In the next hour, I alone accounted for two adult and a baby giraffe, three eland, a couple of zebras, a big waterbuck and several blesbok. “Stef”, the young woman sitting next to me on the vehicle, had an even deadlier aim.
Don’t freak out. The “massacre” was a paint-balling operation - a relatively new and extremely cost-effective way of dipping wild animals against ticks and other parasites. The concentrated treatment is mixed with a marker dye so rangers know which animals have already been treated.
The exercise made for some humour later in the day when an American tourist on a game drive asked Stef why the rhino had two green stains on his bum. Stef and I shared small, private smiles.
German-born Stephanie Mowka, 27, came to South Africa five years ago after completing a degree in marketing management. She was immediately and totally overcome by the beauty of the bush and decided to study wildlife and lodge management.
She’s been working at the Kariega Game Reserve, near Kenton-on-Sea, in the Eastern Cape, as a field guide and ranger for two years and has no intention of returning permanently to Europe. “I love my job too much,” she says.
Stef buries herself in the activities of the 13000-hectare, four-star reserve (discussions at increasing its size 6000ha are at an advanced stage) whether it’s showing tourists around, “paint-balling” animals or helping out with Kariega’s recently launched serval breeding and release programme.
Pairs of the elegant long-legged cat were acquired from animal sanctuaries at Plettenberg Bay and Cradock and placed in four large specially constructed bomas - two each at opposite ends of the reserve. Each pair of adjacent bomas has an inter-leading gate and the intention is to open this when the animals are more familiar with each other and ready to mate.
I have seen the two Plettenberg Bay animals at their “home” and the cages in which they were kept were tiny, and the diets of the cats pathetically limited.
“We’ve had a couple of really good years here at Kariega and the trend looks set to continue,” says head ranger Jason Friend.
For the past couple of years, the owners have concentrated on improving the hospitality side of the reserve (Kariega boasts five lodges including a homestead for tour groups and a luxury tented camp) but currently there is an increased focus on conservation.
“There is considerable enthusiasm and reinvestment in wildlife and habitat management. There is a general feeling ‘hospitality is going well, now it’s time to concentrate on our core business’.”
“We’ve started a whole new fight against invasive plant species, particularly prickly pear, some of the plumbago and needle thorns in order to open up what were once natural plains areas.
“Part of the problem is caused by overgrazing by certain browsing animals - blesbok don’t move around much, so they graze down to the soil and that’s when the invasive plants move in - so we have to manage the blesbok numbers more carefully.”
As far as the serval breeding programme is concerned, he says, “we’re seeking to reintroduce a species that was previously recorded in the area but was either hunted or chased out as a result of human-wildlife conflict”.
The main prey for serval are mice and rodents. As such, they hunt mainly in long grass where their long legs, exceptionally large ears and sharp teeth make them perfect predators.
They are also among the most beautiful of the small cats.
Because of the nature of their prey, serval are also fairly easy to rehabilitate into the wild.
“Our intention is to breed the pairs and release their offspring. It’s our hope that, because these animals are born and raised on the reserve, they will start establishing home ranges and territories around the boma areas.”
Other plans include the reintroduction of leopard and cheetah, and building tunnels under the public road that splits the two halves of the reserve. This will facilitate animal migration.
At present, the physical separation serves a purpose in that predators are only kept on the western side of the reserve, while herbivores and ruminants have the run of the east.
The most famous resident on the eastern side of the fence is Thandi, a white rhino that was poached and left for dead in 2012. Unlike the four other members of her group, Thandi survived and surprised everyone by falling pregnant and giving birth to a calf, Thembi, early in 2015.
She gave birth to a second calf, Colin (named after owner Colin Rushmere who passed away last year), at the beginning of this year.
Stef relates the story after an afternoon game drive that has included close encounters with five lions (two males and three lionesses who just didn’t want to get involved in any shenanigans) and a small herd of elephants that suddenly emerged from dense Albany thicket right next to the vehicle. It was all too much for the English tourist on the first day of her first safari and she started weeping.
For Stef it was perfect, her guest “got it”.
Kariega Game Reserve is less than an hour’s drive from Port Elizabeth and is malaria-free. It is bordered east and west by the Kariega and Bushmans rivers, and sunset cruises are offered.