All Commentary
Tuesday, August 1, 1989

Private Preservation of Wildlife: A Visit to the South African Lowveld

Nancy Seijas is a member of the staff of the Free Market Foundation of Southern Africa, Johannesburg, South Africa.

      Frank Vorhies teaches in the Department of Business Economics at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa.

It is their three-inch eyelashes that give giraffes their sleepy, serene look. Giraffes blink slowly, their lashes sweeping gracefully down, and then gently back up. Out in the bush of South Africa, this is a common sight. In an area called the lowveld, giraffes stroll right across the road, with a languid, swaying stride that seems utterly relaxed.

Watching the giraffes go by in South Africa, it is dangerously easy to forget about apartheid and the ongoing struggle South Africa faces. Only for a moment, that is. The reality of apartheid cannot be ignored, but there are other aspects of this turbulent country. And there are valuable lessons to be learned.

South Africa’s conservation of wildlife teaches one of these lessons. In South Africa, conservation is treated more or less as a business, in which government and the private sector compete. Kruger National Park, a game reserve the size of New Jersey, is owned and run by the South African government. Right on its border is a consortium of 20 smaller game parks, all privately owned. They receive no government funding, and are subject to no specific wildlife regulations.

South Africa is a country, one must remember, where the sphere of central government is even more vast than it is in the United States. Such broad political control has been the source of violent conflict for decades. In the case of wildlife conservation, depoliticization is clearly the solution for South Africa. Privately owned game reserves in South Africa are a model for private sector management of public goods.

These 20 private reserves in the lowveld are part of South Africa’s eastern Transvaal region. Together, they comprise what is known as the SabiSand Wildtuin (“tuin” means “park” in Afrikaans). Among the individual owners, there is competition and sometimes animosity. But there is also order and respect. The parks are separate, but together; they are unified by the rules of their voluntary consortium, and by their reverence for the bush, the patchy foliated land of the lowveld. The bush may be the owners’ livelihood, but it is also their love.

Back in the 1920s, big game like lion, rhino, and elephant roamed freely across the cattle ranches of the Transvaal Consolidated Lands, another ranch next door called Toulon, and an open stretch of land which was the original Sabi Game Reserve. At that point, the reserve was unoccupied. The Sabi and Sand Rivers ran through it, as did a train line called the Selati Railway. In 1927, a big-game hunter named W. A. Campbell bought several farms near the Sand River. For hunters like Campbell, buying up game-filled land was the only way to secure their sport. If they did not take the land, they knew that sooner or later the government would, for agriculture or for preservation.

More and more hunters began to follow suit, and hunting and cattle ranching became the principal occupations in this part of the eastern Transvaal. But by 1934, cattle ranching had fallen into decline; the manager of Transvaal Consolidated Lands died in 1932, and Toulon had closed down. The trend in the area was moving closer and closer toward wildlife preservation, but the big-game hunters still owned a great deal of the land.

The Transvaal Land Owners’ Association

By the late 1930s, the hunters were looking for some way to cooperate formally, and to keep an eye on the unoccupied land in the area. To this end, they formed the Transvaal Land Owners’ Association. When the TLOA started, there were eight member-owners, including the old Transvaal Consolidated Lands. They elected a ranger to preside over the association, and paid membership dues. Those dues financed projects like fences and efforts to combat disease among the animals.

When South African Railways fenced in the Selati line in the 1930s, animals began to get caught in the wire and break through. Consequently, the TLOA removed the fence. When hoof-and-mouth disease broke out in the area a little later on, the association cooperated again to eradicate it. At one point, the TLOA had to shoot 1,100 cattle in a single day.

In 1950, the landowners made their last step toward a completely private ownership scheme. They liquidated the TLOA, and created the SabiSand Wildtuin, or SSWT. Campbell became its first president, and served for 12 years until he died in 1962.

Campbell’s death marked the end of an era. The image of the “great white hunter” is a caricature in South Africa now, a stereotype that many owners at SabiSand dislike and mock. Some hunting still goes on, but it is very limited. Its primary purpose is to finance the maintenance of the parks, through the sale of selected big game and the meat from more common species. The rules of the day have changed, from hunting wild animals to protecting them.

Here is the paradox of the SabiSand Wildtu-in: it was born of the self-interest of hunters—white men who killed wild animals for sport and who had the money to buy a place to do so. Serf-interest is still the motivating force behind the game parks today, but thenature of that interest has changed. Today, the SabiSand park owners want to provide a safe environment for the animals that roam there, and to make money by doing it. Now, it is protection of the animals that serves the owners’ interests.

