SOUTH Africa could be a world leader in eco- tourism but the state and private wildlife sectors needed to work together on conservation principles, and avoid turning species solely into money-making commodities.
That was the message from two of the key speakers at the Absa Wildlife Conference in Port Elizabeth yesterday.
SANParks development and planning chief Dr Mike Knight stressed government conservation agencies needed the support of private game farmers to ensure adequate protection of wildlife and natural habitat.
But the focus of many private landowners on exotic species, and specially bred animals with unnatural characteristics was completely counter to the ethos and goals of SANParks, he said.
"When you bring in species from other parts – what are we doing to our wildlife? The danger is the integrity of ... our local wildlife gene pool can be compromised.”
Breeding copper wildebeest might be good news for some game farmers "as long as the bubble lasts”, he said.
"But with the breeding of a recessive gene like this you’re going down the animal husbandry route.
"This is the same thinking that will give us small rhinos with huge horns – because there is reluctance to pay to sustain a large animal, but at the same time you want the horn to sell. It becomes just about money making.”
The protection of species which had evolved naturally was key, he said.
"A copper wildebeest is just a sheep by another name.”
To help rhinos, the authorities needed to assist reserves where these animals were being protected in their natural circumstances and environment, he said.
"We need to incentivise these [game farmers] and this will in turn encourage more people to put land aside for this reason [for rhinos].”
Given the argument from the private game farming sector that it needed to go for exotic animals to meet commercial demand, Knight said bridging finance could be a key catalyst for good practice.
"Bridging finance can allow you guys [game farmers] to channel your husbandry operations into an enclosure on your farm while turning over the rest to conservation principles.
"That way, we can create conservation corridors and avoid fragmentation, and we’re both happy.”
State conservation agencies needed in turn to be "more adaptive”, he said.
"It’s about thinking of the kids of the future, and their heritage.”
Shamwari conservation head Dr Johan Joubert said eco-tourism in the Eastern Cape, like elsewhere in South Africa, was facing serious challenges ranging from the international economic downturn and the issue of being a long-haul destination, to poaching – but the potential was enormous.
"As private reserves, we need to consolidate and take down our fences.”
The employment and training achievements in the sector were considerable and well-documented, but further attention to these initiatives was needed, he said.
"We need to follow through on the social side and ensure that our training programmes are resulting in managerial appointments. We need to make sure we listen to what the community needs.”
A further step might be to consider the implementation of the Kenya co-habitation model, which had made it possible for communities to build eco-tourism lodges in return for reducing their cattle herds, he said.
As part of the battle to capture good market share of the eco-tourism pie, South African reserves needed to "do things differently”. With this in mind, tented camps were now taking over from the traditional "African thatch” lodge, and there was a move towards focusing on interesting plants and animals rather than just the Big Five.
From initial suspicion about the private game reserve and eco-tourism model, Land Reform and Rural Development Minister Gugile Nkwinti was now supportive of it, he noted.
On rhino poaching, Joubert said the best remedy was simple. "We need scouts on the ground. Awareness is one thing – but I sometimes wonder if we’re going to carry on growing awareness until no rhino are left.”