The science of safari

Not all safari goers understand just how much science goes into creating the perfect safari…

Apparently elephants love oranges. I’ve always known they have an intoxicating penchant for the sweet summer fruits of the Marula tree, but oranges? This was news to me. Nearly 15 years in, and this wild and wonderful job of mine still teaches me something new every day. More on the citrus-seeking pachyderm later.

I had just arrived back at &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve, one of my favourite homes away from home, and was about to embark on an exciting, action-packed week with my long-time friend Simon Naylor, Phinda’s esteemed Conservation Manager, and his incredibly dedicated and experienced team.

Technically I was on assignment to document the launch of our groundbreaking pangolin reintroduction programme, but was fortunate to shadow Phinda’s conservation heroes in all of their (many) endeavours that entire week.

For them, it was simply business as usual, a week in the life of a conservation team. But for me, it was the week of a lifetime and it provided me with humbling insight into what exactly goes on behind the scenes to ensure not only the longevity of this achingly beautiful landscape and its wild inhabitants, but also the perfect safari experience for our guests.

Beyond the safari

We live in an increasingly unpredictable world where uncertainty has become the new normal. Everything from politics and climate change, to terrorism, technological change, exponential workloads and unrelenting inboxes are forever shaping and reshaping the world we know.

Amidst this fluctuating frenzy we call life, travel remains one of the certainties we can still rely on. In fact, I believe there are (at least) 10 certainties of travel, all of which can be gleaned on an African safari.

Each day, gaggles of giddy guests (myself included) arrive at &Beyond Phinda, brimming with palpable excitement as they embark on a life-changing safari of the soul. They are cossetted in luxury, fed irresistible meals, immersed in a spectacular and diverse wilderness and captivated by enchanting animals in their natural habitat. They sleep in the dreamiest of beds, only to awake the next morning to repeat the magic all over again.

Unbeknownst to most safari goers, however, there is actually a carefully measured and constantly monitored science taking place, behind the scenes, that enables this perfect safari experience. That indescribable magic (if you have been to Africa and caught the safari bug, then you’ll know what I’m talking about) is made possible by the tireless devotion, unwavering compassion and selfless, (literally) around-the-clock teamwork of Phinda’s incredibly humble and hard-working conservation team.

Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and like a well-oiled machine, this team seamlessly provides the necessary protection, monitoring, surveillance, maintenance, research and infrastructure to ensure the certainty of a truly extraordinary safari experience. One that will inspire our guests to join our journey to leave our world a better place.

Care of the land

Phinda is a carefully maintained wilderness area and its ongoing conservation, which is meticulously overseen by Simon and his team, is funded by our guests. Simply by indulging in a Phinda safari, our guests’ hard-earned travel spend enables our teams to continually protect the wildlife, conserve the land and leave Phinda a better place.

Thirty years ago, Phinda was nothing but derelict farmland that had become devoid of its resident wildlife. Today, it is a thriving landscape that is globally celebrated as one of the world’s most ambitious and successful blueprints for international ecotourism. Read the Phinda story here.

You’d be surprised just how much constant, gruelling physical labour is needed to preserve and maintain the breathtaking diversity of this natural habitat. Make no mistake, Africa’s national parks and private reserves are not theme parks — Mother Nature absolutely runs her course, naturally — but a considerable amount of daily intervention is required to help maintain a harmonious balance in this fragile ecosystem.

Protect what you love

Phinda is home to seven unique habitats, including 800 hectares of the world’s only 5 986 remaining hectares of rare sand forest. The land is routinely surveyed, pesticide is administered where necessary, invasive alien plant species are eradicated, and specific dams are pumped regularly (even more so during the now more frequently occurring droughts).

The requisite fencelines around the perimeter of this 28 600 hectare pristine wildlife area are erected and maintained and, as neighbouring reserves and farms drop their fences to form part of this unified wilderness area, those fences need to then be removed. All of the dirt roads are painstakingly maintained and all areas that are zoned for off-roading are monitored for impact.

Controlled burns are administered annually in order to prevent unpredictable and destructive wildfires, control insect populations, clear fallen debris and combat the increase of bush encroachment induced by climate change. Of course, precise weather and wind conditions are crucial for these burns to occur and it’s all hands on deck to keep the blazes under tight control.

A window to the past

An in-depth cultural history research project is also underway, which has uncovered some fascinating findings about the land’s ancestry. Ancient bushmen tools from the Middle to Late Stone Ages have been discovered, examined by experts and returned to their original positions, such as cutting tools, spear heads, round hammer stones, etc. These remarkably intact relics and abandoned burial and ceremonial sites help paint a more accurate picture of Phinda’s cultural legacy and rich tapestry.

Harmony in nature

Phinda is home to the Big Five, and so much more, and the bulk of the conservation team’s work is aimed at protecting endangered wildlife from the ever-present threat of poaching, as well as ensuring a healthy balance, not only between the animals and their habitat, but also among predator and prey populations.

For example, if the lion population exceeds its optimum size, this will have a direct and adverse effect, not only on the number of prey, but also on cheetah and other lesser predators. On the other hand, if elephant populations get out of control, you can imagine the wave of destruction this will have on the vegetation.

Wildlife populations, both predator and prey, need to be closely managed to prevent other species from being decimated, as well as to avoid inbreeding and adhere to the land’s natural carrying capacity. From lion, cheetah and elephant, to nyala, wildebeest and other antelope, translocations to neighbouring reserves help bolster new meta populations and diversify gene pools. Unilateral hysterectomies have also proven to be a successful and humane way of restoring the natural balance among lions, the same way aerial contraception darts are helping to reduce the growth rate among elephants.

