Driving across Samara, a 70,000-acre private game reserve in South Africa’s Karoo region, surrounded by huge vistas, towering mountain ranges and hordes of wildlife, it’s easy to feel as if you’re exploring a pristine African wilderness. But looks can be deceiving.
Every so often, there’s a clue that gives the game away: an old watering trough here, the remains of a fence there, or the ruins of an abandoned building.
Barely 20 years ago the only animals here were sheep, cattle and Angora goats bred for their mohair fleece, the ochre-red soil was blowing away and alien plants such as South American agave – the source of the sap used in tequila production – were taking over.
It has taken two decades of painstaking rewilding work by the Tompkins family – South African-born Sarah, her British husband Mark, and their eldest child Isabelle – to undo the years of over-grazing and environmental neglect.
Although Sarah has the great African outdoors in her soul – school holidays were often spent on safari at a concession in Kruger National Park leased by her grandfather and Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, who wrote Jock of the Bushveld – she and Mark became some of the region’s leading conservationists only by chance.
“When I met Mark he’d never been to Africa before,” recounts Sarah. “So I put together a trip to show him what it was all about and he eventually said that it would be wonderful to have a property there. A great friend suggested that we buy land in the Karoo but we ending up buying a house at Hermanus on the coast. But fate intervened when we met a farmer turned land agent during a visit to Rorke’s Drift battlefield, who had a farm for sale in the Graaff-Reinet district of the Karoo.
“I almost got cold feet because I suddenly remembered the Karoo from my childhood as a vast empty place, but Mark said it would be churlish not to at least have a look. The agent packed a picnic, bundled us into their vehicle, took us to the farm and that was it. We fell in love with the spectacular and varied landscapes.”
It proved to be a love affair so profound that in the space of just four years, the Tompkins ended up acquiring not just one but 11 farms, which subsequently formed the Samara Game Reserve. “I got land fever,” says Mark. “We just bought, and bought.”
Despite the impact of agriculture, the land at Samara was full of potential. Before the Karoo was settled by farmers moving up from the Cape in the late eighteenth century, the reserve was on the annual migration route of millions of grazing animals, witnessing movement on the same scale as that seen in the Serengeti and Masai Mara.
It is ecologically unique, with three river systems that include four of South Africa’s nine vegetation biomes, ranging from lowland savannah to areas of upland grassland perched thousands of feet higher, valley bushveld and Nama Karoo, an arid region dominated by low shrubland and rocks. And it is also one of the world’s 34 biodiversity hotspots, making it among the richest in plant life but also the most at risk.
“Having fallen in love with the area we began to realise that we were part of something much bigger,” explains Sarah. “Mark commissioned experts at what is now Nelson Mandela University to do lots of scientific studies, to map the vegetation and to work out what game historically occurred there, what we could put back and what the stocking rates should be. We’re still working with them 21 years later.”
To begin with the land was rested to allow the vegetation and grasslands to rejuvenate. White and black rhinos, giraffes, elephants, cheetahs and many species of antelope, all of which can be tracked on foot by visitors, were then gradually re-introduced. Others like leopards and endangered Cape vultures followed of their own accord. Lions have also just arrived.
Although the Tompkins never envisaged opening a lodge, several old farmhouses were also turned into luxury accommodation. These not only help fund conservation work at Samara, but provide much-needed employment. “You can’t be a big landowner and just preserve biodiversity without it benefitting your local community”, points out Sarah.
“After taking advice we finally decided to go down the tourism route. This is a Presidential Poverty Node – an underdeveloped area, with high levels of poverty and deprivation – and tourism is an excellent way to employ and upskill people, at the same time as promoting awareness of a little-known region.”
Visitors also help to spread the message of what the family is trying to achieve here, adds Isabelle Tompkins, who manages strategic projects at the reserve. “Our visitors don’t just enjoy a luxury holiday, they can get involved with our projects,” she says. “Seeing is believing – but doing is even better. Our guests become part and parcel of our journey.”
The most exciting thing about Samara, enthuses Isabelle, is that it is just a small, albeit crucial, part of a much larger rewilding jigsaw that could span generations of the family. “These days, because of the environmental challenges that we’re facing, you can’t just think about conservation in terms of individual species or small areas. You’ve got to think big, you’ve got to think about it on a landscape scale.”
The Tompkins’ land is now part of an ambitious plan – alongside stakeholders including South African National Parks – which involves doing just that.
The idea is that Samara will act as a stepping stone linking together other private reserves and national parks in the region, with the aim of eventually creating a three-million-acre wildlife corridor that would be the second-largest conservation area in South Africa, after the Kruger National Park.
“It’s a long-term goal, but hopefully I’ll see some of it through by the end of my life, or maybe it will be my kids or even my grandkids,” Isabelle laughs.
The 70,000-acre Samara reserve in South Africa, where the Tompkins family is working to restore habitats and reintroduce wildlife.
Although projects on such a large scale inevitably require the involvement of governments and national authorities, the impetus provided by private individuals is often the catalyst. One of the world’s biggest rewilding initiatives is being driven by South African-based NGO Peace Parks Foundation, which was co-founded in 1997 by Nelson Mandela, businessman and philanthropist Dr Anton Rupert, and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands.
