A real-life phoenix, &Beyond Phinda’s journey is a story we are most proud of. The relentless challenges faced and hard-earned victories won are poignantly documented in the emotive book The Return (1999). What started as an impossible dream went on to successfully become an important milestone in and microcosm of conservation history. Not only is Phinda now a flagship property, boasting six globally recognised and award winning luxury safari lodges, it is also a proven case study that is widely regarded as one of the world’s most ambitious and successful blueprints for international ecotourism.
Even back then, in 1999, the book refers to a group of “responsible men who wanted to make the world a better place”. Our vision remains unchanged to this day: we strive to Care for the Land, Wildlife and People through the delivery of extraordinary guest experiences. However, luxury lodges and wildlife hotspots aside, our mission is impossible without equal partnership with our neighbours, the local communities that surround our conservation areas and, at the heart of it all, our beloved guests, without whom none of this would be possible.
Every single thing, big or small, that we are able to do in order to leave our world a better place is only made possible by the fact that you choose to travel with us. For that, we are eternally grateful, and we look forward to welcoming you back, again and again.
Care of the Land
The land selected for &Beyond’s first game reserve was identified as key conservation land. Yet having endured almost a century dominated by pineapple, cattle and sisal farms, Phinda’s land had become severely overgrazed and degraded, and its naturally occurring wildlife had long since deserted the area.
With a strong conviction that this derelict land could be beautifully restored to its original splendour, it was purchased by our founders and the rest of its journey has now become conservation history. Overcoming the initial hurdles was paramount: to rehabilitate the mistreated wasteland to its natural vigour; to return the long forgotten wildlife that once roamed the area as nature intended; and, of course, to build luxury lodges that would entice wanderlust travellers from around the world, without whom our impact model would not be viable.
Care of the Wildlife
Reintroducing wildlife is not without its challenges, and no one knows this better than &Beyond Group Conservation Manager Les Carlisle. Les’ now almost 30-year career with &Beyond bears an endless string of worthy accolades and laudable victories, not to mention an impressive list of conservation firsts, many of which were accomplished during his time at &Beyond.
Positioned at the helm of this vital mission to restock Phinda’s land with its natural wildlife, Les recalls in The Return, “The first thing we had to do was get legislation in place for the establishment of a Big Five game reserve. We also had to get permission from all of our neighbours. What was most significant was that the community were the first to agree with our plans to return the wildlife. Nkosi Simon Gumede, the leader of the Makhasa Tribal Authority and the Mduku community, had far more sympathy with what we were trying to do than most of the other farmers. ‘The animals were here long before us,’ he said. ‘We should let them come back.’”
From escapee elephants, powerful pythons and disease-ridden buffalo to irate rhinos and not quite- sedated lions (including one that suddenly and very unexpectedly decided to wake up next to Les, mid-flight, in a small aircraft), each day provided its own roller-coaster of events, not to mention the occasional broken bone and bruised ego.
A natural born storyteller, Les’ tales of pioneering conservation are as comical as they are captivating. “One gets accustomed to adrenaline! On one occasion I had grabbed a darted lioness by her tail and was pulling her backwards when the whole pride of about 18 cats came rushing at us. Tony Adams [&Beyond Field & Sustainability Director] said it sounded like the start of a Grand Prix. I was more interested in keeping the lioness from turning around and biting me. Fortunately we were able to intimidate the pride long enough to get back to our Land Rover, by which time the lioness was immobilised.”
Care of the People
Wildlife encounters and translocation victories aside, the final and most crucial hurdle was to reconnect the surrounding local communities with their ancestral land. The late Nelson Mandela said it best: “Ultimately, conservation is about people. If you don’t have sustainable development around wildlife parks, then the people will have no interest in them, and the parks will not survive.” Neighbouring Zulu communities were, and continue to be, consulted in all aspects of development, ensuring that their expectations and aspirations are met in a sustainable way.
Community member Gladys Zikhali explains in The Return, “The rural communities bordering Phinda were ordinary people. They never thought that one day they could have better jobs and the opportunity for tertiary education. When Phinda started, for the most part, they did not think that changing a pineapple farm and cattle ranch into a game reserve was a good idea. “They believed that there was every chance that the dangerous game would destroy their farm stock, and perhaps even worse. We couldn’t believe that this belief would change so quickly and so easily. But this is what happened when our people started to work there.
Phinda started with bringing in the wildlife. They also promised job opportunities and training. In 1992, the establishment of the Rural Investment Fund [now Africa Foundation] opened many doors that had been closed to the communities. More and more students are given golden opportunities to further their studies in tertiary institutions.” Fast forward nearly three decades, and our social development partner, Africa Foundation, continues to work hand in hand with the rural African communities that neighbour Phinda. Through effective consultation and collaboration, with legitimate local leadership in place, these communities are empowered to enable development on a far more successful and sustainable scale. Africa Foundation has provided support to 10 high schools, 20 primary schools, one special-needs school and 15 crèches across the five communities surrounding Phinda. It has also provided support to two medical clinics in the area. Mduku Clinic, which was built by Africa Foundation, now operates 24 hours a day, servicing 6 000 patients a month, and its TB/HIV facility provides treatment for over 2 500 adults and 120 children.
“Today Phinda is considered a role model, enhancing cross-cultural understanding, changing poachers to businessmen, linking the rich with the poor, and helping to unite everyone in the environmental equation,” Gladys continues. “We, as the Phinda Committee, believe that in a successful family, as we have become, there is always a need for collective action, shared responsibility and pooling of ideas. This alone holds the key to our long-term survival.”
Returning full circle
Phinda means “the return” in Zulu, a name that has turned out to be more prophetic than once expected. Not only was the wildlife returned to the land, but a significant portion of the land has since been returned to its ancestral owners in a groundbreaking partnership between &Beyond and the neighbouring Makhasa and Mnqobokazi communities, making a marked difference in the lives of the local people.
This partnership’s been so successful that, as additional land has been handed back to the communities, they’ve continued to request that this land been incorporated in &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve, because they believe that their best financial return is gained through the use of the land for conservation tourism. Through our relationships with the local communities and our affiliation with the Mun-Ya-Wana Conservancy (a collaboration of wildlife land owners in the KwaZulu-Natal region), &Beyond Phinda has grown from 13 000 hectares to more than 28 000 hectares of pristine protected wilderness.
Mother Nature once again has the upper hand, and &Beyond Phinda remains a successful microcosm of what is possible. Not only was the habitat returned to its original state, the wildlife returned to its intended home, and the land ownership returned to its rightful owners, but the land has also been returned to conservation. Through the continued return of our guests, year in and year out, this land will be protected, conserved and loved in perpetuity. Phinda is living proof that together, we can leave our world a better place.