Trip Report: Madikwe Safari and Marataba Conservation Experience | February 2021

This was a first of a kind safari which combines a focus on photography in Madikwe Game Reserve (6 nights) with an incredible opportunity for guests to contribute directly to the conservation activities in Marataba Contractual National Park (4 nights).

Despite the challenges associated with travel during this difficult time we hosted guests from both the USA (flights from Atlanta >> Amsterdam and return via Charles De Gaulle) and South Africa for what proved to be an incredible adventure over a period of 10 nights.

Madikwe Game Reserve

Our Madikwe Safari has proved to be very popular offering and represents incredible value for money considering the small group size and the fact that we take exclusive use of a luxury lodge for the full 6 nights.

This trip was no different although we may have found ourselves working just that little bit harder for sightings given the recent rains - and the rain which fell during our stay!

This is literally how our first afternoon was spent.

Elephants on the left and Lions to the right...

Both of my guests were fairly comfortable with their cameras (Fuji and Canon mirrorless systems) as well as the technical and artistic elements of photography which meant that I had to work a little harder to find interesting challenges and compositions for them to explore.

We worked a full range of focal lengths and compositions and, given that the vegetation was rather dense and green, looked for interesting ways to work natural frames and work what little windows we had to work with at sightings. This posed a challenge some of the time but for the most part they got the shots that we were looking for.

Night drives are a standard in Madikwe (as with most other game reserves and protected areas in southern Africa) and we were afforded the opportunity to capture images with the ethical use of a spotlight on a couple of occasions.

One of the massive differentiators that comes with the lodge that we use is that we have complete flexibility with regards to our game drives  and are not bound by the usual meal times that often dictate what can and can't be done at some commercial lodges. We took full advantage of this one overcast day and, after returning to the lodge around 11:00 am after our morning drive, headed out again at 13:00 to explore the far north-eastern reaches of the park where wild dogs had been seen earlier that day.

Not only did we find the wild dog pack but we enjoyed a very special sighting of two lioness' and their cohort of 4 young cubs along with a beautiful, blonde, male lion. A classic example of how having the flexibility and exclusivity can add so much more value to one's safari experience!

Some of the highlights below will show that we stopped to photograph pretty much everything from the common Lilac Breasted Roller, right the way through to the more rare and illusive Brown Hyena during our 6 nights in Madikwe.

It would be wrong of me not to share a very brief summary of our final morning on safari. It began with hearing Lions roaring whilst enjoying coffee on the deck and it wasn't long before we found ourselves following two gorgeous male lions for well over an hour.

That wasn't the highlight though, we managed to sneak in what must have been 2 minutes with a gorgeous male leopard just moments before he descended from the a Marula tree and the heavens opened once again.

This was the perfect finish to our week in Madikwe and left our guests very excited about the second chapter of this adventure, our visit to Marataba Conservation Camps.

Marataba Conservation Camps

Chapter two of this journey saw us packing our bags and driving east from Madikwe to the Marataba Contractual National Park, home to the brand new Marataba Conservation Camps.

Marataba Contractual National Park represents a new breed of protected area. The Park has its roots in an inspiring relationship between the former president of South Africa, Mr Nelson Mandela and Dutch philanthropist, Mr Paul Fentener van Vlissingen.

The conversation gave birth to a systematic and strategic private-public-partnership (PPP) approach to protecting sub-Saharan Africa’s wild places. A PPP approach allows the private sector to work with SANParks (South African National Parks) and contribute private land and management, at no expense, to the national park’s estate in order to develop a fully functional and innovative approach to conservation at scale. Marataba is one of South Africa’s most overwhelming, breath-taking and accessible landscapes where the partnership between private sector and the state addresses the pressing needs of people, wildlife and natural habitats in and around Marakele National Park.

As a relatively young national park, formally proclaimed in 2000, Marataba has already achieved several significant conservation milestones. The first was the consolidation and clean-up of old farmland into national park, which provided the platform for the return of most of the megafauna that was already locally extinct, including elephant, black and white rhinoceros, hippo and buffalo.

