Staying in the Game – Financing the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve


This 64-year-old reserve along the western edge of The Kruger National Park has developed a successful and sustainable wildlife-driven business model. It has never been easy.

In 1956, a group of visionary landowners formed the Timbavati Association to restore and conserve a large wilderness area adjacent to South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Since those pioneering days of conservation, protected areas in the Kruger lowveld have grown dramatically. With the dropping of fences in 1993 between the Timbavati, neighboring private nature reserves and the Kruger National Park, a large, thriving, unfenced yet protected space was created that now forms part of the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area (GLTFCA). Today, the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve (TPNR) is one of the flagship private nature reserves in the Greater Kruger and we take great pride in managing a unique and thriving wilderness area.

The TPNR habitat team maintaining the southern fence line in 2004; 2020 shows a significant investment in perimeter-fence upgrade to ensure the safety of wildlife and the adjacent community.

The TPNR habitat team maintaining the southern fence line in 2004; 2020 shows a significant investment in perimeter-fence upgrade to ensure the safety of wildlife and the adjacent community.

 

Managing 50,000 ha (123,600 acres) of private reserve

The world has changed much since 1956. Conservation now takes place within a complex socio-ecological system and gone are the days when outside influences could simply be “fenced out.” The complexities—and costs—of managing a large private nature reserve increase daily. A good example is the far-reaching and well-known impact of rhino poaching in our area. Every day we work with our neighbors to curb organized crime and illegal wildlife trade. Doing so is simply one of the many challenges we face. Even as we invest huge amounts of time and money to keep criminals out of our system, we engage in a number of outreach activities to better link and integrate the Greater Kruger protected area with our surrounding communities—the 2.5 million people who live along Kruger’s western boundary—in ways that promote human wellbeing and ecological sustainability.

These are the big-picture issues in our landscape—finding innovative ways to help local communities derive income from wildlife activities, growing the social and economic relevance of wilderness spaces in their lives, and joining hands across fences and boundaries to slow down rampant illegal practices in wilderness areas.

While private nature reserves are vital pieces of the Greater Kruger landscape, it is not commonly known that private reserves receive no government funding. All income is generated by the reserves themselves and typically goes towards the costs of anti-poaching, the salaries of wardens, ecologists and other staff, conducting expensive aerial censuses to monitor animal populations, monitoring vegetation and controlling alien plants, and maintaining roads, fire breaks and fences, to name a few of our expenses.

For 2020-21, our operational budget is just over R22 million ($1.26 million) and is broken down into five main categories: Sustainable Utilization, Operational & Mechanical, Conservation, Administration & Headquarters and Security. Security remains the most significant portion of our operational budget, at around 45% of the total.

Some of the recent successes of our high security budget have been: the upgrade of perimeter fences, which help us form an important buffer to the Kruger National Park; the employment of more field rangers and Operations Room staff to help protect rhinos and to reduce wildlife crime; and the implementation of various forms of technology as early warning systems to reduce incursions and poaching-related activities. The increased “boots on the ground” and the early warning systems, entirely at our expense, have been implemented along the western and southern boundaries of land managed by the Kruger National Park.

 

In addition to covering operational expenses, the TPNR donates 10% of its annual revenue to the Timbavati Foundation, a public benefit organization that acts as the community upliftment arm of the reserve, focusing on four main pillars: Education, Environmental & Conservation Awareness, Social Upliftment and Health Care. This annual donation contributes more that 70% of the annual operating costs of the Timbavati Foundation.

 

Given the ever-escalating importance and cost of “staying in the game,” finding a sustainable funding model (as a non-profit organization), one that does not compromise our commitment to minimizing the ecological footprint and maximizing conservation goals, is perhaps the ultimate test faced by many private nature reserves in the Greater Kruger today.

Sustainable use and what it means to TPNR

Our reserve is built on the principles of sustainable use, which in simple terms means that we use nature’s resources—in physical or aesthetic form—in a manner that is ethically defendable, ecologically sustainable and economically viable. Sustainable utilization therefore includes activities such as photographic and hunting safari tourism, our annual impala cull to ease grazing pressure on the ecosystem, water-resource use and the harvesting of wood and sand from the natural landscape.

To finance the management of the reserve, we rely primarily on photographic tourism and hunting. The latter has a much lighter landscape footprint and yields far more revenue per capita for the reserve than the former.

Management analyzed the reserve’s financial model in 2016. This revealed that the conservation levies paid by the approximately 24,000 photographic tourists who visited the reserve that year were less than a third of the income earned from the 46 hunters who visited over the same period. Consequently, in January 2018 we increased the conservation fee levied on photo tourists so that our conservation fees should match those of the Kruger National Park. The practical result of this was more revenue from photo tourism without the need to increase bed-nights, and hence our human footprint. Our income has become better balanced in the revenue that each sector brings to the reserve.

