How eco-tourism may offer Africa a route to species conservation

As dusk settles over the forest canopy, a pride of lions strolls purposefully past our open jeep, almost within touching distance. Their spellbinding amber eyes don't give us so much as a sideways glance; these lions are on a mission, their pupils fixed on the dirt track ahead. Only an hour or two earlier we saw three of these big cats lounging on a steep brown ridge, nuzzling and licking one another sleepily between obligatory surveys of the valley below. 

Now it's near dinner time, and rather than taking the slower route through thick grasses to reach a herd of tasty wildebeest over the hill, these kings of the jungle are sensibly following this route considerately carved out by humans. I'm hoping for a deep, powerful roar – the ultimate symbol of Africa – but instead I'm greeted with the familiar baritone of a biped.

"Let's risk it for the biscuit," our tanned, 20-something guide Nikki Muller enthuses, as he steps on the gas and we hurtle deeper into the wilderness, dodging low-hanging branches, hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the lions pouncing on its prey. But alas, the wary wildebeest have beaten a hasty retreat. No matter, Muller, who has an impressive knack of keeping one eye on the road ahead while swinging his head around to highlight points of interest along the way, has received word from a colleague via walkie-talkie that there is another, far more elusive big cat lurking nearby: the world's fastest land animal, the cheetah. Within minutes we're mesmerised by the sight of this sleek, slinky killer cat, lying motionless in a field of gold-white grass, but with no obvious prey on the horizon.

This wildlife game reserve, &Beyond Phinda, located in the northern part of South Africa, close to the Indian Ocean, has hosted the most successful reintroduction of cheetah anywhere on the continent, vital at a time when these cats have been driven out of 90 per cent of their historic range because of human encroachment.

Phinda's seven distinct habitats host some of the best cheetah sightings in the world.

On our drive back to the lodge in the fading light, we pass a family of impala, happily munching on grass together like a scene from Disney, spotted straightaway by Muller. But it's his encyclopaedic knowledge of South African birdlife that truly impresses; he can spot one of Phinda's star birds, and within a heartbeat quote the page number in which it appears in the bird book he's helpfully circulated among his passengers. "Emerald spotted dove!" he sings out, and suddenly we're all scanning the trees in a where? where? frenzy, searching for said bird, one of 80 different species in the reserve. "Erch, I miss the dove," a German visitor sitting beside me declares disappointedly. "Page 28," Muller obligingly offers.

This is my first wildlife safari, and my first visit to Africa. Initially, I struggle to pinpoint exactly why the sight of such magnificent creatures roaming across their natural domain has such a profound impact on me. Is it the childlike wonder of seeing them in their millennia-old home, a vast landscape bearing no resemblance to the hotel rooms (zoos) us big-brained humans have been housing them in over the past 200 years? Or is it something more primal, lying in the ancient soils of Africa itself, which gave birth to its iconic flat-topped acacias and savannah, its flamboyant bird life, its fantastical mega-mammals? For this is the Book of Genesis writ large, echoing a primordial time when the first humans walked the earth, when we were just another animal struggling to survive.

What adds powerful poignancy to the scene is the knowledge that Africa's animals, especially its so-called "big five" (lion, leopard, Cape buffalo, rhinoceros and elephant) are under siege: from rapacious poachers, from the razing of forest habitats, from local farmers setting poisonous traps. Then add to this the scorching shadow of climate change, creeping over all animals and ecosystems across the planet, with many species quietly slipping into oblivion.

Yet, amid all this bleakness, there is hope. It lies in the rise and rise of high-end eco-tourism, in the spread of private wildlife game reserves like Phinda, in renewed investment in national parks, in a young generation of locals fighting to save their ecosystems and to protect wildlife. Giving in to despair is lazy and dangerous, as the legendary primatologist Jane Goodall keeps reminding us. I feel this practical optimism here in Phinda, which is located in Zululand, in the way it builds trust with local communities and partners with groups like the Africa Foundation to build schools and support medical clinics. Phinda Homestead, one of six luxury lodges on the reserve, contains four expansive, sumptuous rooms, decorated with locally produced Zulu art and furniture. But most of all, I feel the optimism, nay joy, in watching the animals, safe and free to roam here.

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Every evening at Phinda Homestead I slide back the glass doors of my room, leaving only the insect screens secured. This way I can listen to the forest as it springs to invisible life: frogs mating, insects whirring, a rustling through the branches, a slight splash in the pond. In the blue light of dawn, I awake one morning to see an inquisitive baboon perched on my timber balcony, busily grooming himself. As I step gingerly towards the door, he cranes his neck, stares straight into my eyes and leaps away. But I'm up at daybreak for something even more memorable: no less than the experience of a lifetime.

