And so it is that we find ourselves in the second week of 2022. Quite how it is now almost two years since the start of the pandemic that still permeates our everyday remains a mystery to me. As anticipated, 2021 by no means returned us to a pre-COVID world. It remained a difficult year, fraught with uncertainty, red lists and new variants, but somehow despite all this Samara enters 2022 with a renewed sense of what is possible. For amidst the challenges of 2021 germinated seeds of hope.
First, for Samara’s rewilding efforts. A real highlight of the past year was undoubtedly the sighting of a leopard on the reserve in April – the first spotted on Samara in our 24 years of operation, by a game drive vehicle full of guests no less! If you haven’t already, take a look at the full story of the sighting here. The male leopard has subsequently been photographed on our camera traps in the same valley (see images below). What a joy to bear witness to the return of such a magnificent creature.
The fact that the leopard returned of its own accord is indeed cause for celebration, and a testament to the team’s rewilding efforts in recreating suitable habitat for this animal to thrive. Whilst we cannot be certain, we suspect that there may be a link between this leopard’s return and the reintroduction of lion to the reserve in early 2019. The return of apex predators such as lions to ecosystems has many ecological knock-on effects, and it may well be that the conditions created by the lions’ return have encouraged the leopard to settle here too. This may also apply to Cape fox and black-footed cat, which have been seen on the reserve with increasing regularity since the Founders Pride was reintroduced.
Samara’s better-known spotted cats also brought us a remarkable story. The reserve’s cheetahs, never far from the limelight it seems, surprised us all with the formation of a highly-unusual ‘cheetah pride’. In a phenomenon very rarely witnessed, let alone captured on film, two female cheetahs, both with young cubs, joined together in a group numbering eleven strong. They remained together for several weeks until the mothers eventually separated, adopting some of each other’s cubs in the process. The entire saga played out over a number of months, and was fortuitously captured from Day 1 by a film-maker that we had invited to the reserve. He – and we – could not quite believe our luck in so comprehensively recording this world-first behaviour, the scientific implications of which are now being studied.
2021 was also the year that the drought finally broke. After a fairly disappointing 2020 rainy season, the early rains of spring 2021 showered the reserve with blessing after blessing. Today, the veld is greener that we have seen it in a long time, perennial grasses are growing to vehicle-height, bird species we have not seen in years are returning (and new ones too, like the European roller, pictured below), and the Milk River gently flows as it meanders through the reserve. The dung beetles are on fine form and the hum of pollinators fills the air. It is truly a joy to behold.
This return to abundance has not been without its own challenges however. In certain vulnerable areas, long drought years had withered plants, exposed bare soil and weakened root systems. The initial deluge of rain, although welcome, made quick work of this structural inadequacy, leading to flooding and soil erosion in certain spots. This has made clear to us that not only is our ongoing focus on soil restoration and land rehabilitation absolutely key to restoring the resilience of our ecosystem, but that there remains much to be done in 2022 to find ways to restore both faster and at greater scale. We have some exciting initiatives in the pipeline working with local thought-leaders to expand our soil regeneration programme, finding practical solutions to real-world problems.
As the Great Karoo region has gained favour with city-dwellers seeking the ultimate luxury of space, we were again blessed by the support of so many South Africans in 2021. Many guests from further afield also determinedly jumped through hoops of ever-increasing complexity to get to us, and we welcomed these overseas travellers with open arms (and masked, vaccinated smiles!). The UK red list and Omicron sagas were tortuous blows to an ailing industry just as we were beginning to see signs of a recovery in international tourism, but luckily the world appears to be coming to its senses, with travel opening up again to our dear friends in other parts of the world.
Thank you also for the generosity of so many from around the world who have supported our projects from afar, from cheetah translocations to anti-poaching capacity-building. The annual Heritage Day Cup took place in our local town of Graaff-Reinet in December, due to COVID restrictions making it impossible to hold in September (which is Heritage Month in South Africa). We were determined that it go ahead this year, after 2020’s event was cancelled due to the pandemic, and we were delighted that it was the biggest event yet. 720 children participated in the netball and football tournaments with matches over three days, culminating in the finals held at the Collie Koeberg Sports Stadium. The incredible generosity of a particular Friend of Samara allowed the team to procure R300,000 worth of football boots and netball trainers – one pair for every participant. Thank you also to the following sponsors and partners: Spar Camdeboo, Montego Pet Nutrition, Gift of the Givers and SANParks who helped to make the event a success.
As we step into 2022, we enter Samara’s 25th year of existence – a mere blink of an eye on the planet’s evolutionary timeline but an important milestone for us and our work as we continue on our mission to restore the magic of the Great Karoo for the benefit of people and planet. It is all too easy to reach the end of a year, a season, a working day, or even a quarter-of-a-century, and to underestimate what has been achieved. With a mission such as ours, there is always more to do, always room for improvement and space to do better. Whilst we remain cognisant of our successes thus far (and there have been many to be proud of), we recognise that the true indicator of our impact will be its longevity for generations to come.
I’d like to end with a quote from the late, great E.O. Wilson, a pioneering biologist known as the ‘Father of biodiversity’ and ‘Darwin’s natural heir’, who passed away last month at the age of 92. I had the privilege of representing Samara and The Long Run community on a panel organised by the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation in celebration of Half-Earth Day on 21-22 October 2021. The mission of the Half-Earth Project is to conserve half the land and sea to safeguard the bulk of biodiversity, including ourselves. The panel’s theme was Dream to Reality, and as I prepared my presentation I found myself deeply inspired and moved by E.O. Wilson’s devotion to science, the pursuit of knowledge and the perseverance required to effect change when the odds seem stacked against us. The following words from the man himself are the encouragement we all need in this turbulent world.
- E.O. WILSON, AMERICAN NATURALIST