Both photo tourism and hunting rely on sound reserve management enabling a healthy ecosystem, which supports stable plant and animal populations. We monitor wildlife populations closely through annual aerial censuses and conduct annual vegetation assessments to determine veld condition. The reserve is fortunate to have accurate data spanning more than two decades, and our data shows that the total animal population in Timbavati continues to grow. This includes elephant, whose numbers are declining in other areas around Africa.

 

Every year, our hunting application is scrutinized, and conservation authorities consider ecological sustainability, the contribution that hunting will make to the running costs of our reserve and, importantly, how the hunting revenue will support conservation in the open system, beyond the boundaries of just our own reserve. Kruger National Park, Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency (MTPA), Limpopo Department of Economic Development, Environment and Tourism (LEDET) and various specialists are part of review and approval process. Not a single hunt takes place without an in-depth review of census data and other ecological specialist studies.

Similarly, photo tourism activities within the reserve also are monitored and scrutinized to ensure their contribution and sustainability are balanced. The revenues earned by the reserve through conservation levies supports conservation in the open, larger system and contribute to the wellbeing of the communities in which the reserve operates.

In 2018, the protocols that govern sustainable hunting in the open system were revised and standardized. We implement the Greater Kruger Hunting Protocol and we actively participate in the implementation of the Responsible Tourism Best Practice Toolkit for the Greater Kruger. We are proud to be part of these multi-sector initiatives to ensure that both photo tourism and hunting are sustainable and ethical, and beneficial to a wide range of stakeholders beyond our boundaries.

Both photo tourism and hunting are compatible funding practices and we call on all our Greater Kruger partners to work together to govern these activities with integrity and careful oversight. We continue to call on the media and the public at large to take a landscape-level view when appraising the management practices of private reserves. We need to cooperate better, put aside differences and work together to prevent fragmentation of an integrated and sustainable Greater Kruger. Private nature reserves are essential elements in the integration of wilderness spaces within the bigger system.

How does the Timbavati fund itself?

With photo tourism and hunting being two major components in the funding model of our reserve, our proposed approach for 2020 follows:

From 1 January to 31 December 2020, the conservation levies for photo tourism will increase to R400 ($23) per person per night. This is in line with the increases applied by the Kruger for its entrance fees and will provide necessary revenue for us while keeping our tourism footprint at ecologically sustainable levels. The projected contribution to the Timbavati’s income from conservation levies for 2020 will be just over 62%, with estimated photographic visitor numbers of around 21,700 for the year.

In addition to this, the tables below show the proposed hunting quotas for 2020 that Timbavati is submitting for approval by the authorities. Some important points are highlighted below with regards to the figures in these tables.

Table 1 shows the animals allocated to be sold as hunts to raise revenue for the reserve. Revenue earned from two of the buffalo will be donated to our local communities. In this way, closer links are forged with the reserve’s neighbors who share the Greater Kruger landscape.

Those animals allocated for non-commercial hunts, in Table 2, do not raise revenue for the reserve. In the case of impala, hunting is used for population control.

The 1,000 impalas to be hunted, in Table 3 above, are part of the reserve’s management program deemed necessary to reduce the impact impala have on grazing and hence to other herbivores.

The culling program represents more than 95% of the reserve’s hunting quota request and includes animals to be removed by Timbavati management (Table 3) as well as those to be removed by landowners within the reserve (Table 2). Culling programs are costly and time-consuming but essential for the continued health of the reserve, and culling decisions are informed by annual vegetation condition studies.

The above figures represent around 20 safari hunters visiting the Timbavati during 2020, with less than 0.65% of the Timbavati’s total animal population allocated for commercial hunting. In 2020, the budgeted income from hunting will represent approximately 20% of the reserve’s total income.

Overall then, the income of the Timbavati for 2020 will come from member-landowner contributions, photo-tourism conservation levies and limited hunting. The hunting and member contributions are balanced and make up around 38% of the budget, with the rest of the income brought in through the conservation levies.

What lies ahead in the new decade?

The TPNR will continue to implement the GLTFCA’s uniform framework for the protection and management of our reserve and sharing of socio-economic benefits through continuing support of our neighboring communities, ensuring that they form part of the wildlife economy. We will be an enthusiastic implementer of best practices in all forms of protected-area management, whether through responsible resource use, management of endangered species, eradication of alien plants or enabling sustainable tourism.

We further look forward to lending a helping hand to neighboring private nature reserves as well as the Kruger National Park through the continued implementation of security initiatives and the use of technology. The Timbavati remains an important buffer to the Kruger National Park, with field rangers and security managers spending countless hours in trying conditions to ensure that we keep our combined reserves’ wildlife protected.

In conclusion, being a responsible conservation partner in the Greater Kruger requires not just commitment, but also time and money. The Timbavati remains—since 1956—committed to investing time, funding, passion and expertise into the irreplaceable wilderness landscape of our own reserve and the larger protected area network.

From Timbavati.co.za, with permission; written before COVID-19 slashed tourism around the world. Contact the management authority at: Telephone +27 15 793 2436, Email info@timbavati.co.za, Facebook @timbavatiprivatenaturereserve.