Near Graaff-Reinet in the Eastern Cape’s Great Karoo region, the family-owned and run Samara Karoo Reserve offers a strong example of just how important and influential a role women play in the traditionally male-dominated sphere of conservation. Here, women are challenging the notion of conservation as a male-dominated sector.
“At Samara our successes are in no small part due to the dedication, passion and hard work of the women in the Samara team. We have always sought to work sensitively and collaboratively, but in being the first to rewild our landscape, which was considered quite radical at the time, we have had to stick our heads above the parapet.”
These are the words of Sarah Tompkins, a dedicated, passionate and hard working South African conservationist, who in 1997, founded together with her husband Mark, Samara Karoo Reserve – a rewilding project that has become one of South Africa’s most diverse safari destinations.
Over a span of 25 years, a network of 11 former livestock farms has been transformed into a born-again wilderness through an ambitious programme of land restoration and wildlife reintroduction. Reintroducing the first cheetah, lion and elephant to the land in over a century has positioned Samara as a conservation pioneer in a region traditionally dominated by farming – with many obstacles along the way, including the threat of fracking.
Led by Sarah and her eldest daughter Isabelle, this belief permeates the Samara business to this day as the Tompkins team works towards a replicable and scalable model for conservation that will make a lasting impact on the ecologically important Karoo landscape. As a Fellow Member of The Long Run, a global network of nature-based tourism businesses, Samara works to achieve a holistic balance of sustainability across the ‘4 Cs’: Conservation, Community, Culture and Commerce – with attracting, promoting and empowering talented and committed women a key priority.
“The fact that we are women may have irked some of the more patriarchal characters”, says Isabelle, as dedicated and as passionate as her mother about conservation, “This has not stopped us from pursuing our vision with immense determination. I was raised by my parents to believe that gender should be no impediment to ambition.”
Across the country in the northern reaches of Zululand, KwaZulu-Natal where the Great Rift Valley meets the Lebombo Mountains, lies Thanda Safari. Owned by Swedish philanthropists Christin and Dan Olofsson, the private Big Five game reserve offers an authentic South African wildlife experience with excellent game viewing all year round. With a sincere commitment to Zulu culture and conservation of the environment, Thanda Safari is actively involved in conservation, wildlife research, uplifting the local communities and empowering women.
Here too is another woman, challenging in this instance the male-dominated safari industry. A rare female presence on the African safari scene – Lorraine Doyle, an ICU nursing sister-turned-passionate-wildlife conservationist, has three missions in her life – healing, wildlife and environment.
As Thanda Safari’s Wildlife Manager and resident Ecologist and co-director of Ulwazi Research & Volunteer Programme and Africa Nature Training (Thanda Safari’s internship programme offering professional guiding courses and educational experiences for nature enthusiasts) she ensures that the private game reserve follows the best conservation practices and procedures to preserve not only the wildlife but also indigenous plant life across nearly 35,000 acres of stunning wilderness.
“That’s really been it for me at Thanda Safari,” she says. “We have to get people passionate about the wildlife we’re involved with if we have any chance of preserving it. I always feel privileged to be able to share what I’ve learned over the past 20 years; education is the foundation of conservation.”
She is the highest qualified, Safari Guide (certified Level 3 Lead Trails Guide and Assessor) at Thanda Safari, a specialist Guide for Toyota South Africa, the only female Guide and Expedition Leader on the continent for Natural Habitat Adventures and she remains the only South African woman with her own guide training company, Africa Nature Training, launched in 2002.
Conservation and wildlife management aside, Lorraine does occasionally guide on game drives and walking safaris, and she is always happy to answer the questions of interested guests. When she guides, she carries a large calibre rifle and is often asked by male clients, “Do you know how to use that thing?”
Being a woman working in the male-dominated safari industry can be “quite strange,” she admits, “there’s still quite a way to go, but it is getting better.”