Conservation Kids: The Importance of a Wilderness Education

Nov 17, 2019 | Commentary

By Adam Cruise – PhD candidate: Stellenbosch University, South Africa

Bush education is at the heart of preserving the Lapalala Wilderness Reserve and uplifting its human communities

For my twelfth birthday my parents gave me a novel present. They packed me and nine school friends off into the wilderness. Their plan, apart from getting the boisterous pre-teens out their hair for a while, was to have us slickers of the urban sprawl of Johannesburg educated in the forgotten ways of the bush.

The place of choice was Lapalala, a 5000-hectare reserve of the most pristine wilderness deep in the Waterberg in the remote north-western part of South Africa. Here, isolated red-soiled valleys lined with spectacular layered sandstone cliffs echoed the flow of rivers cascading into rock pools where endless wooded and grassland landscapes harboured a diverse range of wildlife. If an African wilderness could be personified, this was it.

The ten of us were dumped on the bank of the Palala River where some rudimentary huts, a tiny thatched kitchen, and a pit latrine awaited us. Over the next few days we were taught how to read spoor, study scat, interpret salt licks and other signs of the wild. We took long hikes into the bush, quietly getting up close to wild animals and learning how to conserve our water. We shot the rapids of the Palala in old tyre tubes, identified a dizzying number of bird species, gazed in awe at the star constellations, unveiled in their magnificent splendour so far from the light pollution of the city. Someone lost their penknife in the pit latrine. This caused a lengthy debate as to whether anyone should attempt to retrieve it. In the end no-one volunteered. We took turns at keeping watch at night around a fire, kept low but enough to provide warmth and the perception of protection. I discovered that a rutting impala sounds uncannily like the growl of leopard. I almost leapt into the fire at the sound and sat quivering as close as I could possibly get to the flames in fear until dawn when the field officer was finally able to allay my fears.

That week in 1982 was the best time of my childhood. It satisfied an innate Tom Sawyer in me, but more significantly, it was the kernel that sprouted an adult career in wildlife. 

Bigger and more diverse

Now 37 years later, I have returned. It is still as pristine as ever, except that Lapalala has mushroomed to an enormous wilderness ten times the size of the original area. Dozens of surrounding farms – never any good for agriculture and livestock – were steadily acquired and assimilated.

The expansion and rewilding was the brainchild of two early visionaries: Conservationist and businessman, Dale Parker; and Clive Walker, founder of the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT). These men saw that an increase in size of the natural environment comes an increase in biodiversity. Over time many more bird and animal species have naturally come back into the area. Among the fauna here now, I found abundant herds of eland, impala, waterbuck, bushbuck, zebra, wildebeest and even crocodiles in the Palala, close to where we shot the rapids as kids all those years ago. There is a pack of painted dogs here too, apparently the last free-roaming group in South Africa who have been known to roam as far as Botswana.

I also found the species diversity has been augmented through the careful introduction of bigger animals that once roamed the area. There are now elephants, lion, roan antelope, buffalo, giraffe and hippo as well as smaller species such red-billed oxpeckers – birds that had been wiped out by the dip poison of cattle that occupied the area in the past.

Most importantly, thanks to Dale and Clive’s lifelong undertaking to save rhinos, Lapalala has become one of the most important rhino sanctuaries in Africa. On the day of my arrival, I saw white and black rhino at either end of a waterhole. In all my years documenting wildlife, I had never witnessed this phenomenon. I had always thought the two species had exclusive habitats – the browsing black rhino favouring the woodlands, the white preferring the open grasslands to graze. Lapalala has both habitats that interchange like a kaleidoscope over the landscape. I don’t think there is another place on this continent where one can see both species in the wild, and at the same time.

Rhinos are undoubtedly Lapalala’s flagship species, and their survival and protection have always been taken seriously. There is a long-standing and highly successful breeding program for the more endangered black rhino. In 1990, Lapalala was the first private reserve to acquire the critically endangered black rhino and since then has increased the population substantially to the point it is one of the largest in the country.

The rhinos have been protected through a combination of specially developed computer tracking devices and a dedicated team of just three highly experienced field-rangers who track the rhinos on foot. These remarkable men say they know each rhino intimately, to the point they can identify an individual from its footprint. So successful have they been that Lapalala has had one of the lowest poaching incidences in the country. This is extraordinary given South Africa as a whole struggling to contain the current rhino poaching onslaught.

It’s not only rhinos that benefit. Annemieke Van Dergoot, Lapalala’s chief veterinarian, who coordinates the breeding programs and research division, says that Lapalala conducts special breeding projects for a variety of other species. Currently, roan antelope and African buffalo are being bred, and there are plans to include other species in an effort to increase the natural diversity to its former levels. Annemieke says that because Lapalala’s biodiversity is already so rich and intact, it regularly attracts academic researchers from universities around the world. Currently, there is research conducted on lion, cheetah, rhinoceros, hyena, water biodiversity, vegetation mapping and roan reproduction. There are future projects for baboon predation, elephant and painted dogs.

