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How Samara Private Game Reserve is Rewilding the Great Karoo

As the climate crisis heightens, it’s more important than ever for luxury travelers to be able to make eco-friendly destination choices.

By Emma Reynolds |  June 8 2020


Samara Private Game Reserve
Rhinos roam around Samara Private Game Reserve in the Great Karoo

Samara Private Game Reserve is the first and only “Big Five” safari destination in South Africa’s Karoo heartland. Located in an area that has been largely altered by the presence of humans, the mother-daughter duo behind Samara, Sarah and Isabelle Tompkins founded the luxury lodge with the sole aim of rewilding the Great Karoo.

By using every tourist dollar spent directly on its conservation objectives, Samara has successfully reintroduced a multitude of locally extinct species to the Karoo – including cheetah, elephant, black rhino, lion – in addition to seeing other species return on their own accord. That has not only created a better natural environment but also given new career opportunities to local underprivileged populations.

Now faced with the challenge of a global lockdown, co-owners Sarah and Isabelle have had to adapt to the times. Isabelle speaks to Elite Traveler about what sets Samara Private Game Reserve apart, and what the future looks like for the lodge.

What sets Samara apart from other South African lodges?

Samara is not just a unique safari destination in a singularly beautiful setting – it is a pioneering rewilding journey. Started in 1997 by a family with vision, today Samara encompasses 67,000 acres of born-again wilderness in South Africa’s magical heartland, the Great Karoo.

Samara’s story is one of restoration. Eleven former livestock and hunting farms have been painstakingly rehabilitated. Thousands of animals have been reintroduced, including the first cheetah, elephant and lion to return in over a century. The dream is to restore a mesmerizing landscape of extraordinary diversity to its former glory, reaching beyond Samara’s boundaries to create the country’s 3rd largest protected area of three-million acres.

A key component to Samara’s vision is the concept of co-creation, where every guest plays a role in preserving the landscape for posterity, simply by choosing to visit us.

Every guest plays a role in preserving the landscape simply by choosing to visit.

As people are unable to travel, how have you been engaging your guests and future guests and allowing them to access the natural beauty of the Karoo from their homes?

We have continued to keep our followers up to date on the goings-on at Samara through social media and our blog, including conservation news, wanderlust inspiration and messages of support in these trying times.

We launched the Samara Bush Lessons series to bring the wild into people’s homes, to provide some relief for harried parents attempting to home-school their kids during lockdown, and as a hopeful reminder of the wonders of nature waiting to be discovered once we can all travel again.

The series comprises short videos, each with a fun activity that is offered at Samara, some of which can be replicated at home. The videos are designed for our younger audience but are also (we’re told!) just as entertaining for adults. Covering a range of topics from identifying animal tracks to camping, the virtual lessons are available on our IGTV, Facebook and YouTube channels.

How can people support the lodge from afar? Especially as it pertains to wildlife.

Global lockdowns due to Covid-19 have largely been heralded as beneficial for the natural world, but the reality is that without tourists visiting remote conservation areas, the source of income that many local communities rely on has quickly dried up.

Already South Africa has seen a resurgence in rhino poaching and even poaching of smaller animals for the bushmeat trade as the poorest struggle to feed themselves and their families. This places a heavy burden on reserves, conservancies and parks across the continent, including Samara.

Should people wish to support us from afar, they can donate to the Friends of Samara Foundation, our registered non-profit organization, to help keep vital anti-poaching patrols and other wildlife protection activities going during these turbulent times. A recent contribution helped the anti-poaching division to acquire and train a sniffer dog for its K9 unit.

Donations are gratefully received and can be made via PayPal or bank transfer. Tax-deductible donations in the USA can also be made – contact protect@samara.co.za for more information.

Conservation efforts have been adversely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic due to a lack of funds

Tell us about your conservation efforts and the initiatives you work on.

Conservation is Samara’s raison d’être and we undertake many conservation and rewilding projects on the reserve. We are continually restoring habitats, reintroducing wildlife and supporting cutting-edge scientific research.

We are proud to have achieved a number of ‘firsts’, including reintroducing the first wild cheetah, lion, elephant and black rhinoceros back into the region in more than 100 years.

Samara is a key player in cheetah conservation in South Africa and is widely regarded as one of the best places to see cheetah in the wild. Working with various NGOs, Samara periodically translocates cheetahs born on the reserve to other private and national parks, thus helping to grow the population and diversify the gene pool of this highly endangered animal.

Samara also supports the SA College for Tourism Tracker Academy, a school that trains passionate African naturalists from disadvantaged backgrounds in the dying indigenous skills of tracking. Samara offers the reserve as a training facility for the Academy free of charge and offers several tracker internships per year.

Do you offer private buyouts, and is this something you’re getting inquiries about when life somewhat returns to normal?

Samara offers private buyouts of the entire 67,000-acre reserve and its luxury safari lodges, sleeping a maximum of 26 guests – a guest-to-land ratio almost unparalleled on the African continent.

A highly-personalized stay that is unique to each guest is designed by the team to make the most of the diverse activities on offer, from safari game drives and wildlife tracking on foot to wilderness picnic and fly camping. A kids’ program is available for all ages, a star bed offers a romantic getaway for couples and those with a passion for the environment are granted access to the conservation work being undertaken on the reserve.

There has definitely been a renewed focus on exclusive experiences in recent weeks, with the 4-suite Manor House proving especially popular for families and friends wanting to reconnect after weeks of lockdown separation.

Samara Private Game Reserve

The Manor at Samara Private Game Reserve

Before Covid-19 devastated the globe, what were some trends you were seeing in terms of travel?

We have begun to see more guests requesting conservation-focused stays that allow them to actively contribute to conservation projects on the ground, from land rehabilitation to wildlife translocations to research programs. We facilitate these tailor-made itineraries to enable guests to meet the conservationists and researchers undertaking vital work on the reserve.

Another trend we have seen is the rise in popularity of sabbaticals during which guests spend several weeks on the reserve, contributing to conservation whilst still enjoying five-star luxuries.

Anything else you want our ultra-high net worth (UHNW) guests to know?

Samara offers the ideal location for a private and secure getaway in an untouched malaria-free wilderness. The reserve has a private airstrip suitable for small light aircraft for those wishing to fly in. A nearby tarred runway (45 min drive) can accommodate a Bombardier Global. Samara integrates its commitment to sustainability and conservation into every aspect of the property while still providing a luxury five-star experience.

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