In the past, protecting those interests meant openly opposing apartheid. In 1940, the South African government placed two of the farms in the area under the Bantu Trust Act, the legislation that created homelands for South African blacks. By the 1960s, about one-third of the SSWT was considered “released area” under Bantu Act legislation. This meant that the central government could seize the land at its discretion to create “reserves” for black people. In 1963, the SSWT Executive Committee secured a verbal agreement from the Minister of Bantu Administration that their land would not be confiscated.

Now, the SSWT is relatively free from central government controls. There is a 75-mile fence separating the consortium from Kruger Park, so the SSWT cannot “benefit” from animals that would migrate across the borders of Kruger. There are no internal fences between the individual reserves: The wildebeest, warthog, impala, waterbuck, and kudu roam freely over 265 square miles of open land.

Notten’s Bush Camp

Within this vast tract of land, individuals have separate homesteads. One of those homesteads is Notten’s Bush Camp. It is owned by Dedrick and Gillian Notten—“Bam-bi” and Gilly to those who visit the camp. Visi tors come to Notten’s to experience life in the bush, for a price, of course. The Nottens’ 2,000-acre “backyard” is their business.

The Nottens’ land has been in Bambi’s family for 20 years. A little over two years ago, Bambi left his job as a builder in Johannesburg, and the Nottens moved to the lowveld permanently. Their two sons are now in boarding schools, and visit the bush every other weekend.

Missing her boys is Gilly’s only complaint about the move. She would love to have them live at home, but there is no school to which they could commute. And with a full-time family, Bambi and Gilly couldn’t run Notten’s Bush Camp in the way they do.

The Nottens’ guests do not just visit a game reserve. They enter Bambi and Gilly’s home; they get to know the Nottens and their life. They watch their hosts experience the same wonder and joy at the wild animals of the bush, as if the Nottens themselves were first-time visitors. When Gilly tells stories of Johannesburg on the veranda, glancing over her shoulder at the land stretching out behind her, she just smiles. “The bush,” she says, and pauses. That’s her full answer to why she moved to the lowveld. “The simple life of the bush.”

A typical day in that life starts at about 5 A.M., with tea and coffee in the “boma.” The boma is a tall, maybe eight-foot circular wall, made of tied bamboo and reeds. It encloses a small area where the Nottens cook for their visitors, with a shallow pit in the center for hot embers, and a stone-and-mortar barbecue off to one side. There is no electricity at the camp, and only a small kitchen, so the boma sees a lot of use. Gilly and Bambi have a small boma of their own, attached to their private cottage.

After tea, Bambi takes the guests out for a “game run.” Not only do the Nottens run their business out of their home, but Bambi drives their guests around the reserve in his car. It is a big green open-air Land-Rover, which Bambi occasionally takes on the highway to Johannesburg. It seats eight- -that is all the Nottens will accommodate at their camp at one time. They are unique in this respect. The neighboring parks, like MalaMala and Londolozi, are much more “booming” businesses, with lavish hotel accommodations, fleets of Land-Rovers, and higher per-day prices.

A game run with Bambi is simply a drive through the bush, occasionally on the dirt roads and paths through the Nottens’ land. Much of the time, Bambi just drives through the wilderness. With no fences, there is nothing “protecting” the visitors but their particularly human sound, look, and smell. However, that is no protection from a lion, an elephant, or—especially—a hippopotamus. If the lion is king of the jungle, the hippo is the grouch; it has a nasty disposition, and tourists have much more to fear from a disgruntled hippo than any other animal in the bush, lion included.

On all game runs, Bambi carries two things: a gun and a golf putter. The former, for protection; the latter, he says, just for walking. One suspects, however, that it is the other way around. To hear Bambi talk of the animals of the bush, and to see him identify the tiniest bird in the farthest tree, it is difficult to imagine that reaching for his gun would be his reflex reaction to danger. Of course, Bambi would shoot an oncoming hippo, or lion, or rhinoceros if he were sure it was endangering the lives of his visitors. But after spending just a day or so with Bambi, one can’t help thinking he just might reach for the putter first, and the gun second.

The Nottens are a unique couple. Bambi is not at all what his nickname would imply to Americans. He is a tall, burly man, with shaggy dark hair and a booming voice. Golf putter in hand, he strides through the bush, describing in detail the plants, the sounds, and the smells. One night, he spent 20 minutes studying a spider ensnaring a moth in her web, and giving blow-by-blow commentary to the visitors.

Gilly is equally fascinated with the bush. She will drive into the bush by herself, for peace and serenity among wild animals. Gillian Not-ten is the only woman in all the 20 private reserves who will venture into the bush alone, and take guests out herself.

Occasionally on the game runs, the Nottens will run into other Land-Rovers from neighboring reserves. The larger reserves in the consortium send out rovers to spot a pride of lions or family of cheetahs, and then radio back their location to the camp. If there are chee-tahs in the area, MalaMala and Londolozi are sure to know.

