Babanango Game Reserve has achieved Big 5 status following an ambitious rewilding.

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In a significant achievement for conservation, Babanango Game Reserve, in Zululand, KwaZulu-Natal, is proud to announce its ‘Big 5’ status. The 20 000 hectare reserve is now home to lion, rhino, buffalo, leopard and elephant and many more species of importance.

This marks a pivotal point in the reserve’s history and a testament to the project’s commitment to ecological restoration and wildlife conservation in Zululand.

I’ve shared word from Babanango Game Reserve below, and it’s with such pleasure that I share news of their significant achievement for conservation in gaining ‘Big 5’ status. The 20 000 hectare reserve is now home to lions, rhinos, buffalo, leopards and elephants and many more species of importance. This marks a pivotal point in the reserve’s history and a testament to the project’s commitment to ecological restoration and wildlife conservation in Zululand.

Last month, a small breeding herd of seven elephants were brought in from Manyoni Game Reserve in Maputaland, with their genetic lineage coming from Kruger National Park. As megaherbivores, elephants play a crucial role in the ecological functioning of the reserve. Not only are they rapid recyclers of plant matter, but as habitat engineers, elephants modify the landscapes as they consume vegetation that other species cannot. Elephants, classified as “Vulnerable” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, face numerous challenges in South Africa and across the continent. Their conservation status in South Africa highlights the importance of preserving genetic diversity and protecting their natural habitat to ensure their survival as a species.

“Now that Babanango is Big Five, it is a huge achievement in conservation in KwaZulu-Natal. Every single animal protected is an achievement in conservation. The more Protected Areas we create, the more species are conserved, most of which are endangered species. These iconic species add significant value to the guest experience as a tourism operation, with long-term benefit and support of economic development in the area.” Musa Mbatha, Reserve Manager, Babanango Game Reserve.

The only member of the Big 5 not to have been reintroduced are leopards which have secretively maintained their presence in the landscape. The first official translocation of the Big 5 commenced in 2019 with the introduction of a herd of buffalo, followed by the strategic introductions of both white and black rhinos onto the reserve. Earlier this year, Babanango Game Reserve welcomed ‘The Return of the King’ with the re-introduction of two male lions who are soon to be joined by several females. The recent introduction of elephants served as the final piece of the Big 5 ‘puzzle’. Many of these species have not roamed the undulating hills and valleys of Babanango for nearly 150 years.

Not just the Big 5

The establishment of Babanango Game Reserve represents one of the largest conservation projects of its kind in recent times. Over 75% of the land in conservation is leased from the surrounding communities, creating a unique opportunity for people to participate in the conservation efforts of the area. In addition to directly advancing conservation efforts, the reserve creates direct employment, supports sustainable economic opportunities and facilitates social development in the region.

Babanango Game Reserve began carefully planned animal introductions in 2019. To date, over 2400 previously endemic animals have been released onto the reserve. Rewilding is integral in allowing the reserve to fulfil its aims to enable the rehabilitation and restoration of biodiversity and the conservation of wilderness.

“From the onset, establishing the game reserve was not only for the protection of our environment and the introduction of different species including big five, but also as a tourism attraction, creation of jobs, business opportunities, including beneficiaries, local communities, and local businesses. The introduction of the big five means a lot to the people of Babanango and surrounding areas including Ulundi Municipality; the only facility of its kind and of its status within the municipality boundaries.” Kenneth Buthelezi, Chairman of Emcakwini Community Trust.

Due to the complex and variable topography, Babanango Game Reserve supports a unique diversity of habitats within its boundaries including one of the most significant habitats – the Mistbelt Grassland. This specific grassland is a hotspot of biodiversity and species endemism (species only found in this habitat and nowhere else in the world) and plays a vital role in maintaining the ecological balance and supporting the region’s rich biodiversity. This, combined with the significant geological features, interconnected by the magnificent White uMfolozi River, creates a truly unique safari experience.

Partners in the establishment of the game reserve, Conservation Outcomes, had this to say: “We give thanks to the Emcakwini Community for their vision to set aside land for biodiversity and cultural conservation. We also thank the investors for buying into this vision as well as the Kwangono and Esibongweni Communities for also adding portions of their land for the same purpose. It has been a privilege to provide development and management support to Babanango Game Reserve and be part of a team that positioned the reserve to become a site for elephant range expansion.” Chris Galliers, Conservation Outcomes.

“The final establishment of the Big 5 to the Babanango Game Reserve is undoubtedly good news for the KCT because it will draw more tourists to the reserve from all across South Africa and even from outside to see this opulent game reserve. More visitors to the reserve will result in more jobs being created for our people (beneficiaries), as well as opportunities for others to show off their skills, particularly in crafts, to the visitors.” Kwangono Community Trust.

Babanango Game Reserve is a reflection of a deep commitment to conservation and the protection of this unique landscape; to local communities within the area; and stands as a shining example of how responsible tourism can drive positive change and make a lasting impact.


More about Babanango Game Reserve

Babanango Game Reserve, located in the heart of Zululand, KwaZulu-Natal, is a showcase for one of the most ambitious rewilding projects in Southern Africa in recent years. Set among the breathtaking topography of the upper White Umfolozi River Valley, the reserve occupies a vast wilderness area of over 20,000 hectares that is steeped in Zulu history and layered upon geological features that date back to the beginning of time. The rugged mountains and valleys provide refuge for an extraordinary diversity of birds, plants, insects, reptiles, and mammals, including the elusive aardvark and aardwolf. The imminent return of the African elephant will complete the Big Five. With highly knowledgeable guides and a range of activities to choose from, visitors to Babanango Game Reserve can be assured of an unrivalled safari experience. Significant historical battle sites, such as Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, are located close by.

Photographic Credits:

    • Dr Andrew Baxter, Babanango Game Reserve
    • Chris Galliers, Conservation Outcomes
    • Calvin Thompson, Love Africa Marketing
    • Kirsty Baker, Love Africa Marketing



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