In the heart of mystical Zululand, a pioneering community conservation project is taking shape. Loziba Wildlife Reserve promises to be a wildlife safe haven, the perfect habitat for iconic keystone species such as elephant and both black and white rhino. The reserve is in the process of becoming a hub for community conservancies to tap into the wildlife economy. This groundbreaking rewilding story has human wildlife coexistence at its heart. Graham and I were lucky enough to get a firsthand lay of the land from technical operations director, Grant Fowlds, when we visited Inhlanhla Ranch recently.
Glorious view overlooking the hills and valleys of Loziba Wildife Reserve | photo credit: Cathryn Gill
I am a conservation storyteller privileged to work for an influential African-based wildlife conservation NGO. Graham is a talented field guide and apiary conservationist based on a wildlife reserve in Zululand, neighbouring Loziba, which shares a similar vision and mission for rewilding and community conservation. A deep love of wild, wildness and wilderness connected Graham and I and the same passion for wildlife conservation here in magical Mzansi. We also share a matching love of adventure and enjoy exploring the wild places of our homeland when we get the opportunity.
In 2022, I got the opportunity to participate in Project Rhino’s phenomenal Rhino Art programme. This is when I first met the legendary conservationist, Grant Fowlds. In one of his many wonderful tales of tackling wildlife conservation in Africa, he mentioned Loziba. I have since read Grant’s books, completely enthralled and intrigued by what has eventuated for Loziba Wildlife Reserve so far. Grant and I have kept in touch and last year another opportunity to get involved with Project Rhino presented in the form of a rhino dehorning operation.
It is a small conservation world here in KwaZulu Natal and with the proximity of Loziba to the reserve where Graham is based, him meeting Grant was inevitable. Although Graham is a slightly younger generation, these two conservationists are cut from the same cloth.
A beautiful Zululand morning filled with birdsong as Grant (left) and Graham (right) spot some wildlife down in the valley | photo credit: Cathryn Gill
Now having set the scene for who we are and how we are all connected, time to wax lyrical about Loziba.
When Grant offered us the opportunity to visit Loziba and get a lay of the land, we both jumped at the chance. We got to explore some of the landscape around Inhlanhla Ranch, including a rock overhang with bushman art. Grant also took us to check out the soon-to-open adventure camp.
Loziba is beautiful! The lush-green wooded gullies, giving way to grassy slopes on the undulating terrain dotted with tall aloes and the occasional rocky outcrop so characteristic of this part of Zululand, continues to capture my imagination. From the various vantage points we explored in our little visit, I kept feeling like I was standing on the edge of the world, the magical energy of Mama Africa stretching to the horizon. The views are mesmerising and it is certainly not difficult to envision how incredible this place will be once rewilded and thriving.
Graham here and my turn for first impressions. While standing on the newly erected deck of one of the canvas safari tents that will soon be Loziba’s Adventure Camp, seeing nothing but Zululand bushveld as far as the eye can see, one gets overwhelmed by the sheer expanse, by the ancientness of this land, by the connection one feels to it. Listening to Grant speak about communities, conservation, conflict, dreams and opportunities, all while spotting giraffe, kudu and wildebeest. The cacophony of Zululand bird calls sets the background tone.
A slight afternoon breeze bringing much-needed relief to another hot African day, I realise the sheer scale of the project, the hurdles that will be presented but ultimately overcome, but most importantly, I see the vision and feel his passion! While bumbling down a rough bush track on the back of the old farm cruiser I couldn’t help but soak in the possibilities that such a wild space could provide. Yes, the evidence of human influence on the land is noticeable in the forms of soil erosion, bush encroachment, invasive alien vegetation, wildlife poaching etc, but by turning it back to nature, balancing out the ecosystem and implementation of certain land rehabilitation and conservation practices, the land will recover slowly as we have seen in other similar rewilding projects. Not only is this some of the most ideal habitat for the expansion of the black and white rhino species populations, but it could also be a key puzzle piece in the ability to finally bring wildlife corridors in Zululand into fruition by allowing other nearby game reserves to connect with Loziba. Local communities with tribal land who see the benefits of community reserves to create these interconnected wildlife reserves which ultimately helps take pressure off of small reserves by allowing migration routes, better genetic diversity and the protection of a diverse range of ecosystems, not too mention the potential tourism opportunities. It’s all here!
Adventure camp views on the edge of the world | photo credit: Grant Fowlds
Let’s take a step back from Loziba for a moment and look at the bigger picture. You can’t escape the dire news about the state of the natural world at a global scale. It comes at us from all angles these days whether it is COP this, IPBES report that, IPCC report the other. It can be so confusing and rather overwhelming. The vernacular of sustainability and climate change now includes biodiversity crisis, ecosystem services loss and potentially a next mass extinction.
So we have Global Goals, the Global Biodiversity Framework, Inner Development Goals and now Nature-based Solutions. From the IUCN website – Nature-based Solutions leverage nature and the power of healthy ecosystems to protect people, optimise infrastructure and safeguard a stable and biodiverse future.
One such Nature-based Solution is Rewilding. A conservation strategy used to promote biodiversity in ecosystems by reintroducing plant and animal species that have been driven out, largely due to humans. Bringing these species back into a certain environment can help struggling ecosystems self-regulate and return to their natural processes. Thriving Human-Wildlife Coexistence is the ultimate outcome of biodiversity conservation strategies and nature-based solutions for the environmental and social ills of our time.
Coexistence – existing in the same time and space as All that is. Coexistence comes with a connotation of peaceful existence, of courage, of compassion. Coexistence is shared experience, the bitter and the sweet. We are all in this together.
Graham checking out the bushman art on the rock overhang on the edge of the world | photo credit: Cathryn Gill
Understanding the role of Keystone Species in an environment is a critical part of Rewilding. These are the species that define ecosystem function. Their absence forces radical change in an environment, often leading to imbalance and a loss of biodiversity. Most examples of keystone species are apex predators, but herbivores can also be keystone species as their plant consumption patterns play a regulatory ecosystem function.
A good example is the African Elephant (Loxodonta africana), a species that eats substantial amounts of vegetation daily on African savannahs, often uprooting trees and shrubs as they move over vast distances. This controls the Acacia tree populations, allowing grasses to grow which sustains grazing herbivores such as wildebeest and zebra. The mixed vegetation types, together with warm, sandy soils, also allows for a plethora of smaller mammals, reptiles and invertebrates to find their ecological niche. Healthy prey populations bring the predators such as lion and hyena and ecological balance is created. All from the feeding behaviour of Africa’s ecosystem engineering gentle giants.
We are absolutely inspired by the words of Dr Ian McCallum. In particular, the reclaiming of the words Wildness and Wilderness as being positive and powerful. In his TED talk, he poses the question, ‘Are humans a keystone species?’. We are not. This thought is challenging to say the least. However, he also gives us Hope with his definition of Keystone Individuals – those who ‘make a difference to the lives of others, to the earth, to the animals. Those who are willing to be disturbed, to find their voice, to stand firm in the persuasion that there is something worth fighting for and some things that are simply not for sale.’
So, the Nature of Coexistence is the dedicated work of Keystone Individuals coming together as a Conservation Collective – it as much about heart and soul and poetry as it is about conservation science. This is what is unfolding in our own backyard here at Loziba Wildlife Reserve!
A huge thanks to Grant and team for giving us a glimpse into this exciting project. We will follow this innovative community conservation legacy story with keen interest.