In a completely unfenced natural habitat, these interventions are not necessary; however, once a fence is erected, no matter how large the tract of land, responsible wildlife and land management practices are crucial for the natural biodiversity and sustainability of the ecosystem.

To determine the population sizes, Simon and his team conduct a thorough yet tedious two-day aerial wildlife census each year, from the vantage point of a helicopter. To further support these numbers, they also spend a month of each year conducting road transect counts.

The dream team

Whenever I have spent time with our Phinda conservation heroes I am always blown away by the sheer amount of work they are doing, quietly and tirelessly behind the scenes, to protect the wildlife.

There are rhino monitors whose sole responsibility is to track and monitor the rhino populations and observe their behaviours and interactions. There are researchers and PhD students on site conducting much-needed studies on everything from the highly trafficked and elusive pangolin to the misunderstood hyena clans.

A team of dedicated ecological monitors, assisted by eager volunteers, spend their days out in the field using telemetry devices to locate collared, tagged and micro-chipped wildlife and document their whereabouts, behaviours, feeding, mating, etc. Camera traps are also installed to capture the unseen nocturnal movements.

Rhinos are dehorned to protect them from the scourge of illegal poaching and pangolins that have been rescued from the illegal trade are now being successfully rehabilitated and safely released onto Phinda. Of course Phinda is globally renowned for having one of the most highly trained and effective anti-poaching units guarding the wildlife 24/7. And if a carcass is discovered on the reserve, a thorough post mortem is conducted to determine the cause of death and rule out any suspicion of poaching activity.

For all translocations, collarings, dehornings and medical interventions, Phinda works closely with the country’s top wildlife veterinarians, game capture specialists and helicopter pilots to ensure a seamless, safe and successful operation. To see them in action is a privilege.

Hurry up and wait

So what did a week in the life of the conservation team actually look like? In a word, busy! I am humbled by their expertise, teamwork, knowledge, patience and selfless devotion to the continued wellbeing of Phinda’s natural heritage.

Many people joke that conservation work is a lot of ‘hurry up and wait’ – this is entirely accurate. Simon and his team have to make fast decisions and think on their feet. Their schedules are erratic and entirely dictated by Mother Nature. Without hesitation nor complaint, they work around the clock (and then some), in both slow-paced and tedious, as well as extremely high stress situations.

Just prior to my arrival, they conducted a three and a half hour surgery on an elephant bull with an infected tooth and treated a male cheetah with a badly swollen front paw and smashed metatarsal bones and torn ligaments.

During my time with the team, we darted and treated an injured rhino cow with a foot injury and dehorned her two to three-year-old calf at the same time. Of course locating them was a challenge, as the rhino monitors who had tracked the duo on foot were chased off by a pride of lions. Later that week we also dehorned a much feistier black rhino.

We also sedated a massive elephant bull for a follow-up treatment on a severe abscess and resultant infection on his foot. This is where the oranges come in. Because the team could not keep immobilising this giant every three days to administer anti-inflammatories following his initial treatments, the medication was instead concealed within oranges and gently tossed his way for oral consumption. “Elephants love citrus,” Simon explained, “so we devised a plan to inject a large dose of medication into some oranges. He didn’t like our presence close, but once he smelled the oranges, he relaxed and fed on them. We had to throw them close for him to get his full dose.”

Perhaps not your conventional method of treatment, but as I’ve learned from my time with Simon and his team, they constantly have to think fast in order to do what’s best for the wildlife. Without intervention, and the friendly tossing of medicated oranges, this bull most certainly would have died. Typically, our conservation team does not treat an injured animal unless it has been harmed by human intervention or it is an endangered species. In this case, the elephant was the largest bull on the reserve and is important for herd dynamics.

I then spent two days observing the pangolin rehabilitation programme (read all about it here) and the painstakingly tedious, yet loving, work that goes into their eventual release. I witnessed the careful weighing sessions, bottle feedings and three to five-hour ant and termite foraging sessions.

One evening, the vet was called in to treat a different pangolin that had contracted pneumonia. Late at night, we all gathered round as the male pangolin was gently sedated so that blood could be drawn and tested, an antibiotic administered and his breathing closely monitored to gauge if he was strong enough to be re-released back into the wild. Thankfully he was given the all-clear and now roams Phinda freely, his traumatic experience in the illegal trade now thankfully behind him.

On my final day in conservation heaven, we took to the sky in a helicopter for Phinda’s annual aerial wildlife census. The entire count takes two days (seven hours the first day and five the next), with Simon and his team going up for two-hour sessions on rotation. During our particular two-hour slot, 150 heads of wildlife were counted as we all enjoyed the most indescribably beautiful views of this extraordinary land that has such a poignant story to tell.

So, yes, travel is indeed a form of escapism from today’s troubling world of ongoing uncertainty, but it is also a conduit for growth, compassion, learning and reconnecting, not only with ourselves, but with the earth too.

For those travellers that seek a luxurious escape that has meaning; one that will enrich their lives and our planet, I highly recommend the Phinda Impact Journey. For seven action-packed days, guests will experience an insightful and unforgettable week quite similar to, but not exactly the same as, the one I shared with Phinda’s conservation experts.

To go on safari is life-changing, but to go on a safari that also reveals an authentic glimpse into what it takes to conserve Africa’s land and wildlife is truly priceless.


Go beyond the traditional safari and witness Phinda’s expert conservation team in action.


Leaving our world a better place for years

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