Sundowners on the Plains of Camdeboo

Restoring nature in Samara Karoo Reserve in South Africa

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Holly Tuppen
Holly Tuppen

Samara Karoo Reserve is a 67,000-acre rewilding project in South Africa’s epic but lesser-visited semi-arid Great Karoo region. Home to endemic flora and fauna, an amphitheatre of mountains, and several endangered species, including black rhinos and the Cape Mountain zebra, it’s a conservation success story that offers visitors incredible wildlife experiences and hope.

Here, we speak with mother-daughter team, Sarah and Isabelle Tompkins, founders of Samara and thought leaders in rewilding in South Africa, about their vision and mission.

Sarah, tell us a little about how Samara Karoo Reserve has evolved since you bought it in the late 1990s.

Our journey started about 25 years ago when we knew nothing about conservation but went to a region called the Great Karoo, fell in love with the landscape, and put together 11 farms creating a continuous 67,000-acre landscape. Then we thought, what now? My husband believes science should drive everything in life, so we consulted two of the most eminent conservation ecologists and zoologists in South Africa, Professor Graham Kerley and the late Dr Andre Boshoff.

Children of all ages are welcome at Samara

They told us that we had colossal biodiversity — five of South Africa’s nine biomes – yet in 1997, the land had been quite obviously degraded from decades of intensive livestock farming. There was no wildlife to speak of. We set about changing that, turning back the clock so that herds of antelope and predators would return, recreating the conditions for total landscape restoration.

We had to start small, removing livestock and taking down fences. Gradually, the flora began to return and then the herbivores. Today, we have over 20 antelope species on the reserve. With grazers and browsers in place, we could start to think about predators, and in 2003, we brought cheetahs to the area for the first time in 130 years. Sixteen years later, we reintroduced lions. Today, the leopard and the Cape vulture have even returned of their own accord.

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“We’re delighted to have witnessed the reintroduction of the first cheetah in 130 years, the first elephant in 150 years, and the first lion in 180 years.”
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Sarah Tompkins
Samara Karoo Reserve

Isabelle, what are the benefits of the predators, besides being species people want to come and see?

It’s incredible how much these apex predators change a landscape and ecosystem. Nature works in ways we don’t always understand, so it’s necessary sometimes to sit back and let it unfold. For example, since we have reintroduced lions, wildebeest are reproducing at a faster rate, and we think it may be because the lions are preying on their young. The presence of these predators also means we have more carcasses for species like jackals and vultures to feed on. As a result, jackals are becoming scavengers again, instead of hunting springbok lambs. This has undoubtedly boosted our springbok populations too.

Unexpectedly, the reintroduction of cheetahs has had a ripple effect across South Africa. Samara’s cheetah population is now so robust that we periodically translocate individuals to other reserves, National Parks, and other countries in Africa, helping to boost the genetic diversity of the species across the country. Our first cheetah to arrive on the reserve in 2003 contributed almost 3 per cent of South Africa’s total cheetah population through her various offspring. Samara is considered in the Top 3 most successful cheetah reserves in South Africa according to the Endangered Wildlife Trust.

Samara is famous for its excellent cheetah viewing

Isabelle, where does tourism fit into this vision?

Early on, we realised we were talking to these scientists and mapping the landscape and planning rewilding but asked ourselves, what are we doing for the community? What is the social benefit of Samara? That’s when it was suggested that we look into ecotourism.

We now have two lodges, Karoo Lodge and The Manor, that welcome up to 26 guests at a time to enjoy a variety of experiences, including cheetah tracking, walking safaris, and the chance to camp out under the stars.

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“We infuse the rewilding project into everything guests experience — we want people to go away having learnt something and maybe to see the world a little differently.”
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Isabelle Tompkins
Samara Karoo Reserve

By working with nature-led travel organisation, The Long Run, we’re embedding sustainability into everything we do using the 4C framework — a holistic balance of Conservation, Community, Culture and Commerce. We hope that we’ve helped to put the Great Karoo a little more on the tourist map, as well.

Funds from tourism go back to the conservation initiatives and help support the local community via employment and outreach projects — either directly in the lodges or indirectly via our supply chain.

Isabelle, you recently changed the reserve’s name. Could you tell us why?

We recently changed our name from Samara Private Game Reserve to Samara Karoo Reserve to reflect the fact that The Great Karoo is an irreplicable part of our natural heritage. In honouring and celebrating this region, and by adding the word ‘Karoo’ to our name, we hope to bring this special place to a broader audience and to inspire others to care for it.

Samara Karoo Reserve in South Africa

Sarah, what’s next for Samara?

We’re part of a much bigger conservation picture, so we’re now looking at more extensive landscape restoration beyond Samara’s boundaries. We are part of a vision linking three neighbouring national parks — the Camdeboo National Park, the Mountain Zebra National Park and the Addo Elephant National Park— to create space for wildlife spanning several million acres all the way from the Karoo down to the sea. This would open historical migratory routes to become one of South Africa’s largest mega-reserves in a Global Biodiversity Hotspot. It may seem like a huge vision to aspire to, but as my daughter Isabelle often says, given the crises the world is facing, we don’t have the luxury not to be ambitious anymore.

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