Babanango: South Africa’s big new game park is the result of a dramatic transformation

Editor’s Note: Monthly Ticket is a CNN Travel series that spotlights some of the most fascinating topics in the travel world. In March, we’re heading to the great outdoors.

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Five years ago, the river valleys and high plains that are now safeguarded by the Babanango Game Reserve in the KwaZulu Natal region of South Africa were virtually devoid of wildlife after decades of cattle grazing and unrestrained hunting.

“All the big animals had been killed and most of the smaller ones had run away,” says Musa Mbatha, the reserve’s conservation and wildlife manager.

But in 2018, a partnership between local Zulu communities, the provincial government and a private conservation group hatched an ambitious plan to transform Babanango back into a wildlife wonderland by creating the largest game reserve established in South Africa since the end of apartheid.

Nowadays, on a typical morning or afternoon game drive through the sprawling private reserve, it’s possible to spot cheetah, zebra, giraffe, buffalo, hippo, black and white rhino, as well as more than half a dozen antelope species including impala, hartebeest, waterbuck, wildebeest and eland. All of them were relocated from other reserves around southern Africa.

The Babanango Game Reserve is a wildlife wonderland.

And there’s more to come. A pride of lions is scheduled to arrive in March, an elephant herd in April.

“That’ll be a ‘cold’ release,” says Babanango guide Hendrik Fehsenfeld of the pachyderms. “Straight from the truck and into the bush.” Unlike smaller animals, that undergo a short habituation period inside an enclosure before their release into the wild.

“But the most amazing thing,” says reserve general manager Andrew Baxter, “is the fact that many other species returned on their own.” Most significantly leopards, but also serval and caracal cats, aardvarks and aardwolves, as well as many smaller mammals and much of the bird and reptile life that had previously vanished.

“Once we stopped hunting and cleared out the cattle, it was remarkable how nature bounced back,” adds Baxter. “The resilience was incredible.”

“A perfect area for a new game reserve”

Babanango has a long and varied history. By the early 19th century, it was part of a Zulu kingdom ruled by the legendary Shaka. As the realm expanded and became increasingly more powerful, it was viewed as a threat by British colonists on the nearby Natal coast.

Using a trumped-up excuse, the British invaded Zululand in 1879. Many of the conflict’s landmark battles – like Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift – played out near Babanango. With their modern weapons, the Redcoats eventually prevailed and land previously grazed by the Zulu was handed to white farmers.

With the end of apartheid and South Africa’s reconciliation in the mid-1990s, the area was given back to its traditional Zulu owners. However, it remained largely unpopulated and underutilized.

An aloe marlothii tree stands silhoutted against the sunset.

“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 went looking for investors.”

German philanthropists Barbara and Hellmuth Weisser took up the challenge, pledging a $50-million investment over the 40-year span on the lease. They formed African Habitat Conservancy – a wildlife conservation management company – to transform 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 employing as many local people as possible.

“Around 85% of our staff is from the three communities around the reserve,” says Mhlongo. “The trust also helps send kids to school and drills boreholes for drinking water. We also try to educate the children how important conservation is and how important the reserve is for helping the community. We want to show them that it’s not just fancy cars driving up and down watching the animals.”

A challenging endeavor

Establishing the game reserve involved several challenging steps. First and foremost was forging agreements with all four of the Zulu communities that surround the park, especially those who were suspicious of outsiders assuming stewardship of their traditional land.

In order to appease everyone, the reserve agreed to open-up small areas on the fringe of the park to Zulu cattle grazing as long as there was no hunting or human habitation in those areas, and they didn’t become overgrazed.

An electrified fence was erected around the reserve boundary to keep the wildlife in and poachers and hunters out. The perimeter is also protected by regular horseback, vehicle and helicopter patrols.

A herd of eland inside the Babanango Game Reserve.

Before reintroducing the wildlife, the reserve had to remove and relocate more than 3,000 Zulu cattle roaming free range on the property.

“But first we had to identify who the cattle belonged to,” Mbatha explains. “Some had brands and belonged to local communities. Others were from far away and were probably stolen cattle. They were hidden here by the thieves until they could be sold.”

Next step was sourcing and purchasing the animals, then trucking them in. Upon arrival, they undergo a short habituation period in corrals (or in the case of hippos, ponds) near the reserve’s north gate.

After release, they’re allowed to roam freely through the reserve and find their own place among the various habitats.

“The cheetahs immediately went south,” says Xolani Mhlongo. “To the part of Babanango that’s closest to the reserve where they grew up. So maybe they were trying to go home. But it’s also the grassy plateaus where it’s easiest for them to hunt with their speed.”

Several other species also gravitated towards the highlands, including red hartebeest which, to management’s consternation, quickly became the cheetah’s favorite food. “I wish they would find something less expensive to eat,” says Baxter.

Some animals need modifications. Namely the rhinos, who had their horns shaved down to dissuade any poachers who might make it past all the safeguards.

The Zulu Rock Lodge offers great views of the surrounding landscape.

Visitor facilities also had to be developed. There was already an old, slightly dilapidated hotel near the south entrance, which was renovated into the reserve’s Babanango Valley Lodge. Up on the north side, the designer-savvy Zulu Rock Lodge was constructed on a mountaintop with a cool breeze and commanding views.

A third overnight spot – the Madwaleni River Lodge – is slated to open in July. Perched along the south bank of the White Umfolozi River, the lodge features upscale, designer safari tents set around a communal hub with restaurant, lounge, and spa.

What comes next

Game drives are already well underway. Visitors can also sign up for bush walks, stargazing sessions (the night sky is incredibly clear), and conservation helicopter flights. In addition, the reserve can reserve 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 in the Umfolozi and its tributary rivers and multi-day guided backpacking treks. “It would be life changing,” he says. “To hike through these valleys and over the grassy mountaintops and sleep under the stars knowing there are lions and elephants out there.”

Baxter is exploring the possibility of guided kayaking on the Umfolozi, a Via Ferrata rock climbing circuit, and a hiking trail on the outside of the perimeter fence with trekkers spending their nights in Zulu homes. Another possibility is touring some of the reserve’s hundreds of archeological sites, like the old stone fortress that crowns Madwaleni Mountain, a massive granite dome overlooking the Umfolozi River.

“I’m very proud of what we have accomplished so far,” says Musa Mbatha, who was born and raised in a community on the edge of the present-day reserve and who worked as a herd boy on local white-owned farms. “I’ve seen a lot of changes on this land since I was a child.”

Meanwhile, Mbatha and his mates await the arrival of other animals that seem to know instinctively that Babanango is now a safe haven.

Getting there

The best way to reach the Babanango Game Reserve is to fly into King Shaka International Airport in Durban, South Africa and hop on an EZ Shuttle or other transfer service to the game reserve’s north entrance.

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