebeest and eland. All of them were transferred from other sanctuaries around southern Africa.
And more to come. A pride of lions is scheduled to arrive in March, a herd of elephants in April.
“This will be a ‘cold’ release,” Babanango guide Hendrik Fehsenfeld says of the pachyderms. “Straight out of the truck and into the bush.” Unlike smaller animals, which undergo a short acclimatization period in an enclosure before being released into the wild.
“But the most amazing thing,” says general manager of stocks Andrew Baxter, “is the fact that many other species have come back on their own.” Leopards are the most important, but also serval and caracal cats, wild wolves and coyotes, as well as many smaller mammals and much of the previously extinct bird and reptile life.
“Once we stopped hunting and cleared out the cattle, it was remarkable how nature bounced back,” Baxter adds. “The durability was incredible.”
Babanango has a long and varied history. In the early 19th century, it was part of a Zulu kingdom ruled by the legendary Shaka. As the kingdom expanded and became increasingly powerful, it was seen as a threat by British settlers on the nearby Natal coast.
Using a false pretext, the British invaded Zululand in 1879. Many of the landmark battles of the conflict – such as Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift – took place near Babanango. With their modern weapons, the Redcoats eventually prevailed and the land previously grazed by the Zulus was turned over to white farmers.
With the end of apartheid and the reconciliation of South Africa in the mid-1990s, the area was returned to its traditional Zulu owners. However, it remained largely uninhabited and underutilized.
“The KwaZulu Natal government did a survey of the land and decided it was a perfect area for a new game reserve,” explains Babanango guide Xolani Mhlongo. “So they looked for investors.”
German philanthropists Barbara and Hellmuth Weisser took up the challenge, pledging a $50 million investment over the 40-year lease. They set up the African Habitat Conservancy – a wildlife conservation management company – to turn the 22,000 hectare property in a malaria-free part of Zululand into a brand new game reserve in partnership with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and the Emcakwini Community Trust (ECT).
Part of the deal was to employ as many local people as possible.
“About 85% of our staff are from the three communities around the reserve,” says Mhlongo. “The trust also helps send children to school and drills boreholes for drinking water. We also try to educate children how important conservation is and how important the stock is to help the community. We want to show them that it’s not just fancy cars driving up and down looking at the animals.”
Creating the reserve game involved several challenging steps. First and foremost was making agreements with all four Zulu communities surrounding the park, especially those who were suspicious of outsiders taking over the management of their traditional land.
To appease everyone, the reserve agreed to open up small areas on the fringes of the park for Zulu cattle to graze, as long as there was no hunting or human habitation in these areas and they were not overgrazed.
An electrified fence was erected around the boundaries of the reserve to keep wildlife in and poachers and hunters out. The perimeter is also protected by regular horse, vehicle and helicopter patrols.
Before reintroducing the wildlife, the sanctuary had to remove and relocate more than 3,000 Zulu cattle that roamed the property.
“But first we had to determine who the cattle belonged to,” explains Mbatha. “Some had brands and belonged to local communities. Others were from far away and were probably stolen cattle. Thieves hid them here until they could be sold.”
The next step was to procure and buy the animals and then transport them by truck. Upon arrival, they spend a short familiarization period in pens (or in the case of hippos, ponds) near the sanctuary’s north gate.
After release, they are allowed to roam freely in the reserve and find their own place among the various habitats.
“The cheetahs immediately went south,” says Xolani Mhlongo. “In the part of Babanango that is closest to the sanctuary where they grew up. So maybe they were trying to go home. But it’s also the grassy plains where it’s easier for them to hunt with their speed.”
Several other species were also attracted to the highlands, including the red grouse which, to the management’s surprise, quickly became the cheetah’s favorite food. “I wish they could find something less expensive to eat,” says Baxter.
Some animals need modifications. Namely the rhinos, who shaved off their horns to deter poachers who could get past all safeguards.
Visitor facilities also had to be developed. There was already an old, slightly dilapidated hotel near the southern entrance, which was renovated into the reserve’s Babanango Valley Lodge. On the north side, the designer-savvy Zulu Rock Lodge was built into a mountaintop with cool breezes and commanding views.
A third lodge – the Madwaleni River Lodge – is scheduled to open in July. Perched along the southern bank of the White Umfolozi River, the lodge features luxurious, designer safari tents set around a communal hub with a restaurant, lounge and spa.
The game discs have already started. Visitors can also sign up for bush walks, stargazing sessions (the night sky is unbelievably clear) and conservation helicopter flights. In addition, the reserve can book transport and a private guide for tours of the Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift battlefields.
A zipline is the first of what management hopes is a variety of outdoor adventure sports options.
Fehsenfeld wants to introduce flyfishing to the Umfolozi and its tributaries and guided multi-day hikes. “It would be life-changing,” he says. “To walk through these valleys and grassy mountaintops and sleep under the stars knowing there are lions and elephants out there.”
Baxter is exploring the possibility of guiding kayaks at Umfolozi, a Via Ferrata rock climbing track and a hiking trail outside the perimeter fence with hikers spending their nights in Zulu homes. Another option is to tour some of the reserve’s hundreds of archaeological sites, such as the old stone fort that crowns Mount Madwaleni, a massive granite dome overlooking the Umfolozi River.
“I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved so far,” says Musa Mbatha, who was born and raised in a community on the edge of today’s reserve and worked as a herdsman on local white farms. “I have seen many changes in this land since I was a child.”
Meanwhile, Mbatha and his companions await the arrival of other animals who seem to know instinctively that Babanango is now a safe haven.
The best way to get to Babanango Game Reserve is to fly into King Shaka International Airport in Durban, South Africa and take an EZ Shuttle or other shuttle service to the game reserve’s northern entrance.