“Every single animal protected is an achievement in conservation.”– Musa Mbatha, Reserve Manager, Babanango Game Reserve
Africa’s Big five animals – lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino, and elephant – are major tourism drawcards for any game reserve. But achieving Big 5 status for Zululand’s Babanango Game Reserve is more of a testament to the group’s commitment to conservation, natural rewilding, and ecological restoration. The reintroduction of elephants to this region, where they once roamed free, will contribute towards balancing the delicate ecosystem and preserving the natural environment for years to come.
When Did The Rewilding Start?
It must be said that the elusive leopard is the only animal that didn’t need to be reintroduced to this Big 5 game reserve located in northern KZN. These secretive cats have managed to maintain their presence in the region, coming and going as desired, but they were soon joined by some familiar friends from 2019 – some of whom had not roamed these hills and valleys for 150 years.
A herd of buffalo was the first to be translocated to this South African game reserve, followed by the strategic introductions of both white and black rhinos – both threatened by poaching as the unfounded demand for rhino horn continues. However, they found a safe space at Babanango Game Reserve, where they were welcomed ‘The Return of the King’ – two male lions followed by several females shortly thereafter.
The Final Piece Of The Puzzle
In June this year, a small breeding herd of seven elephants was introduced into the now Big 5 reserve, completing the five-year rewilding journey. Coming in from Manyoni Game Reserve in Maputaland, the herd’s genetic lineage emanates from Kruger National Park.
Elephants are not only the biggest of the Big 5, they also play a crucial role in the ecological functioning of the African bush. As megaherbivores, elephants are rapid recyclers of plant matter, as well as habitat engineers, modifying the landscapes as they consume vegetation in a way that no other species can.
And while they protect the Babanango environment, the Babanango environment will now protect them. Classified as ‘Vulnerable’ by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, elephants face numerous challenges. Their size and feeding demands require space – but with human habitation encroaching on this, elephants are being pushed out and their genetic diversity is decreasing.
Thanks to the reintroduction of this species at the 20 000-hectare Babanango, elephants are being given more natural habitat to ensure their survival as a species.
Beyond the Big 5
While the Big 5 might have the starring roles, there are a lot of supporting characters that need their space in the natural world too. This is why Babanango Game Reserve has released more than 2 400 previously endemic animals (found here and nowhere else!) back to their natural habitat. This large-scale rewilding programme has fulfilled the team’s vision of rehabilitating and restoring the biodiversity of the area – which is key to wildlife conservation.
The reserve is home to many lesser-seen animals and birds that are just as fascinating as the Big 5, and not easily found in other regions. Guests of this Zululand-based reserve will enjoy the chance to spot the shy brown hyena, the elusive serval, the flamboyant purple-crested turaco, the majestic crowned eagle, the critically endangered oribi, and particularly rare aloe species found nowhere else in Africa. Other exciting animal sightings include:
- Diverse cat species including cheetah and caracal
- 313 recorded bird species
- 79 species of different butterflies
- 14 antelope species
Babanango’s Commitment To Communities
“From the onset, establishing the game reserve was not only for the protection of our environment and the introduction of different species including the big five, but also as a tourism attraction, creation of jobs, business opportunities, including beneficiaries, local communities, and local businesses. The introduction of the big five means a lot to the people of Babanango and surrounding areas including Ulundi Municipality; the only facility of its kind and its status within the municipality boundaries.” – Kenneth Buthelezi, Chairman of Emcakwini Community Trust.
Babanango Game Reserve’s commitment to natural rewilding is really important for local plant and animal species because of the complex landscape found here. The reserve supports a unique diversity of habitats, one of the most significant being the Mistbelt Grassland. Because of the unique nature of this habitat, it supports a rich biodiversity and is important for the ecological balance of the area.
But rewilding is not just beneficial for the natural world, but for humanity too. Babanango Game Reserve is actually one of the largest conservation projects of its kind in recent times. Over 75% of the land in conservation is leased from the surrounding communities, which encourages participation in conservation efforts. This form of collaboration supports sustainable conservation – because everyone benefits. To date, the Emcakwini, Kwangono and Esibongweni communities have set aside land for biodiversity and cultural conservation, which is supported by the establishment of community trusts.
The real value for local communities has come from the wealth of new jobs, with 75% of the approximately 210 permanent positions filled by staff from local communities. The project is fully committed to skills development, upliftment, and vocational training. The reserve’s new ‘wildlife economy’ is beginning to take root as entrepreneurship emerges in the neighbouring communities.
A Babanango Adventure For Everyone
- You can now enjoy the chance to see the Big 5 in a classic safari game drive at Babanango Game Reserve, but there is so much more to do at this exceptional spot.
- For those seeking a more ‘up close’ experience or with a special interest in birds, or plants, walking safaris led by a specialist guide are a great option.
- History buffs can embark on a guided historical tour of the nearby Anglo-Zulu battlefields, exploring Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift battlefields.
- If you’re in search of a peaceful retreat then enjoy a sumptuous bush lunch on the reserve surrounded by breathtaking views.
- Adrenaline junkies will enjoy the zipline adventure at Matatane Camp, which is an exhilarating journey as you embark on the five-platform zipline course through a captivating river gorge.
- Geologists and historians will relish the chance to explore the ruins and shafts on the old Copper Mine Tour – also home to resident Cape Leafnose bats.
- Guests who are keen on contributing further towards wildlife monitoring and research can partake in patrols and camera trap servicing, among other activities, alongside the reserve’s conservation team.
- Finally, discover the awe-inspiring beauty of Babanango Game Reserve from a whole new perspective with the 30-to-45-minute Helicopter Conservation Flights.
Don’t miss out on the adventure at the incredible Big 5 Babanango Game Reserve based in Zululand, northern KZN.