In late 2017 Hellmuth and Barbara Weisser, philanthropic German investors, who share a deep passion for wildlife and conservation, started to purchase land and together with three local community trusts as landowner create a project which later became the Babanango Game Reserve. Their vision and financial support of the project represents a balanced approach to conservation that prioritizes the involvement of local communities and the integration of socio-economic development with environmental protection.
Over the last five years, the reserve has embarked on one of the largest game translocation projects in the country, selectively sourcing over 3,000 large mammal species and sensitively reintroducing them back to wilderness areas where once such species roamed freely. The reserve has successfully reintroduced a wide variety of endemic species, including endangered black rhino, and rare antelope such as oribi and klipspringer. In June 2023, the reserve reintroduced elephants thus completing the so-called ‘Big Five’ – lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo, and elephant.
Babanango Game Reserve is a unique project in rural Zululand where sustainable conservation, eco-tourism and community development intersect. The majority of the land incorporated into the reserve (74%) is owned by three community trusts (Emcakwini, Esibongweni, and KwaNgono). The commitment from these three trusts is integral to the long-term conservation success. In turn, the allocation of land-lease income, conservation levies and other benefits from Babanango Game Reserve are vital to the economic well-being of the surrounding communities – who have traditionally relied on unsustainable cattle grazing. The partnership between the game reserve and the community trusts is further reinforced by commitments from the reserve to employ and upskill local community members. In addition, there is an animal ownership agreement in place which ensures that the progeny of all animals purchased by the project will be jointly owned by the community trusts and the reserve according to the size of the properties.
Babanango Game Reserve is committed to supporting socio-economic upliftment within the rural communities that reside within close proximity to the reserve. Enterprise development projects linked to the wildlife economy, and which align with ecosystem restoration, have been prioritized, along with reserve infrastructure projects. In this way, Babanango Game Reserve has provided work for more than 150 people who were previously excluded from the formal job sector with both permanent and contractual employment opportunities. Babanango provides vocational training, for example in hospitality, thereby enabling individuals to establish careers with high-end ecotourism lodge experience. The Foundation, which exists in support of the reserve, is supporting employment opportunities for 26 community members who form part of a dedicated team that is systematically removing non-indigenous invasive plant species that choke the natural grasslands and water courses.
The African Habitat Conservancy Foundation is a registered Public Benefit Organization that has been instrumental in supporting sustainable development initiatives in the surrounding communities. The foundation works together with Babanango Game Reserve, the land-owning trusts, and other stakeholders to identify and implement projects that promote enterprise development, that support marginalized communities. Some of the projects undertaken by the foundation include vocational training, drilling boreholes for fresh water by solar-powered pumps and reading glasses for those in need, assistance in sustainable grazing practices, and supporting and promoting sports such as soccer among the youth. Through these projects, the foundation is linking the establishment of the reserve to broader socio-economic benefits, particularly those that are aligned with sustainable resource management and activities which align with conserving the natural environment for future generations.
The vision of Babanango Game Reserve is to continue developing and promoting science-based research to enable an improved understanding of the regional ecology, wildlife population dynamics, rare and endangered species, the biodiversity risks arising from the climate crisis, local human-wildlife conflict, regional pre-history and local archaeology, among others. An intensive remote camera-trap survey is currently underway which is revealing extraordinary insights with regards to the more obscure and seldom seen (nocturnal) species that occur on the reserve.
Babanango Game Reserve’s commitment to ecological restoration and wildlife conservation has garnered widespread support from leading organizations, including Conservation Outcomes, Wildlife ACT, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, The WWF Black Rhino Range Expansion Project (BRREP), WESSA (the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa), Ashia Cheetah Conservation and The Aspinall Foundation. These organizations have played a crucial role in helping the reserve achieve its conservation goals through their expertise, resources, and funding.