According to Bambi, it is not often that three or four Land-Rovers pull up to the same spot, as quietly as four Land-Rovers can, to stare at a family of leopards or a herd of zebra. But when they do, it is a little disconcerting to a foreigner. All the drivers and passengers in the rovers are white, and there is always one black man riding on the hood or sitting in a high back seat. That man is the “tracker.” In most cases, he comes from the eastern Transvaal, from the homeland Gazankulu or the area of Bushbok Ridge. He knows the bush, and can navigate through it easily and swiftly. He knows the marks different animals leave in the foliage, and he can spot tiny pinpoints of red or green light—the eyes of a civet, an impala, or a mongoose—in the pitch dark of night.

The relationship between Bambi and Joseph Matebula, the Nottens’ tracker, is one of em-ployer-and- employee, and of white-and-black-friends in an apartheid state. Joseph speaks little English, and Bambi does not speak Shangaan, Joseph’s native language. They communicate in a language called Fana Ka Lo.

Fana Ka Lo

Fana Ka Lo is a source of controversy for many black South Africans. It is the mining languager—the language invented so that white mine owners could communicate with black workers. Joseph worked in the mines for one month. Bambi translates when Joseph talks of the mines, or what he calls, in English, “the hole.” The stories Joseph has from just one month are frightening, and he tells them with loathing in his eyes, and in the tone of his Fana Ka Lo.

For him and for Bambi, though, Fana Ka Lo does not seem to be the “language of oppression,” as it is deemed in much of South Africa. They are friends. One morning, Bambi was looking for lion, discussing the tracks in the sand with Joseph, and asking what he thought were the chances of a sighting. Suddenly Joseph hopped off the rover and Bambi drove away. The visitors were stunned; surely, he couldn’t have left Joseph to be preyed upon by lion . . . or could he? One of the guests raised a timid question, and Bambi glanced over his huge, broad shoulder and bellowed, “Ah, I’ve had enough of him. Leave him!” He stepped on the gas. Silence from the guests. Suddenly, Bambi burst out laughing. Joseph knows exactly what he is doing in the bush, Bambi explained. They were closer to the camp than anyone in the back of the rover could tell, and Joseph strolled in a minute or so after Bambi parked.

That was the end of a morning game run. Typically, then, activity grinds to a halt. As the heat begins to blaze in the eastern Transvaal, the animals in the bush head for shade, and most tourists begin to wilt. Another game run begins at about 4:30, and Bambi and Gilly load up a cooler to take along. Bambi’s favorite rule is “first mammal, first beer.” He’ll bend it for those who prefer wine.

There are rules, however, that Bambi and Gilly cannot and will not bend. Those are the intricate system of property rights that have evolved throughout the 20 private reserves. If Londolozi radios that there are cheetahs on the Nottens’ land, only those who have negotiated driving rights with Bambi and Gilly may drive over to see. Owners of adjacent lands have made individual agreements as to who may drive where and when. Some borders are open, and some are not; MalaMala, for example, tends to keep to itself. It all depends on the preference of the owner, and those preferences are respected.

Who Owns the Animals?

Animal rights are a different story. Who owns the animals? Bambi replies with a question: “Well, who owns ns?” The answer is that no one actually owns the inhabitants of the bush. There is a type of property right to big game: at any given time, owners have a property right to whatever animals happen to be on their land at that moment. They can sell or trade animals they “own” in this fashion, to zoos, perhaps, or other parks. Bambi traded one rhino, for example, for 20 tsessabe (a tsessabe, pronounced “chessabee,” is a species of large buck, with curving, ridged horns).

It is not in an owner’s interest to sell off animals extensively. The animals are the owner’s livelihood, but only if they are healthy and thriving in a natural environment. That is what tourists want to see for themselves, and that is what people like Bambi and Gilly want to see for the animals. Ideally for each owner, the best natural environment falls within his or her own borders.

Once an animal crosses a border, someone else has a property right to it. More important, people will go to that reserve to see it. When a family of cheetah moved onto the Nottens’ land, Bambi’s guests wanted to go see them on foot. Surprisingly, animals are more frightened of human footsteps than the sound of a land rover. An engine makes a regular, low din, which animals get used to and “block out.” Footsteps are irregular, easily recognizable, and much more menacing to hear. Bambi knew that footsteps might scare away the chee-tah, and move them off his land. He anguished for a moment, then said, “All right. Let’s go.”

The result of this private property system is competition in creating the best habitat for the game. Periodically, Bambi and Gilly clear out patches of bush, or create a new water hole. They regulate the environment to suit the animals they want to attract. Yet, it is absolutely forbidden for owners to feed the animals, or even to set up salt licks. “Unfair” competition between owners is not the problem. Setting up salt licks and putting out extra food is “artificial,” unnatural. It is unfair to the animals.

