‘I love it when a plan comes together’ said Hannibal Smith of the A-Team, words that could just as well be uttered by Jeff van Staden, COO of African Habitat Conservancy (AHC). Especially when he looks around at what is becoming one of South Africa’s conservation and community success stories – the Babanango Game Reserve, 22 000-hectares of protected wilderness area in undulating heartland of KwaZulu-Natal. 

Babanango Game Reserve

Born of a vision to sustainably support the conservation of African wildlife through the upliftment and education of communities, African Habitat Conservancy (AHC) is the managing company behind the development of Babanango Game Reserve (BGR), its first conservation project situated on the breathtakingly beautiful mist belt grassland plateau 50km from the town of Vryheid. But that is not all, as it also focuses on restoration of the land under protection, removing alien and invader species to ensure the return to a pristine environment.

With its rolling grasslands, thornveld and 23km of river frontage on the White Umfolozi River, BGR is home to a diverse range of wildlife species and mixed biomes. It is a game reserve in the making and a trailblazing one at that.

“Although the reserve is the most stunningly beautiful I’ve seen, it’s also the most challenging, but when I originally looked at it, the risk reward was the best I could foresee,” says Jeff of the decision to choose Babanango as AHC’s first project. “If we can get it right here then we are adding another 22 000ha of conserved land to KZN,” he adds.

“Sustainable tourism is very much a part of our model and plays a valuable role in conservation,” he explains. “As well as generating revenue streams, it’s critical to the upliftment of our community partners here – the Emcakwini, KwaNgono and Esibongweni communities – through job creation and skills development and training,”.

Born and raised in South Africa, Jeff joined the inbound tourism industry in the late 1990s and in 2002 moved to Frankfurt, Germany, opening Elangeni African Adventures a year later. The ethos of the company was that every trip and safari planned for clients had minimal impact on the environment and offered tangible benefits for communities. And a decade later opened Jamluti African Safaris, a sister operation to Elangeni African Adventures that specialised in partnering with operators committed to sustainability, conservation, and communities.

Jeff van Staden - COO of African Habitat Conservancy
Jeff van Staden – COO of African Habitat Conservancy

So it’s no surprise that Jeff’s personal and business ethos around tourism is that ‘a trip is only successful if the traveller and the country visited, and all the people involved in the value chain, have benefited from the visit’.

It was with this mindset that in 2016 he returned to South Africa. By now a seasoned authority in both the safari industry and the world of conservation, his driving passion, Jeff understood that it wasn’t a lack of effort that was losing the battle against poaching but rather a lack of co-operation. So, he set about finding a greenfield site in KZN that was unprotected and under threat and preserve it.

In 2018 Jeff was presented with the opportunity to partner with German investor Hellmuth Weisser to create African Habitat Conservancy, focussed on one of the most picturesque – but economically neglected – parts of KwaZulu-Natal. This gave Van him the opportunity to actively combine his entrepreneurial skills, tourism experience, and conservation passion.

And so, through AHC, the dream of working closely with local communities began – little did Jeff realise at the time, but his dream also enabled the dreams of others… such as Babanango Reserve Manager Musa Mbatha.

For Musa, working at Babanango Game Reserve is the realisation of a dream he had as a boy growing up in the communities that surround this game reserve in the making. He’s spent the last two years working as the reserve manager, putting all the experience gained in more than 20 years spent working in the bush into what he readily describes as a ‘passion project’.

“I was born and raised here and fell in love with this area and the African wilderness as a small boy. I went into the conservation industry in 1998, starting out as a security guard and working hard to get my Field Guides’ Association of Southern Africa guide’s qualifications in 1999 and then studying for a diploma in wildlife management which I completed in 2005,” says Musa.

Babanango Reserve Manager Musa Mbatha
Babanango Reserve Manager Musa Mbatha

Determined to realise his dream he continued with his studies and in 2001 obtained his higher certificate in nature conservation from Southern African Wildlife College in the Greater Kruger National Park. It was while working at Phinda Private Game Reserve in northern KwaZulu-Natal, which, like Babanango, has strong roots in the local community which owns the reserve, that he heard that Babanango Game Reserve was being created.

“I was very keen to be involved and met with Jeff van Staden of African Habitat Conservancy which is undertaking the Babanango project,” says Musa. “I was amazed that this place where I grew up, which I always daydreamed of being filled with wildlife again, was slowly being transformed into a game reserve, and privileged to be part of that process,” he adds.

Musa has been the reserve manager for two years now and is motivated to complete the process of creating this game reserve in the making. With its eye firmly on attracting tourism to the area, Babanango will eventually be the home of the Big Five – elephant, rhino, leopard, lion and buffalo – thanks to AHC’s strategic game reintroduction programme. This kicked off towards the end of 2019 with the release of a seed herd of 23 disease-free buffalo onto a 945ha section of the reserve.

“Leopard already occur naturally in the area, so the remainder of the Big Five species will be introduced over the coming two years,” says Musa. “In the meantime, we are continually fine-tuning our management of the area under protection through the monitoring of game numbers and the relocation of certain species when populations become too large for a certain area to sustain,” he adds.

“This ongoing process of capture and release has seen large herds of wildebeest and impala divided and relocated to other parts of the reserve to ensure an even spread of game across the various biomes,” says Mbatha. “I want to finish the fence and complete our ongoing wildlife relocation and reintroduction programme which will see the Big Five wildlife species returned to Babanango by 2022.”

“It’s a fulfilment of a long-held dream to be working here, building a game reserve to protect wildlife and at the same time developing neighbouring communities through employment and helping them start their own small businesses,” he says. “The game reserve cannot afford to employ everyone, but by encouraging entrepreneurs we can reach more people and change more lives.”

Musa adds that Babanango has already employed more than 120 people from the local communities… “That means that more than 1000 people are being supported by the jobs we have provided here, which is a wonderful achievement,” he says.

Babanango Game Reserve most definitely fits in to the ‘watch this space’ category, with African Habitat Conservancy’s promises to ensure the sustainability of all conservation projects, the upliftment and education of communities, and collaboration with all significant parties for the greater good of humanity, wildlife, and our planet.  By delivering unique, innovative experiences to the tourist market, offering excellent value for money, the company aims to create a sustainable business model that will encourage future projects which make a difference in Africa.

Visitors to Babanango Game Reserve can rest assured that their tourism spend is benefitting both conservation and the local communities – and to paraphrase Jeff’s words, ‘their trip will be successful because they the traveller, South Africa, and more specifically KZN, and all the people involved in the value chain, including staff and local communities, will benefit from the visit.’