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Chasing Down The Muse: Staring into the eyes of a lion

February 24, 2011|By Catharine Cooper

What do African game reserves and marine protection areas have in common?

Before jumping to a short answer, think about wild elephants, lions, rhinoceros, leopards and giraffes roaming broad savannahs of Africa. Imagine that the reserve program, established by government and private concerns did not exist. Imagine the elimination by poachers of what is left of African wildlife.

I've spent the last four days at the Buffalo Ridge Game Lodge in Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa. The evening of the first day, I was gifted with a face-to-face encounter with a pair of lions who had set up a honeymoon suite near a watering hole, a large elephant rolling in the mud and a herd of rhinoceros that rumbled in the dark. That was after the giraffes and the zebras.

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Madikwe has the unique distinction of being one of the few game reserves in the world to be proclaimed purely on the grounds of being the most appropriate and sustainable land use for an area. The reserve consists of 75,000 hectares of vast plains of open woodlands and grasslands, and is host to almost every game species.

It was developed under a multi-venture program of government, private sectors, and local communities as a way to create jobs and establish eco-tourism in the region.

Once perimeter fencing was completed, "Operation Phoenix," one of the largest game translocation exercises in the world, was undertaken. Between 1991 and 1997, more than 8,000 animals were released into the park from all over the world. The lions came from Namibia, elephants, the United States, and culling operations from Kruger National Park.

More than 28 species have been released into the park, including elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion, cheetah, Cape hunting dog, spotted hyena, giraffe, zebra and many species of antelope and herbivores. Leopards already populated the reserve.

Game viewing at Buffalo Ridge takes place with pre-dawn and a sunset drives of about 3.5 hours. "Hunters" pile in to Land Cruisers and set off on the dirt roads that wind in and out of grasslands and trees. Guides from different lodges share sightings via two way and CB radios, with the exception of rhinos, which are kept secret for their own protection.

I have taken up residence in the front seat next to our guide, Lazarus. From there, I can ply him with questions and have a nearly unobstructed view for photographing the animals.

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