Located in the sweeping landscape of South Africa’s Great Karoo, you will find Samara Private Game Reserve. Offering more than your traditional Big 5 safari, Samara takes pride in creating a more meaningful experience for safari-goers with a particular focus on cheetah conservation. The reserve was once home to the largest land-based migrations on earth, as well as the mighty black-maned Cape lion, desert-adapted black rhinoceros and even wild dog which slowly disappeared when livestock farmers moved into the area. A frontrunner in conservation, Samara has always held one vision – the vision to rewild the Karoo and restore its unique ecosystem to its former glory.
In an effort to raise awareness around cheetah conservation in Africa, Jumbari Family Safaris launched a 10-day South African Cheetah Safari, bringing awareness not only to the plight of Africa’s most endangered Big Cat, but how travelers can make a difference when on safari. The conservation-focussed itinerary takes families into the heart of the Great Karoo to Samara Private Game Reserve to track wild cheetahs on foot and learn about their Cheetah Conservation Program. We caught up with Isabelle Tompkins, daughter of founders Mark and Sarah Tompkins, to find out more about their ethos of conservation and what they have planned for the future.
My parents started Samara when I was five years old, so I have been involved in the story since the beginning, but I only started working for Samara full-time 4 years ago. I am passionate about conservation and the need for business to be a powerful positive force for change. I was inspired to join the family business because it would provide the platform to really make a difference in an area that is very close to my heart. Technically-speaking, my job description is marketing, sales and business development, but I also play an active strategic role in Samara’s ‘bigger picture’ – that is, our greater conservation vision of rewilding the reserve’s 67,000 acres and linking together 3 national parks surrounding it. This means that I also help write wildlife management plans, project-manage wildlife reintroductions and develop strategies for collaborative conservation.
Samara is first and foremost a conservation journey to rewild a spectacular part of South Africa. The tourism element happened almost by accident, as a way to make the project viable, create employment in the surrounding communities and raise awareness of the Great Karoo. In the intervening years we have been humbled by how many guests have chosen to join us in fulfilling this dream. From the very beginning we have sought to offer guests a holiday with meaning, more than a cookie-cutter safari lodge or a ‘Ferrari safari’. Our aim is for guests to feel the magic of what we feel at Samara every day and to understand the hard work that goes into conservation.
Samara has rehabilitated 67,000 acres across 11 former livestock farms in a relatively unknown part of South Africa called the Great Karoo. This was an area that once witnessed one of the largest land-based migrations on Earth, the springbok migration, and was home to diverse wildlife, from the mighty black-maned Cape lion to desert-adapted black rhinoceros and even wild dog. Our aim is to rewild this landscape to its former glory, recreating a fully-functioning Great Karoo ecosystem.
Some significant conservation successes on this journey have included reintroducing the first lion, elephant, cheetah and black rhino in the area in over a century; opening the first government-accredited Tracker Academy in the country; working to establish a water catchment conservancy within our watersheds; and initiating a Spekboom planting project for carbon sequestration and soil erosion control. My favourite success story has been the return of the Cape Vulture of their own accord – the fact that these birds have returned without human intervention indicates that profound positive changes are taking place in Samara’s ecosystems to make them viable for these endangered birds once more.
Sibella was the first cheetah reintroduced to Samara, and the region, in 125 years. She was born a wild cheetah in the North West province. As a young adult, she was attacked by hunters and their dogs, suspected of preying on livestock. Many farmers still view cheetahs as vermin in parts of the country where they still roam freely across farmland. The dogs ripped at her back legs, shredding her tendons, and a rope was roughly shoved in her mouth. Lying at death’s door, she was only eventually rescued because a local wildlife NGO was offering a monetary reward for any cheetahs that were handed in to them alive rather than dead – and the farmer’s wife wanted to renovate her kitchen. The NGO, the De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Trust run by Ann van Dyk, rescued Sibella that day and she spent 5 hours on the operating table in an attempt to save her life. Months of rehabilitation later, and she was ready for a new home.
Enter Samara. We had spent a good few years resting the land, having removed the sheep, goats and cattle that had overgrazed many sections. We had slowly begun to bring back the fauna that had once occurred there, from zebra to eland and springbok, and it was the natural next step to restore large predators to this ecosystem. And so Sibella came to Samara, and there began our love affair with cheetahs. She lived to the ripe age of 14 years and had 4 litters during her lifetime, contributing 19 cubs to the meta-population. Most touchingly, despite having been so badly treated at the hands of man, she exhibited an incredible degree of trust in the humans at Samara, allowing herself and her cubs to be tracked on foot to within a respectful distance. She became known around the world for her journey, “from tortured to treasured”. So moving is her story that it has been made into a film broadcast worldwide by Nat Geo WILD, “The Miracle Cheetah”.
Today, Samara is home to Sibella’s last daughter from her last litter, as well as several of this female’s adult cubs and unrelated male cheetah. We are constantly working with the Endangered Wildlife Trust to swap genetics by translocating cheetahs to and from Samara, but we keep Sibella’s female descendants on the reserve as a tribute to the cheetah that started it all.
Tracking cheetah on foot is certainly an activity that every Samara guest should experience. It is not a dedicated activity per se, but rather happens during game drives when the conditions and terrain are right. Samara’s cheetahs are habituated to seeing people on foot as well as on a vehicle, so they allow us to observe them on their level. It is a truly humbling experience to see Africa’s most endangered Big Cat living in their wild environment. Some of the cheetahs have radio telemetry collars for monitoring and research purposes, as Samara’s topography is quite mountainous. Their general location is estimated with the aid of this technology, and then the trackers, graduates of the SA College for Tourism Tracker Academy which is based at Samara, look for signs of cheetah presence. This could include spoor (footprints), dung, scratch marks on trees, hair, etc. Then the guide, tracker and guests track the cheetah at a respectful distance, always with safety front of mind. The activity can last between a few minutes and half an hour, depending on the animal’s behaviour, mobility and the fitness level of guests! Some have been lucky enough to witness a female cheetah teaching her cubs to hunt warthog during a tracking experience. Children must be 8 years or above to participate, as the walks take place in areas where lion, black rhino, elephant and buffalo may be present.
Every guest that stays at Samara helps us to achieve our conservation vision simply by choosing to support us. For those who seek to make a more active contribution, we offer a variety of activities, from Spekboom planting to combat soil erosion where each guest receives their own to plant, to land rehabilitation, wildlife monitoring, research assistance and wildlife reintroductions. We truly believe that showcasing the “behind-the-scenes” of running a game reserve is key to facilitating an understanding of the hard work and innumerable rewards of preserving our precious ecosystems.
Should guests prefer to make a financial contribution, they can donate to the Friends of Samara Charitable Trust, a registered non-profit organisation.
This year we will be translocating some of the young adult cubs to other reserves to improve their gene pools and increase their populations. This is something we have to do every few years once the cubs become independent of their mother. In a wild, open system, this migration would happen naturally, but in fenced areas human intervention is essential. Last year, Samara donated a female cheetah for translocation to Majete Wildlife Reserve in Malawi, in association with the Endangered Wildlife Trust and African Parks, to bring cheetahs back there for the first time in 30 years.
In other wildlife news, 2020 will see the start of our brown hyena reintroduction project to restore the ecosystem function of scavenging. Now that Samara has established populations of both cheetah and lion, there is much more carrion in the veld in the form of kills and carcasses, so bringing back a scavenging species is the next logical step. We are very excited!
Get in touch with our expert consultants at Jumbari who will help you curate your cheetah conservation safari with Samara Private Game Reserve.