Conservation legacy

MAY 2013 – Tourism Business Leadership award-winner Adrian Gardiner on entrepreneurship, conservation and tourism.

When Adrian Gardiner bought his first Eastern Cape farm in 1989 to enjoy as a weekend retreat with his family, he had no idea that within a period of 20 years he would be running no fewer than seven luxury lodges on what is now known as Shamwari Game Reserve. He would also become the chairman of Mantis – a hospitality group representing five-star boutique accommodation and game lodges stretching from Antarctica through southern Africa, into Europe and now South America. They specialise in what Adrian calls ‘bucket list experiences’. Nor would he have imagined that he would have received the World’s Leading Conservation Company award for 13 consecutive years and, more recently, the Tourism Business Leadership award.

Known as a businessman who has always taken risks, you are said to have joked that the purchase of your first farm (Shamwari) was a ‘mistake’. What changed this perception?

What happened was that I fell in love with the bush and, after reading up on the history of the area, I wanted to restore the land that had been mismanaged and overgrazed over 150 years. I discovered it was here that the last Cape buffalo was hunted to make way for commercial farming and that the subspecies of the Cape lion was hunted to extinction in 1857. The last black rhino in the area was seen in 1853 and by 1931, when Addo was established as an elephant sanctuary, only 11 elephants remained. Of course, when I invested in the late ’80s, our conservation strategies were still in their infancy with the Eastern Cape lagging woefully behind as a wildlife destination. Added to this, South Africa was in political turmoil at the time. My friends told me I was ‘simply crazy’. They reckoned I should sell up and cut my losses.
But what happened was that this passion took hold and we made it through sheer grit and determination. I took on a small but dedicated wildlife team that is still with me today, and eventually neighbouring farmers offered me more land. I slowly accumulated a total of seven farms – increasing my original land to a 25 000 hectare project (55 000 acres). Over the years fences were removed, buildings taken down and, slowly but surely, the vegetation recovered and animals were gradually reintroduced.

Tell us about your background?

I wasn’t great with education. I hated every minute of it! It took seven years for me to complete a three-year degree – four years full time and three years spent studying at night. I realised that I had let a stupid academic qualification beat me and that is why I went back at night to finish my BCom. My first job was as an assistant in the accounts department at Spar head office in Cape Town. I then moved on to the Golden Arrow Bus Company, but left after four months to work in Port Elizabeth with Spar again. Not long after, I bought every Penguin Pools franchise I could and eventually started a transport and building company but it collapsed because of bad debt. Being bankrupt was my University of Life. I discovered how important my friends were and how they helped me to move on. I nearly went out again in 1994, but was the first to get a loan in the private sector for tourism from the IDC – they consult with me now!

Today Shamwari has an established ecosystem and sustainable wildlife management scheme. How did it all begin?

I decided to confide in Dr Ian Player, SA’s leading conservationist, who was best known at the time for Operation Rhino, a project that successfully saved the white rhino from extinction. He also masterminded the creation of the St Lucia Wilderness Area and founded the Wilderness Leadership School. It took time, but I was persistent and eventually persuaded him to spend a few days with me on the farm. I told him my vision of restoring my dream wilderness and bringing the animals back to roam free, but I realised that my biggest problem was that in order to remain sustainable, we had to have a large area of non-hunting ecotourist reserves. We also needed contiguous farms to drop their fences, but in this area there were very few contiguous farms. It was a disaster, actually. Ian listened and agreed to support my efforts to open Shamwari to the public in 1992. It was a tough start but he changed my life forever and we’re firm friends to this day. I honestly believed that Shamwari could be the first malaria-free Big Five game reserve in SA as it has more species than in the Kruger National Park, along with the added advantage of being near the Garden Route. And we must have done something right because at least 14 other safari destinations have opened around us.

Your wildlife team has worked closely with you over the years, but it hasn’t all been plain sailing. What are your earliest memories of relocating the animals?

Well, I might try to be a purist and philanthropist, and I got great moral pleasure out of the transformation at Shamwari, as I was (and still am) driven by what existed before we got there, but we’ve made errors – we once let our predator populations get too big. We’ve had some interesting times together as a wildlife management team: ask Johan Joubert, our Wildlife Director, to tell you about our first release of elephants…

Johan confides…

‘I was practising as a vet in Uitenhage when I met Adrian in 1996 and was keen to get involved in wildlife but actually specialised in birds of prey and particularly the conservation of raptors. At my interview though, I told Adrian I knew everything there is to know about animals and he took me on. What I didn’t know was that we were about to receive elephants from the Kruger. We were supposed to build a strong electrified boma to enclose them for 24 hours before release but as funds were limited we used the existing rhino bomas instead of building the expensive elephant enclosure. Unfortunately it was not strong enough. After the 20-hour journey the herd was sick and tired of any form of confinement. On offloading, they more or less demolished the bomas and took off into the dense bush. I immediately realised that we had a highly agitated herd of elephant on Shamwari and they weren’t used to the Eastern Cape bush. I phoned all the neighbours but one (they were not at home) and warned them of a possible elephant escape. The next morning we got a phone call from the neighbour who didn’t get the warning. He was seriously excited about our elephant herd breaking fences and other structures on his farm. I chartered a helicopter and we tried to herd them back.’ What followed was his worst nightmare as the matriarch couldn’t find her baby calf. ‘That night she took her older calf off into the bush again in search of the baby. She crossed two highways and ended up in dense vegetation in the dunes at the coast, killing some prize stud cattle in the process. Adrian (in London at the time) got phone calls from neighbours and the press, but his response was, “Don’t worry, I’ve just appointed a vet and he will bring them back.” Tragically the matriarch didn’t survive but the babies did. I had no idea how deeply I would fall in love with these highly social animals,’ said Johan.

