Sustaining a community-owned game reserve in tough times
Farmer's Weekly|April 23, 2021
COVID-19’s disastrous impact has necessitated change and adaptability in even the most rural parts of South Africa. The management of Somkhanda Community Game Reserve spoke to Lloyd Phillips about their efforts to keep this jewel of conservation and ecotourism alive and moving forward in the face of adversity.
Lloyd Phillip

1: A key drawcard for ecotourists is the fact that the Somkhanda Community Game Reserve is now a Big Five conservation area that is helping to protect endangered species.

Somkhanda Community Game Reserve (Somkhanda) maybe 12000ha in size, already 16 years old, and home to South Africa’s iconic Big Five wildlife and numerous other fauna and flora species, yet this beautiful park in rural northern KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) remains a surprisingly little known destination on the country’s expansive ecotourism map.

2: From left: Meiring Prinsloo (conservation manager), Fana Gumbi (secretary of the Emvokweni Community Trust) and Patrick Gumbi (treasurer of the trust) are amongst the people working to enhance economic returns from the sustainable harvesting of the reserve‘s excess animal populations.

Admittedly, much work is still needed to enhance its ecotourism infrastructure, such as building self-drive game-viewing roads, but the plan is to undertake these projects once Somkhanda’s long-constrained financial position improves. It is not through lack of trying that the Gumbi community, which achieved ownership of Somkhanda and a large area of agricultural land adjacent to it through the land restitution process, has fallen somewhat behind in achieving the full economic vision for its game reserve. With long-time and dedicated support and guidance from the Wildlands NGO (a programme of the WildTrust), the Gumbi community agreed early on that the first priority was to populate Somkhanda with animal species suited to the reserve’s ecology, and which would also maximise its biodiversity and the functioning of its ecosystems. This lengthy and costly process has finally culminated in Somkhanda proudly being declared a Big Five game reserve and a habitat for the protection and propagation of threatened species, such as the rhino and the African wild dog.

According to Fana Gumbi, secretary of the Emvokweni Community Trust (ECT), which owns Somkhanda on behalf of the Gumbi community, only in recent years has the management focus been able to shift increasingly towards generating a sustainable income for the game reserve. With flagship flora and fauna species now in place to be marketed as a drawcard for local and international ecotourists, funding was required to develop new, or significantly upgrade, existing infrastructure to cater for these tourists. Somkhanda already offers a limited choice of more luxurious accommodation as well as its readily available rustic tented camps. However, the upgrade plans have had to be delayed as a result of the COVID- 19 pandemic’s disastrous socio-economic impact on South African and international tourism.

“We can’t just rely on grant funding from donors to support Somkhanda’s development and operations. This funding will eventually stop. We need to be able to generate our own income through a variety of means,” says Gumbi.

3: The conservation and income-generation efforts of the reserve have been supported and guided from the start by the Wildlands programme.

MANAGING THE ANIMAL NUMBERS

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