Return of the Wild: In the Largest, Most Ambitious Exercise of Its Kind Ever to Be Undertaken, 8,000 Animals from 27 Mammal Species Have Been Reintroduced into Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa's North-West Province. but as Well as Returning This Former Farmland to Its Natural State, 'Operation Phoenix' Is Also Helping to Provide a Future for the Local Communities

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Flying over Madikwe Game Reserve. the ground below is a mosaic of russet, green and golden hues. vibrant in the slanted rays of the setting sun. To our right, a herd of elephants wallows in the mud on the fringe of a waterhole. As we circle the runway, a lone male giraffe gives us clearance to land, ambling off the Tarmac to nibble contentedly on the foliage of an acacia tree.

Once on the ground, I'm met by William Stephens, the proprietor of Madikwe Investments. On the way to one of his lodges, Madikwe Hills, he fills me in on the history of the 55,000-hectare reserve, which is located in South Africa's North-West province. "Prior to the reserve's establishment, this whole region consisted of degraded cattle farms that had been expropriated from white farmers," he tells me. "Under the apartheid system the farms had, in turn, displaced whole communities of tribal groups from their traditional homelands. Most of the wildlife found in the region had long since been hunted out, and the whole area was an economic backwater."

In 1991, the local government, acting on an independent feasibility study, decided that, rather than return the land to the tribal groups, their economic future would be better served by turning the area into a game reserve. The North West Parks Board--a world-renowned organisation famed for its pioneering approach to people-based wildlife conservation--was appointed to deliver a development plan in partnership with the private sector and the local communities.

The parks board's role was to manage and restock the reserve with wildlife. Lucrative leasehold agreements were used to encourage the private sector to develop lodges and infrastructure to facilitate the growth of tourism in the area. The local communities would benefit from the new jobs created and the skills learnt, and income from the leaseholds would be used by the board to finance further restocking and to set up local community projects.

Rising from the ashes

Today, as the result of a programme called 'Operation Phoenix', the venture has successfully reintroduced more than 8,000 animals from 27 mammal species--the largest exercise of its kind ever to be undertaken.

The mammals reintroduced include whole families of elephants, disease-free buffalo, black and white rhino, and most of the hoofed and ungulate species found in Southern Africa, including the valuable sable. Disease-free lions were brought in from Etosha National Park in Namibia. Their population has now tripled, and remains one of the only stocks in Africa to be free of tuberculosis and feline AIDS. So successful have they been that several animals from these prides have now been reintroduced to other conservation areas.

Cheetahs and spotted hyenas were also introduced from other parts of South Africa, while leopards and endangered brown hyenas were already present in the area, although in greatly reduced numbers. However, it was the successful reintroduction of the African wild dog, one of Africa's most charismatic and endangered predators that has brought the venture the most plaudits (see The African wild dog).

The restocking took place over a period of seven years, and initially concentrated on introducing large numbers of herbivores, particularly impala, blue wildebeest and zebra. The predators were only introduced once a viable prey base had been established.

After release, individuals from some of the more valuable species, such as elephants, lions, rhinos and sable, were radio-collared to allow their movements to be monitored and to see which parts of the reserve they were utilising.

Steven Dell was appointed field ecologist of the reserve in 2000, a year after the completion of the restocking programme. "You have to remember that the Madikwe project was an economic model designed to generate a better income for the area, and this relied on providing good game sightings to attract tourism to the area," he tells me. …