Rhino Ridge Safari Lodge‘s success began some 15 years ago when Nic Vaughan-Jones, a professional hunter, took up the challenge of initiating a project to fence off the Mpembeni Community Game Reserve (MCCGR). The driving force behind this particular project was Inkosi (Chief) Daniel Hlabisa of the Mpembeni Community who had the vision to see the value of wildlife. Vaughan-Jones secured financing through Safari Club International (SCI), and without that, this project would never have seen the light of day.
The 1,850 acres of land set aside by the community consisted mainly of abandoned agricultural lands and three kopies adjoining the original Hluhluwe Game Reserve (HGR), at the time administrated by the Natal Parks Board (NPB).
The NPB had their own vision of creating buffer reserves around HGR on the surrounding community land adjoining the Park. The initiative was headed up by Paula Morrison and Ernest Tshabalala with the idea being to encourage the communities in the region to value wildlife and, at the same time, improve the public relations between the reserve and its neighbors.
The property was game fenced to the specification as required by the State Veterinary Department and the founding population of game introduced to the reserve. These animal populations needed to first establish themselves, and then surplus trophy animals hunted to service the reserve’s running costs. Any profits would be used to develop the reserve.
At this point, I had undertaken all the marketing and trophy hunting conducted at the reserve. The reserve was financially self-sustaining, and we had built up a little nest egg, but it was always the intent to build a lodge in a second phase of development. Hunters used accommodations near Hluhluwe or at St. Lucia town, and that meant we had to drive for an hour to get to the reserve before we could hunt–not ideal as it made the marketing of these hunts very difficult and off-putting to many potential clients.
The reserve did not have anywhere near enough money to build a lodge and it was soon apparent that as a stand-alone project, it wasn’t possible to follow through with Inkosi’s dream of the community owning their own lodge.
Vaughan-Jones then got the Umbono Foundation involved. This is a foundation established by Pastor Terence Rose and Vaughan-Jones. Umbono is a charitable organization that aids and assists rural communities in Africa. This partnership was a major turning point and, through their efforts, gained the trust and support of the community at large.
Another factor was the influence that the late Albert Ngcobo had on the project. He worked tirelessly changing people’s opinions on the advantages of having such a reserve with a lodge. There were many hurdles and doubters to overcome, and there were not many community people prepared to voluntarily work on a project for the benefit of their fellow citizens.
The Umbono Foundation built a clinic and a crèche for the community under the auspice of the MCCGR project. The reserve was running out of money as the nest egg mentioned earlier had been used to repair the local municipal borehole that was non-functional. Although not a reserve priority, it was an opportunity to show the community what the money generated from hunting could do for them.
Enter Wellman Kkumalo, a local politician based in the area. At the time he was a school deputy principal at Mpembeni. Being young and having great aspirations to become a successful politician, he took up the cause with the government, community and KZN Wildlife. Khumalo used his political skills to shape and manipulate the goals of the project into a process that could be used as the corner post for what was to follow. Seen as a local shaker and mover he made it happen, albeit in African time.
Khumalo was doing a good job and things were headed in the right direction, so I decided to use my own funds to keep all the dreams alive, but time was of the essence. KZN Wildlife signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the community to allow the reincorporation of the MCCGR back into the Hluhluwe Imfolozi Park with the option to conduct game drives into the Park.
I had done the Environmental Impact Assessment for the establishment of a lodge at Inkosi’s original homestead site from where he moved in the 1980s. Authorization to build a lodge was granted, and the way was cleared to find a developer to build the lodge.
Frencken and Associates (architects and property developers), who had worked with Vaughan-Jones on some previous projects, had actually visited the lodge site in 2007. In fact, they had even pegged out the development. I recommended to the Mpembeni Tribal Authority and reserve steering committee that we re-approach them to see if they might be interested in building a lodge.
They accepted the challenge and sourced the funding from the National Empowerment Fund. Khumalo kept up the heat from his side and I worked alongside him smoothing the way for things to develop. I would like to thank all those who genuinely made an effort to the success of this project. Unfortunately, Ngcobo passed before the lodge was built and would never see the completion of the project.
Today, Rhino Ridge Safari Lodge is operational and managed by Isibindi Africa, a tourism company with a successful record of working with rural communities. Khumalo continues to play a role in the project while following his political career. As now part of the Park, the guns are silent at Mpembeni, but never let the question be asked, “What does hunting do for conservation?”– Peter Ruddle