The feeding rule can be broken only if the owners agree that it is in the best interest of the animals involved. A few years ago, for example, a female cheetah severely wounded her foot in a poacher’s trap. She was a mother of five cubs, who could not fend for themselves were she to die. The world would lose six members of an endangered species, and the SSWT would lose six of its main attractions. The owners decided to shoot reedbuck for the mother to eat. Bambi shot one, and the owners at Londolozi shot a few more. As soon as the mother was able to hunt again for herself, they stopped.

Are there any disadvantages to this system of private ownership? Of course, there are. The first is the ever- present possibility of “cheating” on the consortium arrangement. Individual owners can transgress driving rights. However, they are out driving in the bush every day, sometimes all day. They can “catch” each other easily. Owners also can shoot any animal they choose, even an endangered species, way out in the deep bush where no one can hear. According to Bambi, American tourists pay up to $10,000 to shoot rhinos. “It makes me sick, honestly, it makes me really sick,” Gilly says.

There is simply no way to guarantee this will not happen in the SSWT. But, it doesn’t happen very often. The kinds of people who go into this “business,” on the whole, are people like Bambi and Gilly who love the bush, and respect the animals as their “neighbors.”

The owners do engage, however, in a practice called “culling,” which means cutting down the size of a herd that is overcrowding the bush. An overpopulated species endangers the ecological system the owners strive to balance. Only three species are culled: impala, rhinoceros, and cape buffalo. All of them are “grazers,” Bambi explains. They feed on the foliage of the land. The SSWT Executive Committee gives each owner a number to cull over the period of a year. They either keep the meat for themselves, or sell it at a reasonable rate to Gazankulu, or butchers in Bushbok Ridge.

The whole idea of culling gives Bambi no trouble, for he feels it is in the best interest of all. According to Gilly, the only problems start when the number of animals they are told to cull seems exceptionally high. The SSWT can accommodate 150 rhino, but there are roughly 120 in the area now. Last year they culled 10, but this year the number was 15. The number to cull is decided by the SSWT group, so if Bambi and Gilly disapprove, they must gamer support from other members to influence the Committee’s decision.

The other disadvantage of this private game reserve system is that it is more expensive to visit than Kruger Park, which is run by the state. There are all levels of hotel and camping accommodations at Kruger which add to its basic price, but the simple entry fee for a car is about $7.50. In Kruger, tourists drive their own cars along paved roads through the bush. Passengers may not get out of their vehicles, and they must exit the game area by sundown. At parks like MalaMala and Londolozi, the fee per day is $300 and above. At Nottens it is only $50 per person per night, including accommodations and Gilly’s excellent cooking. There are four one-room cottages at Notten’s Bush Camp, and they are immaculate. The lack of electricity is hardly noticeable, at least while one is sitting by the light of the fire in the boma sipping wine, and then gazing at the Southern Cross for a few minutes before going to bed.

All the cooking and cleaning is done for the guests by Bambi, Gilly, and their small staff. Guests must bring their own alcohol if they so choose, but the Nottens serve champagne and orange juice at breakfast. A three-day weekend of this—and of riding and walking in the bush among zebra, lion, cheetah, andkudu—will cost roughly $150.

Those who want a trip to the bush at the lowest cost possible go to Kruger Park for a day. Accommodations and meals are options and cost extra. The entry fee alone is what costs so little. At the private parks, visitors must take the “package deal” of all the services and accommodations that go with the initial price. The Nottens do charge a lower price if their guests choose to bring and cook their own food, but they may discontinue that option. Gilly finds it is more work for her when guests try to use her kitchen and cookware, than to do it all herself.

At Notten’s Bush Camp, though, one can get close enough to a cheetah to hear her purr, and to see a bramble caught in the silky fur of her cub’s underbelly. Guests may walk through the bush, or ride in an open Land- Rover at all hours of the day or night. One cannot do that at Kruger; the night curfew is a strict rule, and at no time may anyone get out of his or her car.

At Notten’s Bush Camp, there are no pavement and no fence. The environment for the animals is more natural. Bambi’s family has preserved it for 20 years, when they could have sold it for a massive profit.

Very few people expect that private individuals would be socially responsible enough to • conserve wildlife voluntarily, especially with the loving care of people like Gilly and Bambi Notten. In the bush, the line between the Not-tens’ social responsibility and personal, self-in-terested desire is blurred. After getting to know the Nottens a little, which guests invariably do in the intimate, friendly setting they provide, it seems as if no such line exists.

Deep in the bush in the eastern Transvaal, far away from the turmoil emanating from Pre-toria, politics seems immaterial. To be sure, there is conflict. There is also cooperation. The private game reserves have problems, but they also have solutions. So unlike the rest of the country, it almost feels as if there is no central government. The people and the wild animals in the bush don’t seem to need one.