Paul Vorster: The Secrets of Sanbona

Oct 3 2023


David worries about 6 slowly encroaching Hippoes whilst Paul Vorster, the Director of Sanbona Nature and Wilderness Reserve, talks cooly about how to become an impact player in South African Conservation


David Oakes

David Oakes

Host

Paul Vorster

Guest


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About this episode:

Located in the southwestern corner of South Africa’s Little Karoo, the Sanbona Nature and Wilderness Reserve is an area of ex-farmland about the size of the Isle of Wight. Over the past 21 years, it has been transformed into a protected haven for a rich and varied tapestry of African flora and fauna. Seated on the ground by the edge of a Sanbona’s main lake, David Oakes is joined by Paul Vorster, the reserve’s Director and General Manager – oh, and by six increasingly inquisitive hippopotamuses. Paul recounts his early career, following in the footsteps of Dr Ian Player, and learning the delicate art of safely translocating wild animals on what was once the hunting grounds of Zulu King Shaka kaSenzangakhona. This is knowledge still put to good use in Sanbona, where they play a pivotal role in conserving the critically endangered Black Rhino. Their conversation covers other remarkable conservation triumphs: the successful merging of three relic populations of vulnerable Mountain Zebras, and Sanbona’s status as a sanctuary for the 13th most endangered mammal in the world – the Riverine Rabbit – of which there are only around 200 mature adults remaining in the wild. From majestic lions and swift cheetahs to elusive caracals and fascinating scorpions, their dialogue covers a diverse array of wildlife (even Paul’s dreams of plucking leeches from his ears!) But through it all, Paul highlights his aspirations for Sanbona, aiming to elevate it further as a front-footed and impactful player in the realm of Conservation.


David's thoughts:

What is wild?

What is a wild animal?

What is real wilderness?

Before living in Cape Town for 3 months at the beginning of this year, I had never visited South Africa. In my imagination, SA’s wildlife was similar to that which Paul refers to as “African Television”; the romanticism of being out in the Bush; large sunset-soaked plains; roaming mega herds of wildebeest that stampede across nation states unimpeded by customs checkpoints; lions living in a natural symbiosis with mandrils akin to Disney’s “Circle of Life”…

…alright, perhaps it wasn’t quite that soupy – but you get the idea. I thought, definitely, a land-based wild space existed on this planet. I think it exists in Africa. And back then I thought a version of it existed in South Africa. My understanding of the word “wild”, and as a result my expectations of what wild spaces actually lie out there, is something that has changed irrevocably over those three months – and it started in Sanbona.

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Sanbona, by my British eyes, was/is huge. It is the size of Singapore or the size of the Isle of Wight – take your pick. There is one fence splitting it in two. In mammalian terms, the Northern half has lions (albeit only 3) and cheetahs (each mature cat fitted with a radio-collar) which live among other free-roaming carnivores (leopards, jackals, caracal, bat-eared foxes etc…) and herbivores (springbok, wildebeest, gemsbok, elephants, rhinos, giraffes, zebra, rabbits etc…) The movement of most of the larger mammals are restricted by these fences – the smaller or jumpier ones are a little freer. The South is the same, but without the lions and cheetahs. The decision to split their corner of the Little Karoo is one made to maximise the conservation efficiency of the area.

Neither half is overpopulated, deliberately so. Careful consideration is placed upon knowing how many animals this reserve can safely contain, and it is strictly monitored. But a fence bluntly highlights that this is a space with some human input and human control. A “de-wilding” if you will, for ‘wild’ animals are rarely contained – except by mountain ranges, seas and the widest of rivers. The largest truly ‘wild’ cat you might see in Sanbona is a Leopard – no one but camera traps see these visitors. And the majority of the large animals at Sanbona were translocated into this site – they had been previously driven out from this territory over the preceding years by human farming interests. But, as Paul shares in today’s episode, he and Sanbona aim for natural nature recovery – funded and overseen by human beings. Far from considering the fence, the translocations and radio-collars as de-wilding what is wild, they are key players in a controlled re-wilding from a baseline of organised human agriculture. But can re-wilding ever truly create a genuine wilderness?

For, although you could still get bitten by a snake if you were unlucky/stupid, it is hard to say Sanbona is truly ‘wild’ – whatever that word means. Yet Sanbona certainly supports conservation and nature recovery, and it provides large truly wild animals with space, with controlled and natural predator-prey interactions very much like the wild. It leaves the wild animals alone – as much as a game reserve responsibly can.

My meeting with Paul at Sanbona was the first interview I recorded in South Africa. It was my first adjustment of how I believed wild animals in South Africa really lived. The questions I left with: Were these animals wild? Was Sanbona a wilderness? I knew they were a force for good, but these were questions I did not feel I could safely answer with any authority. The world ceased to mean what I thought it had meant.

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This meeting with Paul was recorded a week before I visited a smaller game reserve. I refer to it negatively in my interview with Nadia Fisher (aka Nardstar*) – she painted a mural there. I’ll leave it unnamed, but I will say that if you’re in Cape Town, Sanbona is the only nearby reserve I would recommend.

This second place was small. Not far from the motorway. Carnivores were kept separate from herbivores. These (wild) animals were fed like farm animals – rangers filling troughs several times a day. The only thing more plentiful than the animals were the human visitors – but at least they too were fed from troughs (although they called it a buffet). This reserve is sold as a Big 5 Game Reserve that is acclaimed for its conservation programmes – but even on the surface the animals do not look as ‘healthy’ or as ‘alive’ as those I had seen in Sanbona. Perhaps because their diet was simply not as varied or lush – there was little vegetation here that hadn’t been trampled, driven over or devoured months earlier. Even the Giraffes there were fed from troughs nailed to leafless trees. This reserve likes to sing proud about its White Rhino conservation goals… it has had numerous calfs born there over recent years. One can only hope most of these youngsters were translocated to somewhere larger as soon as they were fit to leave their mother. How long must a wild animal be kept, fed, googled by tourists, and in how large an enclosure before it is considered wild no more? I saw nothing that I would consider ‘wild’ here.