The dark-grey skin of a white rhino feels warm and coarse. But when I gently put my hand under her leg, her skin is as soft as velvet. This young lady is just six years old (rhinos can live until 40 or 50 in the wild), and is lying on her side in a gentle half-sleep. A white blindfold covers her tiny ears and eyes, to keep her as calm as possible. Only minutes before, a vet had fired a dart into her rump from a helicopter, as its pilot performed a series of deft aerial manoeuvres to herd her into a safe, open space. It takes only a couple of minutes for the powerful sedative, 1000 times more potent than morphine, to do its job of bringing her to a complete stop before she falls to the ground.

No one, much less this bunch of wildlife conservationists, loves what they're about to do. But it's essential for this grand animal's survival when rhino horn is fetching more than $US60,000 ($85,000) a kilo on the black market, outstripping the price of gold or cocaine. Half of this rhino's horn has grown back in the past 18 months and she's overdue for a trim.

Phinda was forced to begin dehorning three years ago after one of its rhino was butchered by poachers for its horn. More than 230 rhino have been lost to poachers within a 200-kilometre radius of Phinda over the past few years; across South Africa, more than 7000 rhinos have been poached since 2008. "In a sense dehorning is an admission of failure, but this will save her life," concedes the reserve's manager, Simon Naylor. "A dehorned rhino is better than a dead rhino."

Even though rhino dehorning requires a chainsaw for cutting and an angle grinder for carving the horn in such a way that it grows back symmetrically, she won't feel a thing. That's because rhino horn is composed of the same material – keratin – as your fingernails, so cutting it is painless. This is the madness of this illegal trade, based on the totally false belief in China, Taiwan and Singapore that rhino horn has special medicinal and aphrodisiac properties. But superstition has deep, tribal roots, even if it's but a blip in time compared to the age of rhinos, whose ancestors go back 40 million years. 

Three of the five species of black and white rhino are now critically endangered (the difference between white and black rhino, incidentally, is not related to skin colour but lip shape, which evolved separately to suit varying vegetarian diets). But since it began dehorning, Phinda hasn't lost a single rhino and the poachers have stayed away.

"We're buying time," observes conservationist Les Carlisle, who helped build Phinda into the "Big Five" reserve it is today by reintroducing predators and other species, restoring forest habitat and forging relationships with the local community nearly 30 years ago. "It will take another generation to change attitudes." Carlisle, one of the most respected movers of wildlife in Africa, has been involved in the successful Rhinos Without Borders project, to date translocating 87 rhino from Phinda to Botswana, a country with relatively low poaching rates, thanks in part to its government's "no tolerance" policy. Phinda is one of the few reserves to host a healthy increase in rhino numbers.

One of the vets holds up the small slab of shorn horn, telling us that even this small piece would fetch more than $US25,000 on the black market. From here it will be transported under high security to Johannesburg, where it will be stored in vaults secure enough to house gold bullion.

It's not even 8am yet – it's necessary to dehorn animals in the cooler hours to avoid the risk of heat stress – and already there's the satisfaction that one more rhino has been saved. Only minutes later we're back in the truck, watching our lumbering lady, who has been administered an antidote to the sedative, rise to her feet, take a quick look around and disappear into scrub to meet up with her pals. It's a moving moment; when I turn around, I notice one of my fellow visitors welling up with tears.

The clink of ice cubes and the low murmur of conversation on a mountain top strangely seem to shrink the view of the vast green plateau below. We're on a game-drive drinks stop, milling about sipping gin and tonics, kindly prepared by our gregarious host at Phinda Homestead, William de Jager, who informs us that the traditional safari drink dates back to a time when the foot soldiers of the British Empire stirred quinine into water to create tonic water and ward off malaria. Someone offers up the famous quote by Winston Churchill: "The gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen's lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire."

The talk turns to how wildlife can only be saved by maintaining the exquisite balance between flora and fauna, which is especially important in smaller game reserves and national parks. Phinda has 520 hectares of sand forest, one of the few remaining patches of untouched sand forest in eastern Africa. But it recently installed a wire fence around the forest's perimeter to prevent the reserve's elephants from trashing trees and shrubs as they lumber through the landscape. Phinda has 110 elephants, which is the upper limit of its carrying capacity, given the reserve is just below 29,000 hectares and has to support a host of other wildlife.

Muller regales us with how, as part of his ranger training, he spent a week crossing from one side of Phinda to the other, carrying only a backpack and a .375 calibre rifle, choosing to sleep in a tree one night because of lions in the vicinity. "If you surprise a wild animal, never run, stand your ground," he advises. "But nothing beats being out there, particularly sleeping under the stars ..."

Which is exactly what we'll be doing later tonight, except in full glamping luxury, after a mouth-watering multi-course meal prepared by Phinda Homestead's dedicated chef. But for me it will be the comforting sounds of the forest, and not the twinkling carpet of stars above, that will send me into a deep, contented sleep.

Greg Callaghan travelled to Phinda courtesy of &Beyond. He was part of the &Beyond Phinda Impact Story Small Group Journey.

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