Expanding into sustainability

The Dinokeng Game Reserve is coming into its own

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Gauteng is famous as South Africa’s bustling commercial and industrial hub, but its wildlife attractions are less well known. This is set to change rapidly as Big Five game reserves like Dinokeng come into their own.

The Greater Dinokeng Area is located to the north east of Tshwane, bordered in the south by the N4 and in the west by the N1. It consists of the Dinokeng Game Reserve, Roodeplaat Dam area, Cullinan and Dinokeng central. The 18 500 Ha Dinokeng Game Reserve is located to the immediate east of Hamanskraal. The Roodeplaat Dam is located to the immediate north east of Pretoria. Cullinan is 52km to the east by north east of Church Square. Dinokeng Central is located in the middle of the other three hubs, and completes the total 240 000Ha spanned by the total area.

“The Dinokeng Game Reserve (DGR) is steadily growing in popularity as it becomes better known,” comments Advocate John Nesidoni.

“The DGR is located 87 km from OR Tambo Airport, so some visitors are totally taken aback by its proximity to the large urban centres of Gauteng. Most of the feedback has been remarkably positive, but purists would say that the DGR is not completely pristine. On the other hand, the roads and infrastructure make the journey to the DGR from the Witwatersrand or central Tshwane very quick and pleasant.”

The transition from the urban zone to the bush is abrupt: “The two western gates are extremely close to Hamanskraal, so one minute you are in a fairly crowded urban space and the next minute you could be looking at zebras, wildebeest or even elephants,” says Adv. Nesidoni. “Entering from the east, the contrast is not nearly as stark, as there are small conservatories that border on the DGR and more natural surrounds. Hopefully, these will be incorporated with the reserve with the future expansion of the DGR.”

Proximity to the city has its limits–maintaining an authentic wildlife and bush experience is a key challenge of the DGR, admits Adv. Nesidoni, adding that smallhold homesteads are still fenced off within a few parts of the park, and the self-drive route still passes through areas that contain exotic vegetation such as poplars and eucalyptus which have yet to be eradicated. “The park is being managed to constantly reduce these and work towards a more pristine and natural-looking reserve,” he says, observing that the management authority is following the guidelines of an approved environmental management plan.

According to Adv. Nesidoni, the introduction of the Big Five stems from a 1990s Gauteng Province study of the Dinokeng area which identified the DGR area as more viable and productive as a game reserve than for the continuation of cattle farming, which had been the dominant activity in the area up until that point.

“The study found that more jobs would be created through tourism than through farming,” he says. “A critical mass of land owners supporting the creation of the DGR was established and an 18 500 ha start-up space was identified and fenced off with game fencing, with most internal fences removed. The DGR was officially opened in 2011 with much emphasis on the recently introduced Big 5 animals.”

Not that the area was completely devoid of wildlife–Adv, Nesidoni points out that leopards naturally occurred in the area at fairly low densities, and there was at least one release of a recuperating leopard which had been operated on for injuries in 2010. Brown Hyena were also naturally present.

Lions were introduced from Welgevonden Game Reserve, Pilansberg Game Reserve, Madikwe Game Reserve and Tembe Elephant Park between 2011 and 2014. All lion groups contained at least one animal with a tracking collar and over time these lions established themselves into prides and territories which are now fairly consistent.

Elephants were introduced from Makalali in 2011. Buffalo sourced from four different areas were released in 2012. White Rhino were introduced to the DGR in 2009 and thereafter. Cheetah were introduced since 2012 and have since bred successfully. Black Rhino were released in 2017. Spotted Hyena were introduced this year.

Maintaining the balance of nature in an artificially resuscitated reserve demands a certain amount of management, although a minimalist touch is preferred. Adv. Nesidoni explains: “Extensive established populations of plain’s game support the carnivores and whilst management interventions have successfully been kept to a minimum, a critical area of 40 000 Ha, which will be reached in the next phase of boundary expansion, is considered the smallest size for low-level management intervention.

“Carnivores are completely free-roaming, and minimally managed. They live and hunt on the plain’s game in the reserve. Lion populations are deliberately managed to keep prides small and hopefully prevent them from attacking buffalo, as disease-free buffalo have become quite valuable.

“Herbivore populations are regulated by predation pressure and by resource harvesting strategies of the management authority to remain within the carrying capacity of the available habitat.

Unlike some of South Africa’s big names, the DGR enjoys malaria-free status. “Malaria-free game reserves are attractive to tourists, as malaria is a serious disease that still kills many people in Africa and around the world,” Adv. Nesidoni points out. “The pathogens of malaria are Plasmodium species, most frequently Plasmodium falciparum, and the vector is the female Anopheles mosquito. Both disease and host generally only occur in the low-lying eastern portions of South Africa. So malaria is associated with some of the famous game reserves of South Africa such as the Kruger National Park, Hluhluwe, Umfolozi, Mkhuze and Ndumu. In the Dinokeng Game Reserve the altitude is between 1100 and 1200 metres above sea level, so malaria is exceptionally unlikely to non-existent.”

With the city so close by, the last thing you need is another traffic jam. Thankfully, the DGR’s Mongena Lodge offers an experience that is closer to nature.

“Mongena is one of the larger lodges in the Dinokeng Game Reserve, but the experience there is much more similar to that at the Sabi Sands or Madikwe than the Kruger National Park in that you are not allowed to self-drive when you are staying at Mongena Lodge,” clarifies Adv. Nesidoni. “Like these parks, you are taken around by very professional and experienced guides who are linked by radio to other guides and are much more likely than a self-driving guest to locate Big-5 animals and other interesting sightings.”

That said, the DGR offers a wide variety of other lodges to suit all pockets, as well as a popular self-drive route.

Before the DGR can become environmentally sustainable, it has to grow. “Sustainability has two legs–environmental and economic,” Adv. Nesidoni asserts. “The level of both is critically dependent on the size of the reserve. Experts have suggested that the DGR will reach an acceptable level of environmental viability when it reaches 40 000 Ha, which is the planned size after the next phase of expansion of the park boundary.”

He adds that expanded borders will also bring in more revenue and create more jobs at a rate proportional to the size of the reserve or more – increasing the local communities’ already substantial stake in the DGR’s success.

“The reserve has already created an income for over 600 people from local communities surrounding the reserve,” says Adv. Nesidoni.

A representative structure for local communities was launched in 2017. The Management Authority of the DGR is guided by a constitution that binds all stakeholders to common goals. The adjacent communities have representative votes at the Annual General meeting.

Successfully negotiating the complexities of reserve expansion, wildlife management and stakeholder engagement is part of the reward of working at the DGR. In the words of David Boshoff, General Manager of the Dinokeng Game Reserve: “It’s a great privilege to fulfil the deeply seated desire to work in a natural area and make this space available to the general public. It is hard to manage the collective decision-making process, but the growth and development of the space makes it very rewarding.”

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