Seeing And Saving South Africa On Horseback

Nov 7, 2011 - 2:32 PM

Horses and riders play a pivotal role in the annual game census deep in the Waterberg region of South Africa.

From the back of my trusty horse, Rafiji, I momentarily admired the lone male giraffe standing some 20 feet away before turning my attention to his companions nearby. I counted one male, three females and one calf.

The collective name for giraffe is mysteriously known as “a journey,” and I had made a long one from Ireland to the gorgeous Ant’s Nest and Ant’s Hill Riding Safari Lodges in South Africa for their annual game census. This was no ordinary week, and certainly not your regular vacation!

Each September, Ant and Tessa Baber, owners of this stunning private reserve in the Limpopo Province, invite riding guests to participate in the game census, during which they compile data on the large game roaming their 20 square miles. Giraffe, rhino, wildebeest, zebra and eland antelope are all counted and sexed for the records, and in addition, some animals are captured for sale or relocation.

Counting game from a Jeep would be nearly impossible, owing to the dense bush, and doing so from a helicopter over the course of a few days proves rather expensive. But the agility of horses makes them the most efficient mode of transportation, and they’re also the most thrilling way by far to get the job done.

Having recently received the “Best Riding Safari Operator in Africa” award for 2010, Ant’s Nest and Ant’s Hill leave no stone unturned when it comes to top-class riding year-round. But game census week is the real must for any true riding enthusiast.

For the reserve team alone, the census would take two weeks to complete, but when 24 adventurous guests are willing to spend up to five hours in the saddle each day compiling data (and to assist with any necessary captures), the task can be accomplished in seven action-packed days.

The census is critical for reserves in South Africa and beyond. After seeing the dearth of wildlife in the Makalali Reserve while staying at the Garonga Safari Lodge near the Kruger National Park, and also at the 100,000-acre Lapalala Wilderness Reserve, where the Babers have bush homes, I realized how much the game, just like farm or domestic animals, need to be managed, and even controlled when necessary.

Many privately-owned reserves specialize in certain game for business purposes, so it’s essential to account for these animals on a regular basis. A female buffalo with a calf can be worth upwards of $100,000, and a well-bred sable antelope has an average value of $20,000. For an owner, knowing or not knowing how many buffalo or antelope there are on the reserve can make or break a business.

In the Babers’ case, they started out with a modest herd of sable antelope in 1998, and it’s now grown to be one of the most sought-after breeding herds in the province. Their cows and bulls are regularly in demand by other reserve owners who are keen to improve their breeding programs.

During the game census, I was fortunate to observe the sables’ beauty up close, as we captured some bulls slated to be relocated to another part of the reserve. Days earlier, along with 11 other riding guests from Great Britain and the Netherlands, I was privileged to assist in a buffalo capture of four young bulls, which were to be placed in quarantine. Horses and riders were strategically placed as the veterinarian moved in close to administrate the sedative, and we then tracked the animal as the drug took effect.

These bulls were being sold to another reserve, while a pair of giraffes was captured to start a new breeding program. Observing these animals up close as the team moved quickly to load them onto transporters, I learned of their complex breathing mechanism and the need to complete the entire procedure within minutes to avoid undue stress. Any delay can put the animals’ lives in jeopardy, so it was a pleasure to watch professionals at work as they were safely moved to their new home.

Within seven days, we had counted some 1,400 game and captured four buffalo, two giraffes and six sable antelope. I came home exhausted but educated, and with a much deeper appreciation for the beautiful wildlife of South Africa.

Find Out More: Ant’s Nest and Ant’s Hill are located in the Waterberg region of the Limpopo Province, four hours north of Johannesburg. Visit for details about their year-round riding opportunities. Vacation bookings can also be made through Zara’s Planet.


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