P R I VAT E G A M E R E S E R V E
the story of P R I VAT E G A M E R E S E R V E
the story of P R I VAT E G A M E R E S E R V E
Half-title page A young female leopard quenches her thirst at Motswari Private Game Reserve.
Full title page A male white rhino crossing a dirt track in the autumn shades of a mopane woodland.
Overleaf Flap-necked chameleons are very vulnerable when crossing open areas, so individuals such as this one use a rocking motion as they move, believed to imitate the motion of a leaf blowing in the wind.
Copyright 2013 Motswari Private Game Reserve / Chad Cocking All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the copyright owner. First Edition 2013 ISBN
Motswari Private Game Reserve
Chad Cocking unless otherwise stated
Paula Wood, www.paulawooddesign.co.za
Les Martens, SA Media Services, Cape Town, firstname.lastname@example.org
SA Media Services / WKT Company Ltd, Hong Kong
Elsa Young (www.elsayoung.co.za) and Alain Proust (www.alainproust.com)
Andrea Campbell, page 56/57; Horst Klemm, page 94; Daniela Niederer, page 196
This young female leopard watches a nearby pride of lions from the safety of a tree.
page 24 DARKNESS FALLS
Introduction very day the sun rises over the eastern lip of the African bushveld, and every evening it slowly sinks towards the western edge of the horizon, its light slowly fading to cloak the bush in a blackness that is punctured by an almost unimaginable blanket of stars in the night sky above as they flicker their beauty over the inhabitants of one of the last wild places left on Earth. Every day the sun rises. Every night the sun sets. Every day is the same, yet none are ever alike. And how could they be with the myriad of creatures that still roam around on this continent?
When one thinks of Africa... When one thinks of Africa, the mind wanders to a place that is wild, untouched by modern machines and full of creatures big and small, living their lives the way they have always done in a world that time forgot. South Africa is blessed with amazing natural resources that include the worldâ€™s biggest, fastest, tallest and fiercest animals, and few countries can compete with its biodiversity. While the country has so much to offer, one of the main reasons for any visit is to get a chance to experience the â€˜Wilds of Africaâ€™ firsthand, with the ultimate dream being to see the fierce and formidable animals that struck fear into the hearts of the early adventurers, and the same animals that make the region what it is today: the lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos, buffalos and many others that call Africa home. Sadly there are few places left on this magnificent continent where such natural wonderlands still exist, and even fewer play stage to a cast of predators and prey that engage in an eternal struggle for survival, day after day, night after night, just as they have done for millennia.
A quintessential African scene as impalas, zebras and a breeding herd of buffalo move across the savannah while a storm gathers on the eastern horizon in early summer.
Before the turn of the twentieth century, most of the southern African subcontinent was wild. Animals were able to move, unrestricted by the erection of fences, and followed their natural migratory routes just as they had always done. With the discovery of gold in the eastern half of South Africa, a surge of young men moved into the area, chasing their dreams of riches, and began using the Lowveld â€“ the low-lying land east of the Transvaal Escarpment â€“ as their personal hunting grounds. Realising that the area needed protection from farmers and mining prospectors, and that the animals needed protection from unscrupulous hunting, under the guidance of others, the president of the Transvaal Boer Republic, Paul Kruger, proclaimed some 4 600 km2 as a protected area in 1898, and named it the Sabi Game Reserve.
An elephant bull feeds alongside a sign designating the boundary between the Timbavati and Kruger National Park (above), while a giraffe (below) casually strolls across a road marking the invisible boundary between the two reserves.
Once more the animals were free to roam in a protected area and, under the management of Colonel James Stevenson-Hamilton, the game reserveâ€™s first warden, a mandate ensuring that the protection of the animals came first was enforced. The status of the Sabi Game Reserve was elevated in 1926, when additional land was purchased by the South African government, and the entire area was proclaimed as the Kruger National Park. A year later, it opened to the first tourists. In its first year, a grand total of three vehicles entered the gates! While this idea of the reserve being a tourism destination was ahead of its time, the trend soon picked up and two years later almost a thousand vehicles entered the reserve, the road network expanded, and several camps were built to cater for the visitors. Starting in 1960, another very important development took place, which involved erecting over 18 000 km of wiring around the Kruger National Park in an effort not only to curb the movement of poachers in and out of the reserve, but also as a means of establishing a veterinarian fence to prevent the spread of diseases from domesticated animals on the adjoining farmlands to the wildlife populations of the Kruger.
A lone hyena walking along the mopane-lined Kruger Park–Timbavati boundary.