So what’s the secret of your success?

Don’t congratulate me, congratulate my team! If you chat to John O’Brien, my Group Ecologist, he’ll tell you his first impressions of the place. He nearly turned back at the gate as it electrocuted him on the day he arrived for his interview after a 13-hour journey by road in 1993. John recalls, ‘My wife and I took one look at the pink manor house surrounded by the cultivated fields and said to each other, “Do we turn around now and drive 13 hours back home or do we do the polite thing and have a cup of coffee?”’ They stopped for coffee and were won over. The rest is history. Together we set up a wildlife department but our plans were only finally realised in 2000 with the release of lions, cheetahs, hyenas and leopards.

John adds:

‘We all agree on the three most important things needed to maintain a balance: ecological sustainability, financial stability and community involvement. From an ecological point of view, the environment must balance with the herbivores, the predators with prey and so on, but when you throw in the tourism financials it becomes tricky. The balance has to be such that we are financially stable without being OTT otherwise tourism would impact negatively on the environment. It might sound relatively simple but few understand what goes on behind the scenes. Today, a dedicated staff of 400 is managed by our Wildlife Centre at Shamwari. They make an experienced team that’s had a positive impact on the surrounding community with extensive skills training programmes and social involvement projects – and even our core labour team (who came from the first farm Adrian bought in ’89) is still with us after all these years.’

Where does the Mantis Group fit in?

Today, Shamwari is the Mantis Group’s flagship property as it supports the company philosophy of responsible and ecologically sensitive development, supporting the local environment through community development projects and conservation of resources. It is hoped that in this way South Africa’s tourism will develop and be sustained in a manner that allows the industry and the country’s resources to be mutually supportive. The company philosophy has always been to take care of the small things knowing that if they get this right, then the ‘big things’ will be taken care of automatically. The name was suggested by Ian Player, who was profoundly influenced by the Bushmen and their spiritual connection with the earth. The praying mantis is symbolic of this relationship.

Mantis has 43 exceptional properties worldwide. How do you manage other reserves in the portfolio?

The wildlife management team does consulting work internationally, with frequent trips to wildlife regions as far afield as Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Senegal, the Middle East, Morocco and even Scotland. They consult, write the management programmes, plan the structures and assist with development once the management team is in place. I don’t market the place until my team has assessed it and given me the thumbs up.

How does Mantis support the wildlife programmes you offer?

We are very lucky that Mantis has strategic alliance partners who are great ambassadors for Shamwari and all that they’ve set up to support an active wildlife programme: Shamwari has the only two Born Free Animal Rescue centres in South Africa, providing long-term care for rescued abandoned wild cats. An environmental education centre also teaches children from local communities as well as visitors who come on safari. Gap-year volunteers and rangers in training help with anti-poaching campaigns and patrols, track animals and do game counts. There is also the Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre and beyond that 3 500 hectares for the breeding of Cape mountain zebra and TB-free water buffalo that are kept at a safe distance from the lions, who would no doubt cash in on this rather expensive food supply. They are now a sustainable investment and sold off at an annual game auction held locally to promote the wildlife industry in the region.

With social responsibility high on the agenda, describe your contribution to education?

After my own experience, I realised the importance of education and wanted to give back, and so we founded the Stenden University in Port Alfred with its Wildlife Campus at Shamwari (it’s the only place in SA where you can qualify with a BCom degree in Hotel Management and Hospitality). It also includes The Wilderness Foundation, an NGO with its headquarters in Port Elizabeth. I am the current chairman of the foundation, a movement started by Dr Ian Player.

What was the absolute highlight of your career?

Bringing the lions back! Johan will tell you what happened: ‘In 1999 we were translocating a family of wild lions to Shamwari in a fixed-winged plane. The lions were anaesthetised on the floor. A contingent of VIPs and spectators was involved too, but when we loaded the second group of lions (in Madikwe), the plane tilted and the wing was damaged. As it was a risk to fly, we had to leave all the guests on the desolate runway, fly back to Johannesburg (with the sedated lions) to get a new aircraft, while keeping all the lions anaesthetised with a limited quantity of drugs. I was waiting impatiently at Shamwari with expectant journalists. After several anxious hours we finally offloaded. Warm congratulations rolled in, but to his credit Adrian once again said, “Do not congratulate me. I could not have done it without my team.”’

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