The South African sky was saffron; it was 6:30 in the evening as the sleek silhouette slipped out from behind the tree and padded silently through the scrub toward her quarry. Our khaki-clad guide leaned out from the open-sided safari truck and traced the leopard's movements with his flashlight beam. "Shhh," he whispered. "We don't want to affect the outcome."
It was a needless request, since we were so enraptured by the drama unfolding only metres away that we had long since fallen silent. Besides, the cat paid us no heed whatsoever; nor did the oblivious impala.
And then, like an explosion, it happened. There was a harsh snort of alarm, a sudden billowing of ochre-coloured dust, and all the antelope turned tail, bounded into the bushes, and were gone.
"She got one!" exclaimed our guide, and there a small brown herbivore gasped its last breath, pinned down by the world's most beautiful predator.
We lingered until the sky became as bloody as the leopard's face and then the key was turned, the engine animated, and we slowly idled away. A lion roared in the distance, a deep, resonant, throaty sound that drowned out the vehicle's purr. I took one last look over my shoulder, just in time to see the spotted cat heaving her plunder into the brush.
"Well, that's the last of the big five," said our guide. "Everyone hungry for dinner?"
Back at Longlee Manor's dining room, we feasted on first-class fare, gobbling away like hungry hippos while babbling about the day's wildlife sightings.
"I was sure that bull elephant was going to charge us–shit, he was huge”¦" said one fellow.
"And that rhino, what a magnificent horn he had!" gushed his wife.
"Do you remember when we found the lion kill? Well, that big bloody male stared right at me; sent shivers down my spine, he did."
"You could smell them. It was really quite overpowering, didn't you think?"
It had been the most marvellous of African days, full of Livingstonian adventure. No wonder the private Shamwari Game Reserve in South Africa's Eastern Cape province is considered the elite of the elite big-game destinations. Our experience had been truly African, red in tooth and claw, 100 percent wildlife and wild country, untouched and untamed by the hand of man.
Or had it?
After my five-star safari, I trawled the Net in search of something a little different for my next vacation and stumbled upon Worldwide Experience, a volunteer-participation course in wildlife management. Much to my delight, three months later I found myself back at Shamwari Game Reserve, not as a pampered guest but as a behind-the-scenes helper. And what an eye-opener the following two weeks turned out to be.
Shamwari is a far cry from Mother Nature at work; its 25,000 hectares and resident wildlife are managed and monitored almost as closely as if it were a livestock farm. But on this "farm", there are about 250 permanent staff members, hundreds of kilometres of elephant-proof fence, 50 vehicles, a helicopter, and a management team consisting of veterinary surgeons, ecologists, financial advisers, and marketing experts. Not to mention the animals.
Just 17 years ago, the land on which Shamwari sits was little more than barren ground infested with rampaging goats and snarelike fences. There were no luxury lodges, no verdant hills, and certainly no wildlife–everything had been shot. Then an entrepreneur named Adrian Gardiner bought the land and began seeding it with animals brought in from game auctions and other private parks. Antelope were released, then elephants, closely followed by rhinos, hippos, buffalo, and other herbivores. Then, once these populations had grown and spread under the watchful eye of park ecologists and managers, they introduced the carnivores: cheetahs, leopards, lions, and wild dogs.
The park now recruits volunteers to do a bit of everything and quite a lot of anything–some of it romantic and wondrous, some of it practical and down-to-earth. My comrades, mostly young people on a year out from university, were hard at work dismantling old wire fences when I arrived on the scene, and I was quickly put to work.
Several days later, we were on the back roads slowly pursuing a hyena. It sniffed the air as our vehicle approached and then collapsed. The vet in the other open-topped car had aimed well–the dart had pierced the skin and the drug had done its magic. We waited a further five minutes to make sure the animal was well and truly out, then gathered up its smelly bulk and gently laid it on the back seat of the Land Cruiser.
Back in the silvery, sanitized operating room, we gathered around to watch the vet do an overall health check and then put a radio collar around the creature's neck.
"We have most of the large carnivores collared so that we can keep track of their movements," he told us. "Shamwari is responsible for any animal that might escape and, if they do, these telemetry collars will help us bring them back before they eat our neighbours' livestock."
During the course of my stay, I spent long nights observing the movements of predators and aided in autopsies of animals that had died from pneumonia during a cold snap. I helped capture animals, removed alien vegetation, and assisted the vet in stabilizing a captive lion that was dying of kidney failure. I tracked rhinos, bottle-fed orphaned antelope, monitored cheetahs, and counted elephants. All in all, pretty exciting stuff.
But I couldn't help but ponder the diluted reality of a largely man-made ecosystem. Besides the fences and radio collars, most of the animals have a monetary value that fluctuates like the stock exchange. They are bought and sold, monitored and managed, all for the benefit of tourists who pay good money to experience a simulacrum of the days when herds and predators reigned over the African continent.
Then again, one need only consider the reality of what humans have done to our world to see where operations like Shamwari play an important, perhaps essential, role. Beyond the fences, Africa's big-game species are being slaughtered. Habitats are destroyed, deserts advance, and biodiversity is plowed under by a burgeoning human population, all in the name of development. Nonprofit conservation organizations seem to fail more often than they succeed, but when business ethics are applied to conservation and wildlife is made to pay its way, things seem to work more smoothly.
Shamwari has created a thriving local economy where there was once mainly poverty. It doesn't suffer from the poaching that many African national parks endure, and it doesn't need to beg for or cajole donations from people in order to keep its animals alive and safe. It's a success both monetarily and as a conservation project.
Before I left Shamwari, I took one final look at the rolling scenery dotted with wildlife and thought to myself "Here was once just goats." The idealistic and romantic notion of an untamed Africa may be a thing of the past; perhaps well-managed, tourist-driven game parks may be the last, best hope for Africa's wildlife.
ACCESS: For more information on Shamwari Game Reserve, see www.shamwari.com/ . The tourist lodges are mostly five-star affairs, and rates start at 2,560 South African rand (about $385) per person per night, all-inclusive.
Worldwide Experience is a recruiting agency that organizes placements at Shamwari and other projects around the world. The cost of volunteering at Shamwari for four weeks, including accommodation, meals, and transfers, is £1,450 ($3,100). For more information, see www.worldwideexperience.com/ . The writer was not charged for his volunteer participation at Shamwari Game Reserve.
South Africa's climate is suitable for year-round visits. The hottest months are December through February, with an average of 25 degrees Celsius, and the coolest are July through September, with an average of 20 degrees.