Fortress conservation: The private game reserve of Londolozi

Shortly after he was released from 27 years in prison in 1990, Nelson Mandela visited the Londolozi game reserve in eastern South Africa.

Mandela approved. In a preface to a book by Shan Varty, he wrote:

“During my long walk to freedom, I had the rare privilege to visit Londolozi. There I saw people of all races living in harmony amidst the beauty that Mother Nature offers. There I saw a living lion in the wild.
Londolozi represents a model of the dream I cherish for the future of nature preservation in our country.”

Shan Varty is part of the family that created what is today the Londolozi game reserve.  

From hunting to eco-tourism

Charles Varty bought the land in 1926 and invited the world’s aristocracy to shoot big game. Teddy Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway and John Huston went on safari there.

In 1969, John, Dave and Shan Varty inherited the land and converted it to a game reserve. Hunting was stopped. The Vartys renamed it Londolozi, which is the Zulu word for protector of all things.

Londolozi covers 14,000 hectares in the private Sabi Sand reserve bordering the Kruger National Park. When Mandela visited Londolozi, Dave Varty used the opportunity to lobby for the removal of fences between South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, to allow wildlife to move freely.

Today, Londolozi is part of the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park, that covers 3.7 million hectares in South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

Elephants, buffalo, leopards, lions and rhinoceroses live in Londolozi. They are the attraction for eco-tourists. Wealthy eco-tourists, that is.

Londolozi has five luxury lodges. The cheapest rate is US$810 per person per night. If you fancy splashing out, you can stay in the Private Granite Suites, which will set you back US$1,454 per night.

Varty’s conservation philosophy

In 1991, Dave Varty decided to expand what had become a successful business operation. He founded the Conservation Corporation Africa (now called &Beyond) When Varty left the organisation in 2007, it was running more than 40 lodges in six countries.

In a promotional video about Londolozi, Varty explains that,

Londolozi is the original game lodge that inspired many others. Certainly that’s unchangeable. And I think the new objective would be to be an example to the world, that we have to now begin to adopt a new way, one that has much more reverence for wildlife, much less consumerism, simplicity, and a much lighter footprint on the earth.

Needless to say, Varty doesn’t explain how his high-paying eco-tourists are supposed to have a lighter footprint on the earth when they fly into South Africa to visit Londolozi.

The Londolozi reserve is surrounded by a high fence.


Which is fully in keeping with Varty’s philosophy of conservation:

Conservation of animals worldwide is a function of one simple thing. Space. If you examine any animal that is in trouble, on the planet today, it’s real simple. Their home range has been taken. In an African context we are adding to the Southern African region 60.4 million hectares of land back to wildlife or to indigenous landscapes.

Varty doesn’t just rely on the fence to keep people out of Londolozi. Varty is working with Dimension Data and Cisco to set up what they call “Connected Conservation”.

It’s basically a massive high-tech security operation. “Can technology transform the way we think about conservation?” asks the promotional video.

Varty explains what the system does:

They are giving us eyes on our fence lines. If anyone touches the fence, they immediately give eyes to our response teams, and out helicopter. Instantly. And they gives eyes to our screens and control rooms. You can imagine on a park this size, that is just unbelievable. And they give it instantly and rapidly.
We said we need early warning of someone human coming into the park. That’s where we want to be. We don’t want to spend our time wrestling the rhino. Leave him or her alone to go and do what they do which is to roam freely and not be stressed, or darted, or tagged, or marked.

And here’s what the helicopter response team looks like:


Wildlife inside the fence. Poverty outside

When Joanne O’Connor, a travel journalist at The Guardian, visited Londolozi in 2007, Varty took her to the fence surrounding his land. He said,

“On one side of this fence you’ve got the most successful game lodges in the world. On the other side you’ve got human devastation on an enormous scale. You can’t have a game reserve located in a sea of poverty. People need to benefit from the wildlife.”

Three years later, Graham Boynton, a travel journalist at The Telegraph visited Londolozi. Here’s how he described the communities around the game reserve:

There are five dirt-poor villages with some 40,000 people living in this hardscrabble landscape, and to say that their existence is subsistence almost understates the case. The men are away in the cities earning money; there is nothing here for the women and children.

Varty told Boynton that he believes that, “wildlife tourism can help the translocation of these communities into more viable rural towns”.

Over a drink on the evening of Boynton’s last night at Londolozi, Varty explained what he thought needs to be done:

We Africans have to tell people like Sir Richard Branson and Bono what it is exactly we need here. We don’t want a school to be built here – we want you to pay for 300 miles of fence and you can tell the world that Virgin built the Sir Richard Branson Fence.

Richard Branson owns the Ulusaba Private Game Reserve, also in the Sabi Sand Private Game Reserve.

From there, Varty moved on to South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma:

“I’m not going to build a school here, Mr Zuma. No, let’s build one at Thulamahashe or at Bushbuck Ridge [towns a few dozen kilometres west of Londolozi]. Let’s put up proper housing, proper towns. There is nothing for people in these semi-arid, low-rainfall areas. This is for wild animals. Don’t put any more bricks and mortar on this thing.”

It’s difficult to imagine Mandela approving of this.

Between 1989 and 1926, the Tsonga people who used to live where the Varty family now runs its eco-tourism business, were evicted by British Colonialists between 1898 and 1926. They were resettled in Bushbuckridge.

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