The organisation has facilitated the establishment of transfrontier conservation areas (TFCAs) throughout southern Africa covering a staggering 250 million acres – an area the size of Spain and France combined. As part of a holistic approach to further develop and ensure sustainability for these critical cross-border ecosystems, Peace Parks has initiated various projects to rewild and provide management support for 25 million acres of key conservation areas within the TFCAs over the next decade.
The Rupert family is still actively involved with the Foundation, with Dr Rupert’s son Johann serving as the current chairman andgranddaughter Caroline sitting on the board of directors.
“Rewilding is becoming an increasingly important part of the work of the Foundation and is particularly vital in some of the region’s more remote conservation areas where wildlife numbers have been depleted,” explains Caroline.
“Here, restoration of ecosystems is required to enable viable tourism development, which will ultimately benefit communities – such as the work going on in the Zinave National Park in Mozambique where thousands of animals are currently being translocated as part of a multi-year programme.”
On the other side of the world, another project is rewilding and protecting millions of acres that spread across Argentina and Chile, in particular the Patagonia region.
Like Samara it began by chance, says Kristine Tompkins – no relation of Sarah and Mark, but a mentor and keen supporter of their work. “Sarah is going to be one of South Africa’s greatest conservationists,” she tells me.
Kristine founded Tompkins Conservation, an umbrella organisation for various foundations and activist groups, with her late husband Douglas, who started the North Face outdoor brand and Esprit fashion house. “In the sixties Doug was spending a lot of time in Patagonia and just fell in love. Then the same thing happened to me,” she explains.
“There was no game plan, but when we retired from the world of business and were looking for a new challenge, this suited our priorities. In a way we had no choice because the loss of biodiversity and extinction of species is the biggest threat facing the world. And, sadly, things are heading in the wrong direction. There’s no question that the danger is greater now.”
So far, Tompkins Conservation has spent over US$350 million acquiring and restoring land in Latin America. In monetary terms it’s a huge amount, but the area of land involved is equally staggering. Pumalín Park in Chile, for example, was the Tompkins’ first major project and began with the purchase of a 42,000-acre cattle ranch in 1991.
This was added to over the years and in 2017 one million acres were donated by their Fundación Pumalín to the Chilean government to help form an 11 million-acre national park, the largest in Latin America. In Argentina, 370,000 acres of former farmland acquired by the Tompkins’ Conservation Land Trust was donated in 2015 as part of the creation of the 1.7 million-acre Great Iberá Park, the country’s biggest.
The work of Tompkins Conservation has attracted the support of other philanthropists and foundations, including the Arcadia Fund, which was co-founded by two other ardent conservationists, the Swedish ecologist Dr Lisbet Rausing and her husband Professor Peter Baldwin. The fund has donated around US$500 million since its inception in 1991, with a significant proportion going to rewilding projects.
Of this, US$9 million to date has gone to support rewilding projects run by the Tompkins, who Lisbet Rausing describes as “the greatest conservationists of our, or indeed any, era.” These include the purchase and restoration of nearly 29,000 acres of degraded commercial grazing lands which now form part of the Great Iberá Park reserve.
“Iberá is one of the world’s great freshwater wetlands,” says Dr Rausing. “It’s a paradise covering more than three million acres of grasslands and marsh that were, until very recently, threatened by conversion to huge commercial rice farms.”
As well as funding the projects of others, the couple – whose Endangered Landscapes programme in partnership with the Cambridge Conservation Initiative at Cambridge University is set to invest US$30 million in eight community-led and expert-guided rewilding projects across Europe over the next five years – have instigated their own extensive project at one of their homes, the 57,000-acre Corrour Estate in the Scottish Highlands.
When they purchased Corrour in 1995, it had been overgrazed and extensively planted with exotic conifers. Fewer than 100 acres of natural woods remained.
Although rewilding works best at scale – “do not manage for individual species, you are a landscape guardian” – rewilders also need to think small, urges Dr Rausing. “The missing pieces of the ecological puzzle can be tiny, yet essential. The near-extinction of wood ants in Britain is a big problem for woodland ecology.”
Freshwater ecologies and marine landscapes are also often overlooked and infamously poorly managed, she laments.
That is an omission Jasper Smith, a tech entrepreneur turned venture capitalist turned yacht builder, wants to help redress. “If you look at our planet, the ocean covers two-thirds of it and only 10% of the seabed has been mapped. Given its size very little research has been done,” he says.
One of his companies, Arksen, is building a new range of environmentally friendly superyachts aimed at sea-lovers who want their boats to be used for more than sunbathing and partying. “Internally they are very comfortable, but they have been designed with research in mind,” explains Jasper.
“They are super strong so can go anywhere and include on-board labs, monitoring systems and large rear decks for all the equipment you need on an expedition. They’re the aquatic version of a cross between a Tesla and a Land Rover.”
Perhaps more importantly though, says Jasper, every purchaser has to agree that their yacht can be used for research projects for 20% to 40% of the year. In addition, 20% of the purchase cost will be put into the Arksen Foundation to help fund the projects. “My aim is to have a fleet of at least 20 vessels engaged in research across the oceans,” he says.
But whether it’s the oceans or the land that you want to help preserve, there is a community of like-minded people waiting to help and encourage you, says Lisbet Rausing. “I have lost count of the new friends I have made, as we help each other to repair and retrieve what earlier generations have destroyed.”
To find out more about the future opportunities at Samara please email: Alasdair Pritchard