It was not only in the Kruger National Park that the demise of wild game populations was being experienced, but a similar trend was also obvious on the adjacent privately owned land. In an effort to control this, the notion of making an association of landowners that managed their land according to similar principles was put forward for the first time, and on 7 July 1956 the association of the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve was formalised. It was hoped that by managing this precious land as one entity there would be better control of the large-scale poaching that was taking place, mostly in the south adjacent to the human settlements, as well as controlling the extent of hunting the landowners themselves were doing – albeit to a smaller degree. A third driving force for the establishment of the Timbavati was that of the threats being imposed by the risk of agriculture and the agricultural organisations that could not see the value of using the land for the protection of animals when that land could be ‘better’ utilised for crops or cattle. To them, even using the land to resettle families affected by apartheid would be better than keeping it as a ‘rich man’s playground’. Another concern, and big motivation for forming the association, was due to the news that the aforementioned veterinarian fence was being erected. The issue was that, unlike the adjoining Kruger National Park, the Timbavati had always consisted of privately owned land (as opposed to the state-owned Kruger National Park).
While it was still land that was set aside for animals it wasn’t part of the Kruger, and the idea of managing both private and public land as one entity is easier said than done. From the first mention of this ‘Park Fence’ (as it was known) being considered, the Timbavati group did all they could to try to secure some promise that their land and animals would be included within the fenced-off area. The idea had its proponents and opponents, and initially it did appear that all would work in favour of the Timbavati so that this valuable land would not be fenced off and isolated from the larger ecosystem. Sadly though, as time for the fence’s construction drew closer, the previously made promises slowly started to break down under political pressures. Despite making every last-ditch effort to change the minds of the decision-makers, it was not to be and, in 1961, the Park Fence separated the Timbavati from the Kruger National Park. While having the fence in place was not the ideal scenario, it was something that the landowners of the Timbavati had to live with. In response to the new need to manage the land more actively, the Timbavati was compelled to put up its own western boundary fence around the eastern block of contiguous members’ land, effectively isolating many of the members further west. This was done only to exclude those landowners in the area who had not joined the Association and still farmed cattle in
The Big Five: lion, rhino, buffalo, elephant and leopard.
the area. The hope was that if they could fence off the land that contained livestock, the National Parks Board might potentially remove the Park Fence in time. The aim was also to better manage the animals that were now effectively confined within the reserve. Throughout much of the Timbavatiâ€™s existence, it had been something of an island, a refuge to protect wildlife from poachers and hunters and a place where natural ecosystems were left intact to keep the landscape free of unwanted change and full of its much-appreciated beauty and fascinating fauna. This notion was now under threat after the erection of the fence, an action that some outside parties hoped would bring an end to the Timbavati as a protected area so that it could be better used for supposedly more productive activities such as agriculture. As it turned out, plans to have the fence removed began three decades later, the goal being to once again open up the whole system, just as the Timbavati had initially proposed prior to its erection all those years ago. Despite expectations to the contrary, the Timbavati was still standing strong as one of the leading private nature reserves in southern Africa, and so it was that after many discussions and entering into agreements to manage the Timbavati according to the same management principles as the Kruger National Park, the fence was removed, reincorporating the Timbavati into the larger system, now colloquially referred to as the Greater Kruger Park.
Timbavati falls within a summer-rainfall region, meaning that the summer months support lush vegetation growth that dies off in the dry winter months.
While the removal of the fence was seen as a positive step towards a more stable ecosystem, its eradication had a number of side effects. One of the most noticeable effects over the next decade and a half was the dramatic reduction of certain animal species, particularly the plains game species such as zebra, giraffe and, most notably, blue wildebeest. The latter species saw their numbers decline by 95 percent in the space of just eleven years! The reasons for this loss of game are manifold, but part of the problem was that the fence had initially been constructed at the wrong time of the year, thus resulting in a permanent, but artificially high number of zebras and wildebeest that now had nowhere to move to and were thus confined to the Timbavati. This was great for the predators that had an abundant source of food and it was not uncommon to find prides of more than twenty lions that subsisted off these prey species. However, it was not so great for the grass, and together with the most common of large animal species, the impalas, these species collectively contributed significantly towards overgrazing in the Timbavati. With the grass gone, an opportunity arose for the shrubs and trees to start growing in the overgrazed areas, and once they did, they in turn outcompeted the grasses and thus began the process of bush encroachment. This bush encroachment had an impact on the plains game species, and the thicker bush provided more cover for the predators, and this soon took its toll on the wildebeest and zebras that didnâ€™t naturally migrate out of
Other common mammal species in the Timbavati: warthog, waterbuck, steenbuck, kudu and impala.
