Rare as black rhinos are, I had every confidence that Bruce and Joseph would find one, because ever since our group had stepped off the plane at Phinda's gravel airstrip, we'd been lucky. We hadn't proceeded 200 yards from the plane before we came across five cheetahs, which are endangered in many parts of Africa, sprawled in regal welcome in the tall grass, digesting a meal of freshly killed impala. By the end of the first evening's game drive, we'd seen a pride of nine lions, a half-dozen white rhinos, several giraffes and scores of nyalas, impalas, zebras, warthogs, duikers and wildebeests—all from only yards away.
One male giraffe had amused us for a quarter hour by playing with a piece of bone he had picked up off the ground. He worked it and worked it in his mouth, his elastic lips contorting sideways, then up and down, his face scrunching like a hand puppet. He looked like a scrawny-necked, big-eared kid trying to choke down an out-sized jawbreaker, and his expression—the giraffe never took his eyes off us—seemed to ask, What are you looking at?
Phinda is a good-news story in wildlife conservation. And it isn't the only one in South Africa, a country that, despite its sorry history of apartheid, has for the past 30 or so years made the most successful wildlife conservation and restocking efforts on the African continent. White rhinos, whose number in southern Africa had dipped to fewer than 50 in 1898, the year the immense Kruger National Park was created in Transvaal province, have staged a huge comeback. There are now more than 7,000 of them, despite continued pressure by poachers who shoot them for their horns, which are ground up and sold to Asians as aphrodisiacs. "They might as well use old toenail clippings," Bruce told us. "The horns are made of the same stuff."
The white rhino population is now stable enough for South Africa to export a few of these animals each year to other countries. Meanwhile, the beleaguered black rhino has been on the decline everywhere except in South Africa, where antipoaching efforts have stabilized the population at 600 to 700. Still, the number is perilously low.
Elephants, lions, zebras and various species of antelope, which by the 1870s had been virtually eradicated from South Africa by agrarian European settlers, have been reestablished in hundreds of locations throughout South Africa's nine provinces. Kruger National Park, Hluhluwe Game Reserve and Umfolozi Game Reserve are the best-known public parks for viewing animals, but much of South Africa's success in wildlife conservation and management is attributable to the restocking efforts of private reserves such as Phinda, of which there are at least 350.
The name Phinda—pronounced PIN-da—is taken from the Zulu phrase phinda izilwane, which means "return of the animals." Six years ago the 42,000 acres in Natal province that make up Phinda were a hodgepodge of farms, most of which raised cattle. The Johannesburg-based Conservation Corporation, a private company operating luxurious for-profit game lodges, purchased the farmland and began reclaiming it, tearing down fences, removing 175 tons of scrap metal that was scattered about and clearing the acacia thorn bushes that had covered the savanna during decades of overgrazing. The entire property was then fenced, and wildlife was reintroduced. More than 1,000 animals were moved to Phinda, including cheetahs, elephants, lions and white rhinos. The process continues. Last year a herd of Cape buffalo was purchased for Phinda's stocks. Total investment in the property and its animals exceeds $25 million.
Guests at Phinda have their choice of two spectacular places in which to stay. The Nyala Lodge, which opened in 1991, overlooks a vast hillside of umbrella acacias and the distant Ubombo Mountains. The Forest Lodge, which opened in 1993, is tucked in a lowland sand forest of Lebombo wattles and giant torchwoods. Between them the lodges can sleep 72 guests, who are catered to by a staff of more than 300, most of whom are Zulu. That makes Phinda a far more significant contributor to the local economy than the farms it replaced.
Conservation Corporation officials hope that in the near future the fences will come down, and the private land of Phinda and public land of the 84,000-acre Mkuzi Game Reserve will become open range. The animals of each park would then roam freely back and forth, as wildlife does along the 21-mile fenceless border between Kruger National Park and the private Sabi Sand Game Reserve. Ultimately the dream is to see the fences in the entire eastern part of Natal torn down, so Phinda might become one small portion of something called the Greater St. Lucia Wetlands Biosphere: a tract of 741,000 acres that would stretch from Umfolozi east to the Indian Ocean and north into Mozambique's Maputo Elephant Park. Wild animals would be free to migrate among a half-dozen public and private reserves that now operate independently.
Even if the grand plan fails to come to fruition, Phinda stands beautifully on its own. Any notion I had that the property was little more than a large, expensive zoo was dispelled when I learned that in 1993 a lion had killed one of Phinda's guests and mauled her husband. The woman was returning to her bungalow after dark for a pair of sneakers. Lions have superior night vision and become emboldened after sundown. As a consequence, anytime we ventured outside after dark at Phinda, we were escorted by guards carrying flashlights and two-way radios. I had assumed that they carried guns, too, but Bruce set me straight on my third and last night there. "They're just supposed to keep you from running," Bruce explained. "Then they'll radio for help."
None of the guards looked big enough to keep me from running from a lion, but it was instructive to know how I was supposed to behave as an item on the buffet table of life. Do not run or otherwise call attention to your freshness. For someone whose boyish features make him look about 16, Bruce is a pretty handy guy to have looking after you in the wild. He served on a crack antipoaching patrol in Umfolozi as a teenager but joined Phinda when he heard about the grandiose biosphere plans. Committed, idealistic, knowledgeable, he speaks with missionary zeal about the project. Bruce is also something of a hero at Phinda, having saved a celebrity from a lion a few months before our visit.