Samara Private Game Reserve: How one family’s rewilding project brought big cats back to the Great Karoo

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(CNN) — In the Great Karoo, a vast semi-arid expanse in South Africa, lions and cheetahs once roamed. But then came trusses, fences and guns. By the 1840s the lions had disappeared; then in the 1870s, so did the cheetahs.

Much of what is now Samara Private Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape has become home to livestock. That was until 1997 when nature was once again allowed to take its course on thousands of acres of land. Today, after 25 years of carefully managed rewilding, cheetahs and lions have not only returned to this part of South Africa, they are thriving.

Samara Private Game Reserve in South Africa’s Eastern Cape has spent 25 years returning farmland to nature and watching wildlife return.

The successful reintroduction of these big cats is due to the vision of Mark and Sarah Tompkins.

The couple purchased 11 farms totaling 27,000 hectares (67,000 acres) over five years in a bid to restore the land to its former glory. “It wasn’t a wild area,” says Isabelle Tompkins, their eldest daughter and business development manager at Samara. “All migrating animals were essentially excluded, and of course the predators (who) would accompany them.”

To dream big, the family had to start small. It meant looking at what lay beneath their feet. When the land was purchased, much of it was overgrazed, with barren patches and gullies eroding into the land. The fences were removed with the cattle, and the reseeding effort began literally at the local level.

“Although it is a semi-arid region, there is a remarkable amount of biodiversity, especially of endemic plants,” says Isabelle, adding that five of South Africa’s nine plant habitat types exist in Samara.

Cheetahs were reintroduced to Samara in 2003 after a 130-year absence. From three cheetahs, the population increased considerably.

Courtesy of Sacha Specker (Black Bean Productions)/Samara Private Game Reserve

Over time, the flora of the region returned. Forests and grasslands, rivers and streams, mountains and valleys stretch across the reserve, providing habitats and pastures for herbivores (about 20 species of antelope live in the reserve today) and megaherbivores such as elephants. “Little by little, we put in place the pieces of the puzzle of what this ecosystem would have looked like,” explains Isabelle.

With abundant prey, predators could be reintroduced. In 2003, cheetahs were brought back to the area for the first time in 130 years. Of the first three individuals, the female Sibella became a symbol of Samara and her success. At the age of two, she suffered a savage attack by hunting dogs and humans, and was brought to Samara after life-saving surgery and rehabilitation. In her new home, she would give birth to 20 cubs and raise all but one of them to adulthood, before dying of natural causes in 2015.
About fifty baby cheetahs have been born in the reserve since the reintroduction of the animal.

About fifty baby cheetahs have been born in the reserve since the reintroduction of the animal.

Courtesy of David Niederberger/Samara Private Game Reserve

Some 50 cubs have been born in the reserve, and the Samara population has grown large enough that many have been translocated to other reserves and national parks through the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Cheetah Metapopulation Project. Other cheetahs are brought to Samara in return, all in an effort to boost genetic diversity.

Return of the King

With the cheetah territories firmly established, the climate was right for the lions to return – a milestone for both Samara and the Greater Karoo region.

Male Titus and female Sikelele were introduced in January 2019, and female Sheba followed soon after. Two years later, Sikelele gave birth to two litters, Sheba one, with the first reserve litter now hunting alone occasionally, the Tompkins say.

“Lions being the apex predator, they were always going to have a big impact,” Tompkins said.

The return of lions to earth has changed the dynamic of Samara. There are now more carcasses for the jackals to feed on, which means less springbok predation, leading to an increase in their population. On the other hand, black wildebeest produce more young, the Tompkins say, possibly in reaction to lions preying on the species.

A young cub alongside an adolescent male.  The first cubs born in Samara in nearly 200 years are now about two years old.

A young cub alongside an adolescent male. The first cubs born in Samara in nearly 200 years are now about two years old.

Jo Munnik

The rewilding program was so successful that Samara even saw one species return of its own accord: the leopard. Leopards can jump fences, and in April 2021 a large male was spotted inside the reserve and seen on camera traps several times over the following months. “(It’s) incredibly exciting and means the conditions are right again for his survival,” Isabelle and Sarah Tompkins said in an email.

“We don’t have the luxury of not being ambitious about it”

The Samara Private Nature Reserve funds its reseeding efforts through its tourism activities. Visitors can stay at the reserve in lodges or even sleep under the stars, and take part in luxury game drives and cheetah hunting, with all profits plowed back into its various programs.

But perhaps his biggest plan extends beyond the borders of Samara. The reserve is involved in a long-term initiative to create a land corridor linking Karoo’s Camdeboo National Park and Mountain Zebra National Park, opening up historic migration routes and returning more land to nature.

Sarah and Isabelle Tompkins.

Sarah and Isabelle Tompkins.

Courtesy of Sacha Specker (Black Bean Productions)/Samara Private Game Reserve

The Tompkins say it has the potential to be arguably “South Africa’s last great mega-reserve” covering 1.3 million acres (over 526,000 hectares). The area is one of 36 global biodiversity hotspots, but will rely on voluntary agreements with private landowners to manage the area in an environmentally responsible manner, rather than involving land purchases by the government agency overseeing national parks.

Thinking big has always been part of Samara’s ethos, but there’s added urgency provided by the United Nations’ ongoing Decade of Ecosystem Restoration. The initiative says restoring just 15% of converted land in the world’s priority areas could avert 60% of predicted species extinctions, along with myriad climate and livelihoods benefits.
Visitors to the reserve can participate in bush walks and treks.

Visitors to the reserve can participate in bush walks and treks.

Courtesy of Samara Private Reserve

“We’re running out of time,” Isabelle said, citing UN goals. “To me, that’s why it’s so urgent. It has to happen. We don’t have the luxury of not being ambitious about it.”

Nevertheless, she is optimistic about the future. “I think if human beings can focus on their sphere of influence and make a difference in their own little backyard (positive change will come),” she adds. “Our backyard is 27,000 hectares.”

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