When David Boshoff took the job as general manager of the Dinokeng Game Reserve he thought it would be a thrilling place to practise conservation, for there are few conservation projects in the world like this 20,000-hectare park.
Home to the so-called ‘big five’ – elephants, lions, rhinos, leopards and African buffalo – the reserve sits in the lap of South Africa’s biggest population centre. Dinokeng is a one-hour drive from Johannesburg.
And it came into being when the government and a group of private landowners decided to drop their physical and metaphorical fences and create something unique.
But Mr Boshoff and his team, who have worked to maintain this patch of wilderness on a fast-urbanising continent, now face a challenge that threatens the park’s very existence.
South Africa’s attempt to contain the coronavirus in the form of a nine-week-and-counting lockdown has completely eliminated the revenue generated by tourists.
Consequently, the manager now sits in his office wondering how he is going to keep the place going.
“I’ve got no income coming in, the whole income stream into the park has shut down. There (was not) even one tourist in this park for the whole of April. I have 60 dedicated employees, so how I am going to pay them next month?” asked Mr Boshoff.
The park’s frightening financial position is not the only pressing issue on the manager’s desk.
The number of incursions made by poachers into the park has tripled during the lockdown as intruders hunt for bushmeat – or a lucrative payday in the form of ivory or rhino horn.
“This week we lost an impala, a wildebeest and that is only the animals we found. We lost a lion a month ago, it walked into a snare that was meant for an antelope, so when you lose key species it is going to impact on tourism. It means less income.”
Dinokeng’s anti-poaching unit is formed by a group of specialist trackers and they have been run off their feet in recent weeks.
When the unit’s leader, Tim Higgs, found a fully-grown impala snagged in a poacher’s snare, they hauled themselves into a pick-up truck and raced off to help him near the park’s northern boundary.
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Together they worked to immobilise the animal and remove the wire trap that had seized its horns. After a few minutes, the wires were snipped and a breathless Mr Higgs pronounced this particular impala very fortunate indeed.
He said: “It’s lucky it was caught around the horns. If it was caught around the neck it would (have) died long ago.
“It must have been standing for hours, it would have died of starvation if we hadn’t found it. See those black rhino tracks over there? It nearly had the same fate.”
This just-in-time rescue operation was an unqualified success but interestingly, there was little criticism of the poachers themselves from Mr Higgs and the rangers who work under him.
In fact, those charged with protecting the animals say they understood why the park is losing them.
Dinokeng borders an impoverished township of 100,000 people, called Hammanskraal, and the lockdown has hit residents hard.
Millions in South Africa have been going hungry and if the poachers are offering bushmeat, people are going to buy it.
Dinokeng offers something of a lifeline to Hammanskraal – 600 or so people from the local community are employed in the lodges, shops and restaurants which serve the reserve.
However, the vast majority have lost their pay packets while hotel owners, like Etienne Toerien, wonder if they will ever reopen.
Mr Toerien runs the 59-bed Mongena Game Lodge and we found him on the lawn, staring at a zeal of zebras who had come to have a look at his empty establishment.
“How many months of this can you take?” I asked.
“To be honest, we thought three weeks (without guests) would be difficult but the business is suffering now. We don’t know when we can reopen. It could be months, it could be the end of the year.”
“Can you wait until the end of the year?”
“We simply will not survive. There is no way,” he replied, gloomily.
The Dinokeng Game Reserve is in a precarious position. It has taken on loans and it has been offered a number of donations but David Boshoff and his team and members of the local community need the tourists to return.
The future of the animals and those who look after them depends on it.
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