The Johannesburg Zoo has set up 694 hectares of arable land amid a World Heritage Site in the Free State to breed and conserve rare species of animals and pilot extensive crop farming systems.
Located in Parys, a small vibrant town on the banks of the Vaal River, the Rietkuil Wildlife Conservation Farm was acquired in 2006 and continues to play a complex and indispensable role in wildlife preservation.
It is headed by Bishop Ngobeli, a Nature Conservationist at Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo (JCPZ) – the custodians of greening and nature conservation in the City.
The farm started as a storage facility for the Joburg Zoo but has since developed into a top-notch conservation hub, boasting a plethora of facilities, including a Wattled Crane clinic and enclosure, a cold room to store meat, a large workshop were utensils for the farm are fabricated; and a farm manager’s house; seven living quarters for staff and their families, and a thatched Lapa for meetings and functions.
It has a staff complement of six permanent employees, including an animal keeper, a driver, a cleaner, a breeding specialist, an animal attendant and farm manager. There’s also an external contractor who has hired a group of local youngsters as interns to supplement the workforce.
The farm has two sections of animals, including high valued species like bovines and those on conservation programmes. Other animals on the farm are Red-Hartebeest, rare White Lions, Buffalo, Nguni-cattle, Bapedi and Nguni Sheep, Kudu, Nyala, Waterbuck, as well as Sable antelopes, and parrots.
The farm also breeds bunnies, quail birds and mice as feed for the zoo and serves as a sanctuary for animals that need space for rehabilitation.
The farm is located in a mountainous terrain covered in thick forest, parts of which are still dense and inaccessible. This is where an intensive Wattled Crane research project is run, which also includes blue and grey crowned cranes. The City of Johannesburg is the only municipality in Africa with a captive population of Wattled Cranes.
About R7-million rands has been set aside for conservation in Johannesburg and a little less than R3-million rands for the overall management of Rietkuil.
Found about 120km south-west of Johannesburg, Rietkuil is in the Vredefort Dome, an archetypal part of a larger meteorite impact structure, dating back some 2 million years, the oldest yet found on Earth. It has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
With a radius of 190km, the Vredefort Dome is the only example of a full geological profile of an eroded remnant of a large crater made by the impact of a meteorite.
When Rietkuil’s profitability came under scrutiny a few years ago and was threatened with being auctioned off, Ngobeli presented a conservation rescue plan which did not only make the asset profitable but made the farm a wise investment for sustainable conservation efforts and intelligent use of forested land.
Ngobeli is currently piloting a crop farming scheme on the farm, which will eventually provide fresh produce to animals at the zoo in Parkview. He has already started ploughing a large portion of the land to produce straw bale as fodder for animals.
Currently, although on a subsistence scale, the farm produces kale, cabbage, lettuce, sweet potatoes, pepper and carrots, which are used to supplement the Joburg Zoo diet.
Ngobeli notes that land in Parys is fertile and suitable for farming. In the long term, Rietkuil will invest in tunnel farming for massive production.
“I want the farm to be sustainable and to produce access food for the zoo, so we can slash in half, if not altogether, the budget we spend on purchasing food for animals,” he says.
Plans are afoot to turn the old farm manager’s house into a research and conservation hub. The ultimate plan is to focus 40 percent of the farm on crop-farming and 60 percent on the conservation of flora and fauna. “I would love for the facility to be turned into a research hub for university students from across the world,” he says.
Currently, Rietkuil has partnerships with the North-West University, and the University of Johannesburg on nature conservation research.