The power of co-operation

South Africa’s private game reserves provide a model that all farmers – and politicia I write this as dawn breaks, surrounded by the sounds of bushveld birds coming awake. ns – can learn from.

The power of co-operation
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I was lulled to sleep by the gentle ‘prrrup’ of a Scops owl and, during the darkest hours, the maniacal cackling of hyenas roused me. I lay there wondering whether there is any experience more magical than spending a night deep in the African bush. Of course, not just any African bush, but bush that has been preserved and protected from the hordes of humans intent on killing and destruction. You don’t get much of this kind of bush anymore, and most of it is in South Africa.

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Protecting our natural heritage
Despite our previous government’s deeply flawed social policies and the devastation that the present government’s policies have wreaked on productive farmland, both have done a pretty good job – so far – of protecting our game parks and nature reserves. Certainly, they’ve accomplished much more than most other African countries, where today’s children will only know the rhino from picture books.

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In African Eden, the story of the founding of the Kruger Park, James Stevenson-Hamilton, the first warden, writes about his futile search for elephant at the turn of the 20th Century. There were simply none to be found. Today, by contrast, argument rages among wildlife administrators and scientists about the best way to control their numbers! So, to give credit where it’s due, both the previous Nationalist and the present ANC government have done a great job in this area.

But it’s easy for government. It has access to taxpayers’ funds and the power of law to proclaim protected areas and enforce them. The real heroes of South African wildlife protection are to be found in the private sector. Here businesspeople, many of them farmers, have dug deep in their pockets and built miracles of co-operation to protect wildlife seen nowhere else.

Working together
It all began in 1948, when a KZN sugar farmer, steeped in the co-operative ways of sugar farmers the world over, bought land near the present-day Kruger Park. Together with his neighbours, he took the first steps to creating the 65 000ha Sabi Sand Game Reserve, which shares a common 50km unfenced boundary with the Kruger National Park.

Just to the north, the process was repeated when, in 1956, the Timbavati Game Reserve was established. Started by a few far-sighted conservationists, it now covers 53 000ha. These unique models of co-operation between ‘game farmers’ inspired others and, in 1969, the Klaserie Game Reserve was established. Once again a sugar farmer and some businesspeople joined hands and today there are 104 individual members working together on 60 000ha of land.

Working towards a common goal
Sabi Sand, Timbavati and Klaserie have inspired hundreds of other successful models of wildlife protection. World-renowned luxury lodges cater for the rich and famous. Small basic camps in the style of the old Kruger Park attract those who prefer a more down-to earth experience. There are walking trails, animal rehabilitation centres, and so on. Thousands of people depend entirely on these establishments for their livelihoods.

And what we’re seeing here is a level of co-operation between government and the private sector that many other industries can only dream about. With government’s blessing, the myriad private sector establishments to the west of the Kruger Park refer to themselves collectively as part of ‘the greater Kruger National Park’. Somehow, the bush, the animals and the early rising sun on our eastern border have engendered a unique and wonderful spirit of engagement and collaboration.

Can you imagine what would have happened if every landowner had done his own thing, kept his boundary fences up, never talked to neighbours and managed his land in isolation?

Why can’t we achieve this same deep spirit of co-operation in all sectors of South African agriculture – where farmers source their inputs jointly, where they promote and sell their products co-operatively, where they build working relationships as closely with each other and government as these private game reserves have been able to do?

Perhaps it’s time for the leaders of organised agriculture to visit and study these game reserves, have a close look at their business models, and witness their collective power in the market. This level of co-operation makes business sense, is good for profit, and has kept these reserves going and growing for more than 40 years.

This article was originally published in the 9 August 2013 issue of Farmers Weekly.