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GREAT KAROO, SOUTH AFRICA
Samara Private Game Reserve is a 67,000-acre conservation passion project located in the Great Karoo, South Africa’s vast heartland. Founded in 1997 by Mark and Sarah Tompkins, Samara has pioneered land-use change in the region, painstakingly restoring 11 former livestock farms into a born-again wilderness. Today, Samara is run by two generations of the Tompkins family, whose ultimate vision is to expand the conservation ethic beyond the reserve’s boundaries, working with local stakeholders to create a 3-million-acre conservation landscape.
Samara is extraordinarily diverse, representing five of South Africa’s nine vegetation biomes in a semi-arid Global Biodiversity Hotspot. Seventy mammal species and 225 bird species roam the reserve, including the first cheetah, lion, elephant and black rhinoceros reintroduced into the area in over a century. Samara actively engages in rehabilitating degraded landscapes, managing water catchments and regenerating carbon sinks, all the while functioning as a ‘living laboratory’ for researchers from around the world.
Accompanying this conservation commitment is a strong sense of social responsibility. Having launched an ecotourism venture in 2005, Samara now provides employment for 70 people, 76% of whom are from the local community, and organises an annual sports tournament for 700 youth. The reserve also functions as a training site for the Tracker Academy, an NGO that trains 16 students per year in the preservation of indigenous knowledge.
Just 26 guests at a time are invited to join Samara’s ongoing journey, with an emphasis on active participation in Samara’s projects. Accordingly, as well as the usual safari game drives, bush walks and wilderness picnics, Samara offers hands-on conservation sessions, personalised tours of rewilding projects and immersive experiences such as fly camping.
Samara Private Game Reserve joined The Long Run in 2020 embarking on a sustainability journey committing to a holistic balance of the 4Cs – Conservation, Community, Culture and Commerce – as a means to contribute meaningfully to the biodiversity and the people of their local region.
Samara was born out of a conservation vision to restore and rewild a unique part of South Africa – a region that once witnessed the most impressive land-based migration on Earth, the springbok migration. Consulting expert ecologists throughout the land acquisition process, Samara’s founders sought to secure key conservation territory for maximum environmental impact. 67,000 acres later, Samara exhibits an astonishing diversity of topographies, ecosystems and wildlife, contributing to conservation on a regional, national and global scale.
The reserve falls into the western section of the Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany Thicket Global Biodiversity Hotspot, as designated by the Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund, containing 15 endemic vegetation types. Nationally, Samara helps to conserve three under-represented biomes (Nama Karoo, sub-tropical thicket and grasslands) and sits within a SANParks priority area for grasslands conservation. Regionally, Samara forms the key stepping-stone in a project to link the Mountain Zebra, Camdeboo and Addo Elephant National Parks with private land in an ecological corridor covering 3 million acres.
An ambitious programme of wildlife reintroduction has brought previously-extirpated species and the ecosystem processes they generate back into the Great Karoo region, including the first cheetah, lion, elephant and black rhinoceros in over 100 years. Samara’s cheetah conservation programme has been particularly successful, with dozens of progenies of the founder group going on to populate reserves and national parks across sub-Saharan Africa. Other endangered species that thrive at Samara include the Cape mountain zebra and the blue crane, South Africa’s national bird.
Ongoing land rehabilitation projects employ local SMMEs for soil erosion control, alien vegetation eradication and reforestation using Spekboom, a plant that acts as an excellent carbon sequestrator, whilst an active research programme monitors and evaluates the impact of conservation decision-making on the landscape and its inhabitants.
The land-use change from conventional farming to conservation pioneered by Samara in the region has tripled the number of available jobs. Tourism jobs tend to be better paid and with more extensive benefits than those of farm workers. Staff training is ongoing and certain aspects of the business operate on a profit-share basis, such as the spa and gift shop. All food and services are procured locally, with an emphasis on supporting small, family-run and cooperative businesses.
Samara has links to a number of NGOs in the local town of Graaff-Reinet, 30 minutes’ drive away, through its registered non-profit, the Samara Foundation. One such NGO is Vuyani Safe Haven, which Samara has supported since 2010. Vuyani Safe Haven is a registered Child and Youth Care Centre in Graaff-Reinet (NPO#:091-122) which provides safety and care for children whose families cannot or do not care adequately for them. Samara organises an annual Christmas party at one of the lodges, providing gifts, treats and a game drive to the kids, as well as a swim in the pool for the older ones.
In 2018, Samara launched the Heritage Day Cup, an initiative to provide the youth of Graaff-Reinet with a platform to envisage a future for themselves in the context of challenges facing the community, from unemployment and drug-taking to teenage pregnancy and gender-based violence. The concept is simple – unite and give hope through sport. Today the tournament covers football and netball across a variety of age groups, reaching 700 local youth, and the plan is to expand further in years to come.
Guests are encouraged to “Pack for a Purpose” and bring supplies for the various community projects during their visit to Samara.
Samara supports the preservation of indigenous knowledge through an association with the Tracker Academy, an NGO founded and hosted at Samara. A training division of the South African College for Tourism, it is the only government-accredited tracking school in the country. It preserves the traditional skills of tracking by training young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to enable them to get jobs in the ecotourism, anti-poaching and research industries. Since 2010 Samara has provided the training site for 6 months of a 12-month course, and takes on several interns per year. So far seven graduates have been employed at Samara, including two who have become guides, as well as the first female graduate.
Samara is located in a region that was once inhabited by San and KhoiKhoi people, and the reserve is fortunate to be custodian to several historic sites. This includes a cave containing Khoi-San rock art, most notably with the only known painting of a cheetah, which has been carefully preserved. Guests can hike to the cave with a guide to view the paintings.
Encapsulated in Samara’s mission statement is a recognition of the financial underpinning that is central to any successful conservation endeavour.
Samara’s main income generation comes from its tourism business, however the impact of COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of commercial diversification. The next step on Samara’s journey is the development of a regenerative agricultural model using holistic grazing methods, to address issues of food security, landscape restoration and job creation.
By attracting ecotourists to the reserve and encouraging them to spend time in the Great Karoo region and the local town of Graaff-Reinet, rich in culture and heritage, Samara’s commercial activities also have the broader multiplier effect of supporting the development of other small businesses.