SanWild, Unique in the World

SanWild, Unique in the World

» Featured Columnists | By Mike Cooney | September 30, 2011 1:02 PM ET

Although we did not know it at the time, SanWild Wildlife Sanctuary would become the crown jewel of our entire around the world trek.  Before arriving it seemed like just another stop along the way on our odyssey.   And by the time we left, we realized our 10-day visit to SanWild was going to be difficult, if not impossible, to top.

First, some background . . . when I was attending college in the late 70s my dream was to become a zoologist and do field research in Africa.  My goal was to be the next host of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom.  No doubt Marlin Perkins was shaking in his khakis.  This was also long before the explosion of wildlife experts and personalities that are now as thick as ticks on a warthog.  Like so many others, somewhere in route to my goal I took a sharp right turn and never fulfilled my dream.  However, my desire to see wildlife in Africa has never diminished over the years, and as a result, it was always on the top the destination list.

I heard about SanWild in 2005 and kept it on our list of places to visit even when so many other locations were scratched due to lack of financial resources and time.  In late 2008 I sent SanWild representatives an email asking if they would be interested in becoming one of our Partners, and in exchange we would feature them prominently on our Cooney World Adventure web site, write blogs about our experience at SanWild and promote the sanctuary worldwide during and after our trek.  They accepted without hesitation, and thus began a love affair with one of the most amazing places on the planet.

We arrived in Tzaneen by a double-decker motor coach from JoBurg, a seven-hour bus ride north of the capital.  We were seated on the top level in front of the large windows that offered a panorama of the beautiful South African landscape; a place I had always hoped to sit because of the unobstructed view.  But alas, as with most of our other transportation experiences this one was not without challenges.  Soon into the journey, it became obvious that the air conditioning was not working on the top level, and to make matters worse we were headed into the sun for most of the trip.  It was our very own personal sauna on wheels!

Louise Joubert, the founder and driving force behind SanWild, greeted us at the bus stop.   In route Louise told us about SanWild and what makes it unique from all other wildlife reserves.  The sanctuary consists of approximately 5,000 hectares or nearly 12,500 acres with a 12' foot high perimeter fence around the entire property.  It is home to myriad animals that "but for" Louise's intervention would surely have died.  It is a place where injured animals are brought to get well and then released into the sanctuary.  This is its most unique feature because virtually all other rehabilitation facilities have to find a home for the animals once they have recuperated.  Instead, SanWild offers not just a place to get well, but a vast property to live out the remainder of their life.  Dedicated local veterinarians are available 24/7 and use a small surgical suite at the compound for some of the most seriously injured animals.

Another unique feature is that nearly every animal has its own story, and how it came to call SanWild home.  From the two hippos rescued from a French circus to a herd of (allegedly) problem elephants to a baby giraffe that received mouth-to-mouth resuscitation (true story) to the countless other animals that were hit by cars, caught in snares or deemed nuisances by humans who continue to encroach on ever-diminishing habitat.

Human cruelty knows no bounds and Louise and her team have witnessed this countless times.   Wild dogs are the rarest animals in Africa, and there are only a few thousand left in the wild.  SanWild was contacted by wildlife officers stating they had found a large pack being held in captivity, and were asked to come and fetch them.  When Louise and her team arrived, they found the animals in horrible conditions, so bad in fact the wild dogs had begun to devour each other.  The dogs were moved to SanWild and released into a large enclosure where they were properly fed and eventually returned to good health.  They were later released into the sanctuary and are thriving.

SanWild also has nearly 20 lions that were saved from canned hunting.  Canned hunting is a situation where animals, and in this case loins, are raised in captivity for the so-called "sport" of shooting them in an enclosed area.  Fortunately the lions were saved, but sadly they will never be released into the wild because they have been fed by humans all of their lives, and have no natural hunting instincts.  These magnificent animals are well cared for at SanWild; however, feeding and maintaining them is an extremely costly commitment, and one the sanctuary is constantly challenged to fulfill every day.

The accommodations and food at SanWild are first rate.  There are two areas where guests can stay.  The main area has four chalets with a common area where everyone gathers for pre and post game drives and to enjoy delicious snacks and meals.  The second area has tents on platforms with claw foot bathtubs reminiscent of a Hemingway African safari.  It too has a communal area, but is what they call in South Africa a self-catering facility, which means you bring in your own food and prepare it.  This concept is extremely popular in South Africa, and as we later found in Australia and New Zealand as well.

There are at least two game drives each day - once in the morning when it is cool and the animals are more likely to be out, and again at dusk.  The drives are lead by a knowledgeable guide who shares stories about many of the animals, and how they came to SanWild plus general facts and information about other creatures great and small.  The guide also talks about the history and geology of the land and helps identify stars, constellations and the fabled Southern Cross at night.  The guide is also an expert tracker and can spot a spoor while driving at 20 MPH on bumpy well-traveled roads within the sanctuary.

The highlight for us came on March 12, 2009, which was also my wife's birthday.  Louise asked if we were willing to help move a small pride of lions to a larger enclosure.  We said yes faster than a mongoose can catch a snake.  A vet tranquilized each of the lions, and then we along with other helpers were asked to proceed cautiously into the enclosure.  All four lions were magnificent specimens and extremely heavy.  It took eight people to move each of the males from the enclosure to the pick-up truck, which transported them to their new enclosure.  Once unloaded into the larger enclosure, each was administered a shot to bring them out of their tranquilized state.  By evening, they were fully functioning and adapting to their new home.

On another occasion, we were on a game drive when Louise radioed our guide to say that a leopard had been caught in a snare in an industrial area near Tzaneen.  She was trying to keep the gawkers back, but they kept pressing forward to see the big cat.  A vet had arrived to tranquilize it, but it had nearly sawed its hindquarters off trying to escape the snare.   That and the unwanted curiosity of the locals sealed its fate.  Sadly, the leopard's injuries were too severe and it died soon after.  Later, we saw the once beautiful animal in the back of Louise's truck.  It was a very sad day.

Because of Louise's commitment to the animals and the mission of the sanctuary there are more happy endings than sad ones.  Many more animals are saved than perish when she and her team are asked to intervene.  However, every day presents challenges, which includes lack of funding, an ongoing battle with a mining company and a diminishing supply of water due to the unwanted mining activities.

Louise and her team, which includes her husband Andre and a devoted group of volunteers and workers, are among the most dedicated people we have ever met.  They struggle every day to balance the needs of the animals with the limited financial resources they have.  What they have accomplished is nothing short of amazing.  Since returning from our trek, I have been trying to find a partner or partners that can help ensure SanWild in perpetuity.  Please contact me if you or anyone you know would be interested in learning more.

Our next stop was Kruger National Park, which is only 60 miles east of SanWild.  This too always remained on our list of must-see destinations, and it did not disappoint.  And by visiting Kruger, we answered the age-old question . . . Why does the herd of elephants cross the road?  Answer: Because they want to and they can!

And remember, "Travel is the ultimate education."


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