the Timbavati when the fences were dropped. With the numbers of wildebeest and zebras drastically reduced, the large lion prides started to fracture into smaller units, and gone are the days of such massive prides in the area. So, with this in mind, what is so good about having taken the fence down? Well, one thing is that visiting the African bush is not just about seeing animals, but about experiencing the African bush, and this can be achieved only when things are as natural as possible. While having a fence around a reserve does not make animals tame or unnatural, there is a distinct feeling that the animals are there because they cannot go anywhere else. Yes, one is almost guaranteed to see all the animals in such reserves and that is never a bad thing when only visiting an area for a couple of days, but one also realises that those are also going to be the only animals one will see in such places; there is little room for surprise. In an open system such as the Greater Kruger Park, of which the unfenced Motswari forms part, you are never guaranteed of anything. Animals can come and go as they please; crossing invisible boundaries at their own will. This means that it is possible, for example, that most of the lions could be off doing their business in areas that one cannot access, but equally, and more importantly for the feeling of wilderness, it also means that you never know what to expect,
and there is a sense that around every corner there could be an amazing surprise waiting to be discovered. Since the removal of the Park Fence, the animals have been able to return to a more migratory existence. In winter when the water in the surrounding areas of the Kruger National Park dries up, the dams in the Timbavati provide a muchneeded source of moisture, and large breeding herds of elephant and buffalo move into the area en masse – something that could not happen while the Park Fence was still standing. When the summer rains arrive, these same herds then move out of the Timbavati and back into the Kruger where they are able to make use of the fresh flushes of vegetation spurred on by the life-giving rains. This also gives the vegetation in the Timbavati time to recover for the next winter when these herds return. It’s not only the large herbivores that have benefited from this, but other animals such as the African wild dogs (Africa’s second most endangered carnivores with their need for enormous home ranges) can only survive in a few of the larger reserves in Africa, such as the Greater Kruger. The removal of the Park Fence has now allowed the Kruger National Park’s population of wild dogs to utilise the Timbavati more readily as part of their natural range. The result is that sightings of these amazing creatures are now relatively common in the Timbavati.
Guests on a Motswari game drive vehicle enjoying a pair of wallowing white rhinos.
Even animals such as the rare black rhino now move into the Timbavati, something that was never possible with a fence-line inhibiting their movements. To this day, one of the biggest surprises I have ever had in the bush was driving down a road at Motswari and looking up to find an equally bemused black rhino standing there watching us! It is likely that we were one of the first vehicles that this animal had ever seen, and while the sighting lasted no more than 20 seconds, it epitomised the beauty of the Timbavati, and reinforced my belief that you never know what to expect. That is what makes the Timbavati such an amazingly special place – just ask the McBride family about when they recorded the first ever white lions on their property in the Timbavati in 1975 (see overleaf for the full story). Another aspect that makes the Timbavati an appealing wildlife destination is that it is one of the least commercialised of the region’s private nature reserves, with only eight commercial camps in 53 392 ha (plus an additional four private, self-catering camps) resulting in a relatively low vehicle density in the reserve.
Because it is a private nature reserve, the game drives – led by fully qualified field guides and aided by local Shangaan trackers – have more flexibility than those confined to national parks such as the Kruger. In the Kruger, one has to stick to the designated road network and gate opening and closing times, and as there are far more vehicles in national parks, sightings of the Big Five animals can quite easily become congested, sometimes with as many as 40 to 50 vehicles jostling for position. Through carefully laid out game drive protocols, the game drives in the Timbavati not only limit themselves to two vehicles per sighting, but are able to follow the animals as they move off road and through the bush. This is accomplished in specially modified game-viewing vehicles, manoeuvred by guides whose training ensures that they are sensitive to both the animals being followed, as well as the environment that the animals – and tourism – depend on. Combine with this the fact that the vehicles are allowed to remain active after dark, allowing the guides and guests to glimpse the activities of the often shy
and secretive nocturnal animals, and one is sure to have a memorable African adventure at one of the premier private game reserves on the continent. And why not? The Timbavati is, after all, home to over 50 large mammal species, including the famed Big Five (lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino and elephant), more than 360 bird species, 80 species of amphibians and reptiles, and enough trees, shrubs and flowers to keep even astute botanists happy. The Timbavati Private Nature Reserve is made up of 50 privately owned properties, or ‘farms’ as they are colloquially known (despite no traditional farming activities taking place in the reserve). Not all landowners have chosen to commercialise their properties, with most owners opting instead to keep their piece of land for their own pleasure of visiting to get away from the stresses of city life. In fact, until relatively recently, there were only two commercial operations in the Timbavati: Tanda Tula and Motswari-M’bali (a third, and the first official safari camp in the Timbavati was Sohebele Game Lodge, which is no longer in operation). Tanda Tula camp has since repositioned to a new location on their land, leaving Motswari as the only camp still operating in its original location. In the past two decades, several other lodges have come into operation in the Timbavati, and this has brought with it increased revenue, much of which is ploughed back into the management of the nature reserve. Additionally, the lodges also benefit the local community directly through employment within the Timbavati, helping with the drive to ensure the sustainable utilisation of this area for generations to come. The concept of passing on this heritage from one generation to the next has always been key in the operation of Motswari, a family-owned camp set deep within the Timbavati, which has been in operation since 1976. In 1979, Paul Geiger purchased his own share in the Timbavati wonderland, and it has been a family love affair – now into its third generation – that has gripped the Geigers ever since. This book will showcase the majesty of Motswari and serves as a testament and tribute to the magical place that Motswari has become to so many guests, staff, friends and family. For those who have been fortunate enough to visit the lodge it will serve as a reminder of life-long memories, while for those who have yet to experience Motswari, hopefully it will entice you to come and indulge in the pleasures that can only be found in Africa, and like thousands of guests before, you too can ... ... arrive as a visitor, and leave as a friend.
