Utrecht is game for anything

On a visit to a small private game reserve in northern KwaZulu-Natal, I made the mistake of getting out of the car to close the gate. Almost immediately I was charged by a raging, wild-eyed blue wildebeest, which pinned me to the fence while pawing the ground and snorting.

Just as I thought my last minute had come, my host called out: “Oh, don’t worry about Roger. He just wants you to scratch him behind his ears.”

Roger, it turned out, was a family pet. And the menacing eyes? Apparently, all wildebeest have wild, rolling eyes even when their motives are lamb-like.

This is a cautionary tale to all would-be visitors to Utrecht, a quiet little mining town literally in the middle of a game reserve not too far removed from Roger’s home.

Utrecht’s economic boom took place in the 1960s and 1970s, when it accounted for 13% of KwaZulu-Natal’s entire economy and there was virtually no unemployment or poverty. Towards the end of the last millennium, however, the economy began to collapse as the mines closed.

By the middle of 2000 Utrecht faced the prospect of becoming a ghost town. In a speech to the local agricultural union at that time, Mike Mabuyakhulu, then MEC for tourism and economic development, urged the local government to rethink its economic strategy.

“Mining was a short-term economic activity,” he said. “You must refocus your thinking towards sustainable alternatives.”

This was just the battle cry that Utrecht needed. A group of concerned residents took a proposal to the municipality in which they recommended that the town and all municipally owned land surrounding it be proclaimed a community game reserve.

At the time this was regarded as a wild idea, but the Utrecht Town Council seized the project and within days the Utrecht Community Game Farm and Wildlife Products Company was born.

The town and 3 500ha of surrounding land was fenced and 12 species

of game — 1 200 animals in total — introduced. Inside the fence the game could roam freely in the streets and on the outskirts of the town. The animals rapidly became a common sight in the town’s public areas.

A request for funding from the Department of Provincial and Local Government brought in a war chest of R4,2-million. This has been used for job creation and to sponsor an enabling environment for the development of small and medium enterprises. To all appearances, the project appears to be a runaway success.

“We are taking advantage of the town’s strategic location on the R34 — the first town along the road linking Gauteng and Mpumalanga,” says Eric Madamalala, Utrecht’s community game farm manager.

“The fact that the whole town and its surrounds is now a proclaimed game park means that property values have gone up. Hopefully this will increase the tax base for the town.

“We have created a new entrance to the town to create a wildlife experience for visitors. We have built four middle-to-upmarket lodges to cater for our growing tourist trade. We have built a restaurant at a central point to serve the needs of travellers along the R34. It has been leased to a local resident as an empowerment exercise.

“We have a development programme for local tour guides, with three local guides already in place. They have access to two game-viewing vehicles that we sponsor. We are also training people to operate and manage a game abattoir to take advantage of the culling process in the park.

“We have employed 2 354 people during the development stage of this project. Of these, 895 are women.

Fifteen permanent jobs have been created for the project’s daily operation — from a general manager to game guards and general labourers. Many more people in the town will benefit indirectly through providing services such as food, curios, extra accommodation and entertainment.

“Our training courses have been organised not only to give people direct training, but also to give them a better understanding of tourists and their needs.”

The town has already seen a positive response to its approach. The tourist industry is growing and the local population has embraced the promise of a long-term economic future. More visitors and investors already live and walk among the wildebeest and other game.

Roger would be tickled pink.

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