Private game reserves have an opportunity and thus responsibility to make a significant contribution to the protection of the country’s biodiversity. However, given the high capital and operational costs associated with setting up and running a game reserve, the ability for the private sector to deliver on this opportunity is very often dependent upon securing an acceptable financial return in the immediate to short-term.
The most frequent approach to achieve this is through the development of a high-margin, low-volume recreational tourism product, the success of which is generally dependant on the quality of game viewing on offer. Consequently, biodiversity objectives are frequently compromised in order to satisfy short-term game viewing demands, and inappropriate management practices have resulted in severe habitat deterioration in numerous private reserves across the country. This trend has been greatly exacerbated by the increasingly competitive nature of the upper-end game lodge industry, and the apparent conflict between the economy and ecology of ecotourism threatens to undermine its promise as a sustainable land-use practice for private conservation areas. This conflict almost certainly represents the single biggest challenge facing private conservation in South Africa.
Although many of its members are stakeholders in the ecotourism industry, Welgevonden does not rely directly on tourism income for its financial security and this means that the reserve’s strategic planning is not vulnerable to the volatile market conditions that characterize this industry. This fortuitous position provides Welgevonden with an opportunity to take a longer-term approach to ensure the ecological integrity of the reserve going forward and to ensure that the associated tourism product retains its vitality and competitiveness well into the future. Delivery on this opportunity, however, requires a clear management vision for the reserve.
The key determinants of African savannas are widely considered to be:
The influences of geology, soil type & climate operate over extensive spatial and temporal scales and these represent the structuring processes that define savanna type at a very broad scale. The influences of fire and herbivory operate over far smaller spatial and temporal scales and it is these processes that create the patch-like mosaic pattern of trees and grasses that define savanna ecosystems. These and other processes such as floods and droughts that occur at the scale of months to years at irregular intervals and at irregular intensities are regarded as disturbance processes.
Recent ecological thinking has shifted from trying to understand and describe savanna ecosystems in terms of equilibrium dynamics, or a so-called balance of nature, to trying to understand and describe them in terms of disequilibrium, or disturbance. Savanna ecosystems are defined by the co-existence of trees and grasses, and in essence, the new ecological paradigm is built on the hypothesis that disturbances prevent either trees or grasses from dominating by continuously “resetting the clock”. The goal, therefore, is no longer to manage for stability but rather to ensure that the system continues to function as it always has by allowing disturbance processes to operate. However, in order to be effective, disturbance processes must occur at irregular intervals and intensities otherwise they simply become cycles to which certain species are better adapted than others.
The ensuing challenge for management is to move away from conventional management practices steeped in the equilibrium paradigm to a new and bolder approach that embraces disturbance and change. Although this challenge is inevitably compounded in private reserves by the requirement to simultaneously target short-term game viewing requirements, it is important to recognize that such reserves would not exist in the first place without the investment of stakeholders who have an interest in wildlife and game viewing. Hence, although the primary management objective for any private reserve that takes an interest in biodiversity conservation must be the maintenance of ecosystem function, more specific and finite short-term objectives targeting the more immediate expectations of investors cannot be ignored.
Of all the determinants of African savannas, management is, in reality, only able to influence the following:
The management goal for Welgevonden is to use this limited inventory of management tools to achieve an ever-changing tapestry of vegetation composition and structure over the underlying template defined by geology, soil-type and climate and at the same time to deliver a satisfactory and sustainable game viewing experience.
Welgevonden comprises four main habitat types, namely:
The first three habitat types represent a background matrix of pristine mountain sour-veld comprising broadleaf deciduous trees and unpalatable, perennial grasses with a limited ability to sustain year-round populations of herbivores. However, the presence of old lands used previously for agricultural purposes embedded in a background environment of mountain sour-veld represents an opportunity for management to proactively manipulate an already transformed component of the landscape without compromising the ecological integrity of the reserve.
Hence, Welgevonden has adopted a new and innovative approach whereby proactive management interventions such as slashing, fertilization and the removal of woody encroachers such as Stoebe vulgaris and Lippia javanica are employed to enhance the productivity and palatability of the grass layer on the old land habitat so as to establish key nutrient areas capable of supporting populations of high-density herbivore species throughout the year. The resulting difference in palatability between the old lands and remaining habitats is expected to result in a concentration of herbivores on the old land habitat, ultimately leading to the establishment of self-perpetuating grazing lawns through the disproportionate deposition of nutrients on these comparatively small areas.
Not only will this mitigate the unnatural impact of year-round grazing pressure on the pristine habitat types but it will also render the game populations on the reserve considerably more visible and their distributions more predictable, thus enabling a highly satisfactory game viewing experience at ecologically sustainable stocking levels. There is, however, an associated risk that game numbers could become completely uncoupled from resource supply during the critical bottleneck period at the end of winter and management is therefore closely monitoring herbivore stocking rates and distribution patterns.
In summary,the management vision is to apply appropriate ecological management to ensure the long-term viability of Welgevonden as both a conservation and recreational tourism entity, but recognizing that the reserve would not exist if it were not for the investment of the members, enhancing the Welgevonden game viewing experience in the short-term has also been prioritised.