The White Lions
If there is one animal that has made the Timbavati famous, it can be none other than the white lion – an extremely rare animal that has become synonymous with the region. While rumours of white-coated lions had persisted for many decades, it was not until October 1975 that the first white lions were documented anywhere in the world and, of all places, it happened right here, in the Timbavati. While Chris McBride was not the first person to see the two white cubs born to Machaton Pride – it was his sister who first laid eyes on them – he had seen their conception a few months earlier, between two members of a pride that he knew very well, and both of them were normal, tawny-coloured lions. The very thing about white lions is that, contrary to popular belief, they are not albinos (a non-hereditary condition in which the individual has no pigment), but rather the white coat in the lions is the result of a rare recessive gene known as leucism. This hereditary condition leaves the lion with pigmentation in the skin and eyes, but not in the coat.
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As spectacular as these pure white little lion cubs were, Chris immediately had concerns about just how well they would fare in the wild. As it is, any normal-coloured lion cub has a tough time out there, with up to 80 percent dying before their first birthday due to the many dangers that they face in the bush. Lion cubs spend a good part of their early months on their own as their mother leaves them to go hunting. During these periods, their coats camouflage them and they can quite easily go unnoticed, but how would a pure white lion cub be able to pull off this same stunt when it sticks out of the brown Timbavati bush like a sore thumb? With white lions being so visibly different from their litter mates and pride members, how accepting would the rest of the pride be of the cubs? Then, if they managed to get through the most crucial part of their development and grew into adults, how easy would it be for them to hunt? While tawny lions melt effortlessly into invisibility, a white lion will struggle to remain unseen by the prey, surely making hunting more difficult. Yet for Chris and the management of the Timbavati, the threat to the survival of these unique creatures in the wild was not only from nature itself, but sadly, also from people. Rumours abounded of the white lions having large price tags on their heads, and it was feared that unethical hunters would try to lure the white lions out of the protected Timbavati and into the neighbouring reserves where they would be hunted. Eventually, the threat grew too large, and a decision was made to move the white lions out of the reserve for their own safety, and the first two white lions ever recorded in the world found a safe new home at the Pretoria Zoo. Fortunately, a third white cub had been born into the same pride and was allowed to lead a natural life in the Timbavati, although she disappeared when she was only two years old.
In the early 1980s, the most famous of the Timbavati’s white lions was born, the rather unoriginally named Whitey. Whitey’s fame came about because she was the first known white lion to make it to adulthood, and she proved that despite being white, she was able to become an expert hunter, a prolific mother (although all four of her litters of cubs contained only tawny lions) and live out her life like any normal lion, proving that the white coat was not as burdensome as had initially been suspected. Whitey died of old age in 1992, and her white granddaughter Ntombi died in 1993, leading to fears that the white lions of the Timbavati had become extinct! Indeed, it took almost one and a half decades for the next white lion to be born in the area, and this dispelled any myths that the white lions were ‘extinct’, and put pay to a ridiculous notion that captive-bred white lions needed to be released into the Timbavati to continue the lineage (this all coming from an organisation that has nothing to do with the Timbavati). White lions cannot become extinct as they are not a subspecies or in any way different from normal lions; they are merely a genetic condition that pops up from time to time – much like blue eyes or red hair does in humans – but this is a variation that occurs so infrequently and in such a limited area that it makes them one of the most special animals in all of Africa. The reason they are so rare is that the chances of pairing up two gene-carrying lions is quite small, and whilst at least five prides in the area are known still to have genecarrying females, it is the males that pose the problem: male lions born in the area usually move out when they are adolescents and take their potential white-lion genes to areas where the females might not have the genes themselves. The opposite also holds true in that many of the males moving into the Timbavati do not have the gene, while the females do. Then, even if two gene-carrying lions mate, there is only a 25 percent chance of them producing a white cub, and that white cub then only has a 20 percent chance of surviving to adulthood! So, seeing a white lion in the wild goes against all odds, and as a result very few people are fortunate to ever see these beautiful creatures in the wild. For those lucky enough to see one, it is a sighting not forgotten in a hurry.
P R I VAT E G A M E R E S E R V E