Importing animals to restock a ravaged area is not easy, or cheap, but it can work. Travel Africa investigates.
The figures are startling: US$2.4m spent on restocking 400km2 of Zimbabwe's lowveld with wildlife. Since 1994, over 1300 animals - including 28 Black rhino, 15 White rhino, 254 eland, 147 giraffe, 197 sable and 233 buffalo - have been purchased and released into an area depleted of game. This is more than simply conservation: it's restoration, and it has revitalised Malilangwe Trust's estate in south-eastern Zimbabwe.
The region is dominated by flat, low-lying, semi-arid savannah. Malilangwe is an exception, bisected by a range of picturesque sandstone hills which confer geological and botanical diversity. This gives the estate a wide variety of habitats, ideal for a reserve: mopane, riverine and mixed woodland, open grasslands and savannah studded with flat-topped Acacia tortillas.
The local conservationists who established the Malilangwe Trust in 1994 faced a problem common throughout Africa: competition with cattle and agriculture had eroded game populations. Although this was not to the extent experienced on some ranches in the area, restoring Malilangwe's natural diversity required the import of wildlife. The vision was ambitious. Money was raised from an international conservation organisation. A professional ecologist assessed the estate to ascertain optimum carrying capacities for each species (an ongoing process) and animals were sourced on the southern African wildlife market - mostly from private sellers, with exceptions including Kruger NP and the Malawian government.
Wildlife was trucked in or flown to nearby Buffalo Range airport, then transferred by road to Malilangwe's quarantine pens. Every effort was made to maximise the animals' comfort. "Most species can be translocated without the use of drugs, but in order to reduce stress, injury or fatality, drugs are recommended," says Derek de la Harpe, director of Malilangwe. "This doesn't necessarily mean that all animals have to be completely immobilised, but many do need sedating."
Careful preparation further reduces the risks. "We put plastic piping on horns to prevent animals such as roan or sable impaling one another, either accidentally or deliberately. Blindfolds and ear-plugs are used to reduce visual and noise stress, and we take careful consideration of group composition, in order to reduce fighting or trampling in transit. For example, two bulls that are likely to fight aren't placed in the same compartment, and young animals aren't placed with older ones that could accidentally injure them."
Once at their destination, the animals are held in bomas (pens) or paddocks. "This gives them time to calm down and acclimatise to their new home within a safe environment," continues Derek. "Animals released immediately following translocation are at a disadvantage. They become easy prey, are prone to injuring themselves and others, and don't know where to find water, shelter and good food".
Government veterinary regulations also dictate that certain newly-arrived animals are confined to help control disease. Quarantine time depends on the incubation period of suspected diseases: TB, for example, needs 21 days after a blood test taken on arrival. Quarantine means animals can easily be monitored and given medical treatment or highly nutritional food if necessary.
The animals are released into nurtured ecosystems. Staff fight the encroachment of exotic plants and erosion, and a force of game scouts is thoroughly trained and equipped to protect an animal population which some appreciate more for its monetary than ecological value. But Malilangwe is about people too. Its Neighbour Outreach programme works closely with surrounding communities, and it raises income through two high-end tourist lodges: Nduna and the globally-renowned Pamushana.
Alongside unfettered pampering, guests can confidently expect superb game viewing. The Big Five are regularly sighted, even on short stays. Malilangwe contributes substantially to Zimbabwe's national stock of rhino, with four Black and eight White calves born to date. The naturally-present elephant population, estimated at 145, is expanding. Its members are relaxed and provide great viewing, unlike Gonarezhou's skittish elephants, traumatised by poachers, and by past culling and tsetse-eradication hunting.
Two packs of highly endangered wild dogs are now resident, as are numerous leopard and occasional cheetah (though lion and hyaena populations are too large to allow cheetah a firm foothold). Fish in Malilangwe's dam and the bird population are also monitored carefully.
In 1999, Pamushana was named among Condé Nast Traveller's top 21 hotels in the world - yet were it not for the outstanding conservation of the lodge's natural setting, such recognition would have been unlikely. A symbiotic relationship is discernible between conservation, local communities and tourism - one that seems harmonious and utterly natural.