Staying in the game: Financing the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve

Who is the Timbavati?

In 1956, a group of visionary landowners formed the Timbavati Association to restore and conserve a large wilderness area adjacent to the now iconic Kruger National Park. Since those early pioneering days of conservation, protected areas in the Kruger Lowveld have grown dramatically. With the dropping of fences in 1993 between the Timbavati, neighbouring private nature reserves, and the Kruger National Park, a large, thriving, unfenced 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.

Photographs of the TPNR habitat team securing & maintaining the southern fence line in 2004. 2020 shows a significant investment into a secure perimeter fence upgrade to ensure wildlife and adjacent community safety.

What does it take to manage a 50 000 hectare private nature reserve?

The world has changed much since 1956. Conservation now takes place within a complex social-ecological system and gone are the days when the 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 neighbours to curb organised crime and illegal wildlife trade. Doing so is simply one of the many challenges we face.  Even as we invest huge sums 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 surrounding communities - the 2.5 million people living 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.

Whilst private nature reserves are vital pieces of the Greater Kruger landscape puzzle, 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, salaries of wardens, ecologists and other staff, conducting expensive aerial censuses to monitor animal populations, monitoring vegetation conditions, controlling alien plants and maintaining roads, fire breaks and fences, to name a few.

For 2020/21, our planned operational budget is just over R 22 million, and is broken down into five main categories, being Sustainable Utilization, Operational and Mechanical, Conservation, Administration and Headquarters, and Security. The most significant portion of our operational budget remains to be Security at around 45% of the total budget.

Some of the recent successes of our high security budget have been: the upgrade of perimeter fences, which form an important western 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, which have been entirely at the expense of the TPNR, 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 organisation (PBO) that acts as the community upliftment arm of the reserve, focusing on four main pillars of Education, Environmental & Conservation Awareness, Social Upliftment and Health Care. This annual donation contributes over 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 organisation), that does not compromise our commitment to minimising the ecological footprint and maximising conservation goals, is perhaps the ultimate test faced by many private nature reserves in the Greater Kruger today.

What is sustainable use and what do we use it for?

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

In terms of financing 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. To address imbalance, reserve management embarked on an analysis of the reserve’s financial model in 2016, revealing that the conservation levies paid by the ± 24 000 photographic tourists who visited the reserve that year was less than a third of the income earned from the 46 hunters visiting over the same period. Consequently, in January 2018 we increased the conservation fee levied on photographic tourists, with the underlying philosophy that our conservation fees should match those of the Kruger National Park. The practical result of this was increased revenue from photographic tourism without a need to increase bednight numbers, and hence human footprint. Our income budget has become better balanced in terms of the revenue that each sector brings to the reserve.

Both photographic 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 routine 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 scrutinised 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, photographic tourism activities within the reserve are also monitored and scrutinised to ensure their contribution and sustainability are balanced. The revenues earned by the reserve through conservation levies supports conservation in the open system and contributes to the well-being 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 photographic tourism and hunting are sustainable and ethical, and beneficial to a wide range of stakeholders beyond the reserve’s boundaries.

Both photographic 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 Private Nature Reserve fund itself?

With photographic tourism and hunting being two major components in the funding model of our reserve, our proposed approach for 2020 is described below.

From 1 January 2020 to 31 December 2020, the Conservation Levies for photographic tourism will be R 400.00 per person per night. This increase is in line with the increases applied by the Kruger National Park for its entrance fees, and will provide the necessary revenue for the reserve while keeping our tourism footprint at ecologically sustainable levels.  The projected contribution to the Timbavati’s income budget 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.

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

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

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

The culling programme represents over 95% of the reserve’s hunting quota request and includes animals to be removed by Timbavati management (1 000 animals – Table 3), as well as those to be removed by landowners within the reserve (385 animals – Table 2). Culling programmes are costly and time-consuming but are essential for the continued health of the reserve, and culling decisions are informed by annual vegetation condition studies.

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

Overall then, the income budget of the Timbavati for 2020 will come from member contributions, photographic 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 being 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 protected area, and sharing of socio-economic benefits, through continued support of our neighbouring communities, ensuring that they form part of the wildlife economy. We will be an enthusiastic implementer of best practice 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 neighbouring 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 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 our time, funding, passion and expertise into the irreplaceable wilderness landscape of our own reserve and the larger protected area network.