I believe I am correct when I say there are no longer any Rhinos in South Africa living outside of reserves or national parks. The same is true for many other large mammals. This is due wholly to the spread of human beings across the landscape. How can any of the South African landscape therefore be considered a wilderness if the largest of megafauna have been removed from the land in recent memory? The same can be said for the disappearance of the Great White Shark from False Bay (as discussed with Chris Fallows). One cannot remove an apex predator and expect the wilderness to operate on the same terms.

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Today’s episode was also recorded before I spent a number of days camping wild – there’s the word again – in Pilanesberg National Park. Pilanesberg is roughly the same size as Sanbona (a smidge smaller). As a National Park it is open to the public daily and has a fantastic array of megafauna across it’s 57000 hectares and it is well worth a visit if you’re near Johannesburg.

Access to wildlife, and hopefully the resulting consequential desire to conserve it, cannot purely be the domain of the wealthy; not if we want our planet to thrive with humanity as a part of it. Therefore, Pilanesberg is free or heavily discounted to enter for locals. Which is fantastic. There are relatively well maintained drivable roadways taking you through key areas of the reserve – none encroaching too much into the animals’ terrain. Access, without too much access – although where one draws that line is a tricky one.

That said, some neighbouring communities look on Pilanesberg less fondly than you might imagine. Due to the inflated number of big cats inside the park boundaries, a certain amount of animal-human conflict has arisen. Too many big cats in an enclosed space, and they will look for an opportunity to expand out into newer territory – lots of cats need exponentially lots of territory… and prey.

Human interaction with wild animals has in some circumstances created a respect and passion for nature, but perhaps more common is that it has elicited a social dislike for the idea of free roaming wild megafauna – we simply don’t appreciate our herd of goats (or daughter) being eaten by lions, our crops browsed by antelope, buildings crushed by elephants stampeding etc… Having seen communities live with these concerns as a reality, I can all to easily sympathise with their disdain for aspects of the wild world. Perhaps our planet is too wild for modern humans?

The number of cats in Pilanesberg is partly in response to the public’s desire to see ‘wild’ animals. People flock from Sun City – a Las Vegas style pleasure destination that, in their own words, is “sprawled along the border of the Pilanesberg National Park”. I could see the 24hr Sun City light pollution glow as I sat awake by the camp fire on lion watch at 3am. But, as much as I hate the proximity, it is their footfall, their cash, that funds the park’s work, and why should these visitors pay if they don’t get to see ‘wild’ animals? And how can a park be managed without this funding? As such, the de-wilding of this protected space is perpetuated through a desire to protect it, and vice versa. Catch 22.

Many wonderful and dedicated conservationists work and volunteer in Pilanesberg. There are great success stories of conservation here. But its potential for change for the better is not a simple one.

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My time spent in Pilanesberg was with the Wilderness Leadership School – Paul refers to the WLS in today’s interview, and indeed to Dr Ian Player and Magqubu Ntombela who started the school. The Wilderness Leadership School operates in Pilanesberg and further afield, taking people out into the ‘wild’. Through walking on foot, predominately in silence, carrying all one’s supplies, nurturing one’s thoughts, camping out without tents, leaving no trace, in an area where you are at the whim of apex carnivores, in an area where human beings are excluded through the hours of darkness, they take you into the ‘Wilderness’. I’m not talking about learning bushcraft skills and making a spark out of some dry leaves and raw testosterone; the WLS serves to provide people – their minds and their hearts – with the space to consider how we impact the world. It asks us to consider the footprints we leave behind.

The WLS was my last stop before the return to Britain, so I spent my midnight hours by the fire not only considering what it would be like to be set upon by a pride of lions, but also considering what I had already seen in South Africa – in Sanbona, in the unnamed game reserve, with the Sharks in False Bay, in all the places that I offered the podcast treatment, and all those that I simply experienced privately… I pondered upon what had been experienced, but mostly upon what might I do next? Those hours alone were labyrinthine, but traversed in what seemed like seconds – I could gorge on them. My mind it seems needs wild spaces, spaces unpopulated by man, to think.

I didn’t record a podcast during my time with the Wilderness Leadership School. It seemed at odds with what is supposed to be a spiritual experience; at odds with what Ian Player, Magqubu Ntombela and their disciples want(ed) to instil in modern man. But I was tasked by the man who took me there to write down some of my thoughts about “Wilderness” following my time with him, and with his country. These are those thoughts. And, yes, it is predominantly a list of questions, the most interesting of which I cannot yet answer.

There are signs of man in our wild spaces – upon land, in our seas, in our breathable atmosphere. We’re even leaving our footprint in space. It’s true to say that I returned from South Africa sadder. I returned more informed; and naivety, it seems, is often bliss. Sadly, I think truly wild things and truly wild spaces no longer exist in South Africa (and don’t get me started upon the UK.) Therefore we need to make a concerted effort to stop the rot from running any deeper into our landscapes and into our souls. I will, and I would ask you all, to follow the lead from Paul at Sanbona and Chris in False Bay, from Andrew in the Kunene and my unnamed mentor in the Pilanesberg, to visit our remaining wild(ish) spaces, to take time to stop and consider what we are doing. To do this often. We need to protect our traditionally resilient biosphere, and it is only the wild(ish) spaces we have that seem to give us genuine impetus to pause and (hopefully) to change for the better… I believe wild spaces could lead to our salvation.

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