A game drive at Samara game reserve // © 2011 South African Tourism
Sarah Tompkins and her husband Mark own Samara, a private game reserve in South Africa that has a remarkable story. Samara is located in the Eastern Cape in an area called the Great Karoo, which is noted for its beautiful, wide vistas and semi-arid climate, ranging from grasslands to high-mountain peaks to riverine thickets.
The area was once bursting with game — cheetah, rhinos, wildebeest, antelope and Cape buffalo, just to name a few, and dozens of species of birds. There was a time when the annual springbok migration (last seen in 1896) would take two weeks with millions of animals creating a dust cloud that lasted for days. But over the years, especially in the last two centuries, this wild country has been tamed by the advent of farms that have effectively cut off the migratory patterns of the game.
Enter Sarah and Mark Tompkins. Neither had been especially ardent conservationists —she was South African by birth and he was a financier based in London. But the two fell in love with the land and, over a period of five years, they purchased 11 of the region’s farms and tore down the fences.
“Other than having a great love for the outdoors and animals, we were not involved in conservation anywhere else,” Sarah said. “We were not familiar with this area at all, although I used to drive through it as a child on my way to my grandparents’ home on the coast.”
Beginning in 1997, the Tompkins bought a total of 70,000 acres and called it Samara, which means “land of serenity.” But there was no game to speak of, and the land had been all but destroyed by grazing cattle and sheep. To bring it back, the Tompkins let it lie fallow for several years, giving the land time to recover.
The next step was to introduce indigenous wildlife back into the reserve, which is a three-hour drive from the nearest city, Port Elizabeth. Sarah knew that cheetah — the fastest land animal on the planet — had been decimated in the area, and she wanted to bring them back. She also knew about the De Wildt Wildlife Trust, a research and captive breeding facility for cheetah and other endangered animals, so she contacted them.
“I mentioned that we wanted to introduce cheetah at Samara,” Sarah said. “They said they would help us source some wild cheetah and that they had a program that rewarded farmers for wild cheetah that were captured and not killed.”
Through De Wildt Wildlife Trust, the Tompkins found Sibella, a female cheetah that had been horribly mistreated and mutilated. (Her name is a play on the names of the Tompkins’ two daughters, Sienna and Isabelle.)
“Sibella and her sister had been hunted by men and dogs. Her injuries were nearly fatal. De Wildt did not know if she would live. The tendons in her legs had been cut through to the bone,” Sarah said. “They had put a rope through her jaw. The dogs had ripped her skin. She was tied up and practically left for dead. She would have died in a cage unless a farmer’s wife remembered that De Wildt handed a reward out for wild cheetah.”
Sibella was on the operating table for four hours. It was touch and go, but she survived.
In 2003, Sibella and two male cheetah were introduced to Samara. Although she occasionally showed a slight limp from her mistreatment, Sibella adapted well to her newfound home in the wild. She has produced 18 cubs so far, all but one of which has survived. Several have been sent to other game reserves to help increase the cheetah population in South Africa. Sibella’s offspring account for 2 percent of the total cheetah population in South Africa.
The goal of Samara is to promote animal conservation in this area of South Africa and, according to Sarah Tompkins, eventually reintroduce all the indigenous animals that had disappeared over the years as settlers made their way through the Eastern Cape.
“2012 should be a good year for animal introductions,” Sarah said from the veranda of one of the guest houses on the property. “We have not taken a firm decision regarding lions as yet. We would never do anything to jeopardize Sibella.”
Dozens of species of animals have already been reintroduced to Samara, including white rhino and various antelope, from swishy-tailed gemsbok to tiny duiker. One recent addition, giraffe, can be seen munching on treetops, and Burchell’s zebra are clustered in herds high up on one of the grassy plateaus that frames Samara.
Currently, there is talk of creating a corridor linking several reserves with existing national parks.
“Samara is the catalyst for change in the area,” Sarah said, “and we will be the role model for what national parks will do here. We want to create the third-largest national park in South Africa.”
Meanwhile, the Tompkins have opened their reserve to visitors. Guests can stay at the six-room luxury lodge, a modern-looking Karoo farmhouse with wide verandas, or the exquisite Manor house several miles away, with an infinity pool and spectacular view of the mountains. It’s not unusual to see game passing by at close range, and there are even reports of cheetah lounging on the veranda.
As for Sibella, she is now 12 years old. She was outfitted with a collar that transmits radio signals so she can be tracked by the Samara staff. If guests are lucky, they can even see her during a 4x4 on a trip into the bush.