Shareholders build the African dream

Veterinarian Ulf Tubbesing and business partner Miena Mans have pledged their 10 000ha farm Ongos to develop a 50 000ha, privately held conservation area bordering Windhoek, Namibia, introducing wild game species and reversing bush encroachment. Now Ulf is starting an innovative shareholding initiative to finance the next step of his endeavour. Servaas van den Bosch reports.
Issue date: 06 June 2008

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The principle is new to Namibia, but in South Africa selling shares in developments such as golf estates has proved a winning formula for developers. However, the practice is less widespread in wildlife conservation. These projects often sell many plots on a subdivided property, but intensive development is the last thing on the mind of Namibian veterinarian Ulf Tubbesing.

Selling shares in his 10 000ha farm Ongos will generate capital to realise the dream of establishing a Big Five reserve next to Windhoek that will eventually total 50 000ha. “We see this more as a symbiotic relationship between nature enthusiasts than as a business venture,” says Ulf. A fter specialising in internal medicine at the Onderstepoort Veterinary facility in Pretoria, Ulf practised in Gauteng for a couple of years before returning to his home country.

From installing pacemakers in pets, he established a reputation as an expert in wildlife, starring in several episodes of National Geographic’s Wild Vet series. I n 2003, when Ulf and his business partner Miena Mans bought the farm Ongos, it was a dilapidated cattle ranch on the outskirts of Windhoek. The partners shared a vision of a private nature reserve spanning 50 000ha, rectifying the lack of unfragmented conservation land in this central region of Namibia.

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A shared vision “The park would be the largest conservation area bordering a capital city in Africa,” says Ulf. “Nairobi National Park is about 11 000ha and Table Mountain/Cape Point near Town together amount to 22 000ha.” The focus on ecosensitive development, rather than on mass-tourism or hunting, makes the project capital intensive. lready over 300km of internal fencing has been removed and a 50km game-proof fence erected has been an Ongos’s perimeter.

The partners spent R2,2 million introducing game onto the farm and establishing the “army”, an armed anti-poaching unit. Ulf and Miena’s vision of returning vast tracts of land to nature and restoring the original flora and fauna is extremely expensive. They therefore decided to put the easternmost 3 282ha into a 99-year lease company, called Wilderness. S ome of the shares are retained by holding company Sauerland Farming. The partners are offering the rest for sale. Only 24 scenic sites will be available for development by prospective shareholders.

“This gives people the opportunity to live in and partially own a nature reserve, without the responsibility of managing it,” explains Ulf. E ach of the 24 units will have an exclusive-use area of around 3,5ha, visually shielded from its neighbours. The area owned by Ongos Wilderness will be jointly administered by the shareholders as part of the greater Ongos reserve, and the occupants have traversing rights over the entire reserve. “It’s an ideal setup,” says Ulf.

“The topography of the farm ensures the city isn’t visible except from the highest mountain tops. Yet Windhoek, with all the amenities of a modern town such as malls and hospitals, is only 15km away.” The price of a share is set at R1,5 million, without the dwellings the shareholders will have to erect, which have to comply with strict architectural and ecological guidelines.

“It’s a lot of money,” Ulf admits. “But compared to stand prices in Windhoek’s low-density suburbs, it’s not bad at all. And with 24 shareholders spread over several thousand hectares, exclusivity is guaranteed.” If everything goes well, it will turn out to be a profitable venture for the shareholders, since Ongos Wilderness aims to introduce and breed high-value endangered species such as roan and sable. “Of the initial price per share, R200 000 will buy endangered game,” says Ulf. “With market values for sable and roan ranging from R80 000 to R130 000 each, we could buy good breeding herds of both species.”

Roan and sable from different gene pools will be introduced in free-roaming breeding herds of three to five animals. In a couple of years, the proceeds from an annual population growth of 50% – gradually dropping to 30% over two to three years as the male:female ratio flattens out – should more than offset the levies, which often skyrocket in this kind of development. But why sell shares instead of title deeds? “Selling parts of the farm would endanger the overall objective of establishing a greater nature reserve, as we would have no control over developments and activities,” says Ulf. “

An added advantage is that, if the farm was to be sold, under Namibian law, new owners would have to respect the 99-year lease agreement.” Ulf stresses that shareholders can sell the share or pass them on to an heir, as minimal transfer duty is payable. One drawback of the shareholding approach is that banks won’t be willing to finance a bond. “Regrettably this means that Ongos Wilderness is reserved for the wealthier,” says Ulf. “On the other hand, it ensures stability and the necessary capital injection to consolidate the conservation area.” High-end tourism Apart from purchasing endangered game, the proceeds from the shares will be used to restore the area to its original state and electrify fencing that isn’t connected to that of neighbouring farms. Ulf hopes his neighbours will see the advantage of wildlife conservation over traditional farming and join him in the venture. Due to stock theft, the adjacent farms are mostly underutilised.

They may be more productive as part of the reserve, since a larger area is more viable to reintroduce elephant, lion, rhino and other big game. While the closeness of the capital and its international airport would make the reserve attractive for mass-tourism, Ulf isn’t looking to compete with Etosha or other flagship reserves. “We won’t accommodate busloads of tourists,” he says. “The plan is to aim for the high end of the market, such as an exclusive lodge and horseback safaris.” Efforts are being made to cooperate with the neighbouring Daan Viljoen Nature Reserve, managed by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism. It’s vastly overstocked, and because of its small size, it’s relatively unattractive to tourists. “Taking down the fences would diversify tourism opportunities and create a larger area for game,” says Ulf. “Such joint ventures have worked well in other parts of Africa, such as the Kruger National Park.”

Thriving game It’s easy to get swept away by Ongos’s beauty. The mountainous surroundings make the actual size of the farm seem closer to 20 000ha, while the slopes guarantee a steady supply of water to the 20 or so dams. There’s even a permanently flowing stream, generating an ideal habitat for hippo. Here you’ll find over 1 300 gemsbok, 150 eland and more than 400 kudu. Through their company Super Game Dealers, the partners introduced herds of blue wildebeest (200), red hartebeest (150), springbok (100), giraffe (40), Hartmann zebra (150) and Burchell zebra (20). Over 1 000 warthog roam the farm, as well as plenty of small antelope such as duiker, steenbok and klipspringer.

The Khomas Hochland is rich in leopard, brown hyena, cheetah and caracal that have made Ongos their home. There are plenty of small mammals as well as a rich birdlife, including fish eagles and pelicans, attracted by the constant availability of water. Community The proximity to the capital opens various opportunities to involve the community, something Ulf feels strongly about. The owners of Ongos will also establish partnerships with communities in Katutura township to set up companies that can provide services to the reserve.

To counter the massive deforestation around Windhoek, locals could also be offered supplies of firewood in exchange for their help in bush-clearing operations on the farm. “And it would be a dream come true if we could establish an education centre, and teach young Namibians to appreciate the inherent value of nature,” says Ulf. Contact Ulf Tubbesing on 00-264-61-257273(2), fax 00-264-61-257274, or e-mail [email protected]. |fw