Financing the wilderness

Until recently, Lapalala has never fully been open to nature-loving tourists. Dale and Clive had wanted to keep the natural landscape as untrammeled as possible. However, preserving such a vast expanse of wilderness as well as continuing with vital breeding projects requires a significant amount of capital investment. After Dale passed away, his son, Duncan, began to look at into ways of financing the reserve. Duncan teamed up Gianni Ravazzotti, a highly respected South African business leader and philanthropist, Peter Anderson of Anderson Wildlife Properties and Mike Gregor, conservationist with an interest in game breeding and environmental education. The four developed an ambitious, if not a unique plan designed to safeguard the legacy of Dale and Clive as well as build the future of the Lapalala Wilderness Reserve.

Peter explains that tourism enhancement is essential for the continued existence of Lapalala, as long as it’s discreet with a low environmental impact. Apart from the spectacular scenery and abundant wildlife that includes Big 5 sightings, Lapalala is a perfect safari destination. It is malaria-free and just a three-hour drive from Johannesburg. There is also an airstrip for those preferring to fly in. To maintain the sense of vast, unspoiled wilderness there is only one tourism concession per 15,000 hectares in the reserve, spread as far apart as possible.

The first has already been constructed and been operational for just under a year. Tintswalo Lapalala is a five-star eco-friendly tented lodge comprising of a dozen luxury tents and suites constructed along the edge of an open plain and a large waterhole. Each suite enjoys private plunge pools and beautiful outdoor baths. The luxury accommodation, although eco-conscious, lacks nothing in terms of comfort and modern convenience. Aside from the usual game drives, Tintswalo offers experiences like walks and bush breakfasts, boat sundowner cruises among the hippos and fish eagles, and an opportunity to assist researchers on a painted dog tagging project. Guests can sponsor GPS collars for the dogs and take part in the collaring and tagging process.

The second lodge is nearing completion. Noka Camp sits on the edge of a 100-foot rock on a bend of the Palala River and will offer the ultimate luxurious safari experience. The camp, part of Lepogo Lodge group, will be run as a non-profit venture, one of the few lodges in the world that will return all its financial gains back into the reserve. Lepogo, which means cheetah in seSotho, will also conduct a cheetah reintroduction and conservation program here. The 7-star camp is hoping to open its doors in September 2019.

Another interesting approach is an opportunity for a limited number of individuals and companies to participate as ‘custodians’ in Lapalala. Peter says they are encouraging like-minded, conservation-passionate partners to purchase a land portion of up to 1,450 hectares on a freehold title basis. This would entitle the custodian to establish a 12-bed lodge and traversing rights for the entire reserve. The ownership of the land includes an undivided share in the breeding projects as well as an undivided share in all of the general wildlife. The cost of the land portion and share in the wildlife and breeding project ranges from US $2,8m to $3,5m. The proceeds of the breeding project and the fund would cover some of the reserve’s operational costs.

The key interconnection between humans and nature

These plans combine successfully with the main component of the original vision –  Lapalala’s commitment to extend beyond just environmental conservation. Humans have always been an integral part of this landscape. San rock paintings throughout the reserve depict our earliest ancestors thrived here, and there’s a significant iron age site, of the likes of Mapungubwe, on a flat top hill in the centre of reserve. Aside from bringing in tourists and custodians into the landscape, Lapalala remains actively connected with its surrounding communities and is staunchly committed to supporting them in whatever way it can.

In addition to creating employment opportunities in the operations of the reserve and lodges, Lapalala involves itself in helping communities when they experience times of need. This has included coordinating the provision of water to a local school, the establishment of vegetable gardens to feed families and serve as a source of income and a highly successful project to introduce 21st century teaching methods into local schools via an iPad in schools project.

The best part about this, I soon discovered, is that the bush school is still here!

Three years after my own childhood experience, Dale and Clive constructed a genuine education centre to improve the program and accommodate more children. The Lapalala Wilderness School now comes complete with classrooms, bunk beds, ablutions (no more pit latrines) and interpretative centre. Since its humble beginnings in 1981 over 105,000 children students and teachers have passed through this centre. It has been successful in awakening an interest in conservation in young people by giving them the opportunity to experience nature at close quarters. Like me, a sizable number of South Africans who are doing great work in conservation and ecotourism today were first inspired to enter their fields through their youthful experiences at Lapalala.

The current director of the school, Mashudu Makhokha, explains that the school now offers a dizzying range of environmental education programs. There is a teacher training program and a variety of field courses for tertiary-level students studying in the environment or conservation fields. The main program is still the three to five-day youth course, which is similar to the one I experienced, only it’s more structured to include climate and pollution awareness and education. Importantly, the experience now caters for children and young adults from all cultural and economic backgrounds. Mashudu informed me that about 60% of learners are from under-privileged backgrounds and mostly from the surrounding area.  These youngsters are funded by the lodges, guests, custodians, fee-paying students from privileged schools and the Lapalala reserve itself. Given its proven track-record, the school will undoubtedly provide future employment opportunities in conservation and other fields for these learners.

For me the Lapalala Wilderness School is the key the reserve’s existence. It is because of the school that Lapalala came into being in the first place. It is because of the school that it continues to be its beating heart. The school completes a unique concept in wildlife conservation where education seamlessly combines with tourism, custodianship, community upliftment and conservation to create something even more unique…a successful outcome for both wild animals and people. For that, I am proud to be an alumnus.

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