To the minds of most environmentalists, the ham-hand of government is needed to protect wildlife. Private property be damned — the government must step in, otherwise every species on the planet will be hunted into oblivion, or human development will gobble up all remaining wildlife habitat, leading to the complete extinction of all species.
However, on the African plain it's just the opposite. From the van leaving Hoedspruit airport to the Thornybush Game Preserve, we saw nothing but mile after mile of African savannah, enclosed in electrified fencing (and at one point an ape bounding across the road). Although government-owned Kruger National Park is nearby, the area is dominated by private game reserves, with ecotourism being the primary driver of the local economy.
If not for these private game reserves, a number of species would be extinct. Because people like the four in our party are willing to pay to see the "Big Five" and so much more, the populations of a number of these animals are thriving.
The game-reserve experience, while a good deal dependent on serendipity, is in the hands of human expertise and experience. The Thornybush accommodations, meals, and service are first class. But you go for the game: the experience of a lifetime, seeing animals up close, in the wild, that you've only seen before in picture books or cooped up in zoos.
Arriving in the afternoon, our first safari would begin with refreshments in the late afternoon. As I sipped on lemonade, an unassuming young Afrikaner approached me by name, introducing himself as Werner (pronounced "Verner"). Werner would be our game ranger for our four safaris.
To the uninitiated, the game ranger might appear merely to be the driver of the vehicle, carrying up to ten guests plus a tracker perched precariously on the front of the hood. And that would be impressive enough, negotiating the labyrinth of winding dirt roads that weave through the 11,000-hectare reserve. The roads are narrow, deeply rutted, and in some cases close to nonexistent, as a 36-hour downpour of 17 inches a couple weeks prior to our arrival made many roads next to impassable.
But in addition to his driving skills, Werner offered an encyclopedic knowledge of the Thornybush flora and fauna. Not just names but mating habits, gestation periods, digestion, and who-knows-what-all about the 147 mammals, 114 reptiles, 507 birds, 49 fish, 34 amphibians, 970 grasses, and 336 tree species that inhabit the private reserve.