Fortunately, healthy populations of most the antelope species still existed at the establishment of the park and this prey base enabled the successful reintroduction of the iconic carnivores such as lion and cheetah. Conservation success is a challenging concept to measure but since the reintroduction of the key species, Marataba has already served as a source population for other conservation initiatives and has supplied lions, cheetah and elephants, as well as white and black rhino, as founder or bolster populations to other parks and reserves both within South Africa and elsewhere on the continent.

The whole experience at Marataba Conservation Camps is focussed on giving guests the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding and insight into the real work that go's on behind the scenes in managing protected areas across the continent.

Wildlife monitoring and management is a core function of Marataba’s conservation team. Most populations of wildlife on parks like Marataba require management whether in the form of monitoring movement for ecological or genetic reasons, or population control. Some of the keystone species, like rhinos, elephants and big cats, are actively monitored on a daily basis whilst other species, like antelope, require less frequent and intensive monitoring, which is usually undertaken as a focussed intervention a few times a year.

Part of the conservation experience we have put together sees our guests covering the costs associated with immobilising and notching of a White Rhino along with the donation of a very sophisticated AI-Camera Trap which is deployed in the field to aid in the fight against rhino poaching.

Notching is an ongoing intervention at Marataba and the long-term objective is to identify every single rhino in the Park. Animals are individually located and immobilised (a tranquilising dart is shot by a professional veterinary team) from a helicopter. Once immobilised, the animal is moved into a comfortable position. Then, notches are incised into the ears, under anaesthetic, and microchips are inserted into the horns and the body. The tissue removed from excising the notches is collected and the DNA, now correlated to the microchips, is submitted to the RHoDIS database (Rhinoceros DNA indexing system). RHoDIS is a national DNA database maintained by the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of Pretoria and is kept to provide forensic evidence related to the provenance of confiscated rhinoceros horns.

As I mentioned earlier, camera traps are an integral component of Marataba’s remote monitoring capacity. Camera trap technology not only assists in the collection of critical data for wildlife population monitoring, which allows the Marataba team to determine home range sizes, distributions and population densities, but also feeds into their law enforcement and security efforts. The high-tech camera system donated by our guests makes use of artificial intelligence to determine and alert the Security and Conservation teams to threats, allowing their specialised and highly qualified reaction teams to react swiftly.

Our guests were also taught the "ins and outs" of using radio telemetry to track and find study animals which have been fitted with a VHF Collar. The main objective of all the carnivore management activities at Marataba is to mimic natural processes that maintain normal, healthy social demographics including dispersal and emigration, immigration, pride take over and population effects related to stressors such as droughts. This requires careful monitoring and identification of individuals in the carnivore populations in order to accurately inform the timing of required interventions. We were fortunate enough to use the telemetry set to track down 2 male cheetah as well as identifying a third, female, cheetah during our stay.

In-between all of this there was even time to track lions, learn more about soil erosion and how the Marataba Conservation team are combatting this phenomenon, enjoy an ice cold G&T on a sunset cruise and even take a walk through some of the pristine wilderness areas of the Marataba Contractual National Park.

As you can gather, we saw and experienced an incredible amount over a period of just 4 nights. Here are some of the highlights from our stay.

The Marataba Conservation Safari and specifically the rhino notching truly is a once in a lifetime experience and one which I encouraged our guests to be fully present for. No cameras, no phones during the notching, just them assisting the conservation team to get the work done and enjoying the experience. With that in mind I took on the role of documenting the experience for them and have shared the video clip below with them so that they can relive and share their experience.

Experience Madikwe & Marataba

An experience which extends way beyond your average safari as guests physically take part in the immobilization and DNA sampling of a rhino in Marataba after spending 6 nights in Madikwe Game Reserve.

Conservation Through Travel

We recognise the need to support conservation efforts throughout Africa and have crafted a number of itineraries which combine the photographic aspect that we are so well know for with an element of conservation and giving back.

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