The Wild Life of Adrian Gardiner

Laura Sevier of interviewed Adrian Gardiner, Founder & Chairman of Mantis on his “Wild Life.”

Read the full interview with Adrian Gardiner including images & video here

How one man combined world-class luxury and African bush life to launch an empire.

On the surface of it, the quaint, old-fashioned dining room of the Draycott Hotel seemed an odd choice to meet Adrian Gardiner, the hotel magnate, for lunch.

Dressed in a light green khaki shirt and trousers, Adrian looks like he’d rather be in the African bush, not in this quintessentially English hotel set in a quiet street in London’s Chelsea. And when, over the course of lunch I ask him where he is most happy in nature, he expresses a love for walking. ‘I’d rather walk than be on a Jeep. I’ve really come to the stage in my life when I’ve got no fear of wildlife. Zero. The best way to go is if a herd of elephants or rhino take me out,’ Adrian says.

Yet Adrian, 68, also seems very at home here in this elegant hotel. I’d asked him to pick a place for lunch so that I could talk to him about his passion – conservation and creating game reserves. He’d chosen this tranquil private dining room and had asked his son, Paul to join us. There was no menu; instead a simple cold salad of smoked salmon, avocado and sliced egg arrived for each of us. ‘I hope you like fish,’ said Gardiner, grinning.’

Before I arrived I had researched the Draycott and was surprised to discover that the hotel, which occupies three red-brick Edwardian homes, is owned by the Mantis Group, a mini empire of 40 game reserves and luxury boutique hotels around the world which Gardiner founded. His son Paul, is Mantis Sales and Marketing director.

So how does this town house hotel relate to what Adrian is best known for – creating five star wildlife reserves? ‘Our mission statement is “conserving a vanishing way of life,” he says.

Adrian explains that smaller is better, and associated with small, is personal service— not just a number but also a personality. ‘We don’t want to be press 1 for reservation, press 2 for that, or 3 for that,’ he says. ‘That’s not our game. Ours revolves around personal service.’ Whatever formula he’s applying is working. Gardiner is currently one of the most successful businessmen in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. I ask him if this is a fair judgment. He tentatively agrees: ‘Humbly – I would think so having created an industry which did not exist.’

On the white tablecloth there is a Mantis brochure, which I flick through during lunch. There’s page after page of up market holiday experiences – from chartering a luxury yacht in Cape Town to penguin spotting at an eco camp in Antarctica. Most of the properties are in Africa, including game reserves and safari lodges, but there are various ones in Europe, South America and beyond too.

In conservation circles Adrian is looked up to as the man behind Shamwari, a game reserve he created from degraded farmland in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. The Shamwari model, of rewilding the land and re-introducing some of Africa’s greatest wild animals to attract tourists, kick started the movement for other farms in the area to do the same, ultimately setting off a total redevelopment of the land across South Africa’s Eastern Cape.

‘They’ve all done it now. I’ve got 14 competitor farms around us,’ he says. I can’t work out whether he is proud or annoyed, as his face gives nothing away. Then he adds, ‘I suppose you can be proud of the fact that it’s a success story.’

Game reserves are now a primary industry in South Africa. Although they’re still small in comparison to traditional farms, the reserves profile the province in a big way, accounting for a significant portion of state revenue.

So what makes Shamwari (meaning ‘friend’ in Shona – one of the primary languages of Zimbabwe where Adrian grew up in the 1940s) so different? Adrian patiently explains that it was the first private game reserve in the area – all the others were National Parks and none had the Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo). And more importantly, Shamwari showed that degraded land could be rehabilitated successfully and be beneficial to the community, mainly by spurring local employment. ‘There were probably 15 people employed before, now there’s over 325. That’s the biggest spin off, that these people in rural areas have now got something they can be proud of and a job to go to.’

Arguably, the biggest benefactors of the Shamwari model are the safari-seeking tourists, travellers with cash to spare who arrive to all the comforts of a posh hotel while waking up to the roar of lions. In between early morning and late afternoon game drives one can now lounge by the swimming pool of a five star luxury lodge and enjoy spa treatments. Or one can visit one of the two Born Free Big Cat Sanctuaries on site or go for a walk in the bush (with the ranger of course!) The lodges themselves are designed to be ecologically friendly, three of which are rated by the Greenleaf Programme (designed by the Wilderness Foundation).

But what I’m really interested in, beyond the glamour of the polished brochures is the story of how Adrian transformed thousands of acres of drought-ridden farmland into a thriving game reserve now home to Africa’s Big Five. And how he managed to leverage that odd combination—of world-class luxury and South African bush life— to launch an empire.

When Adrian first bought this ‘patch of Africa’ in 1990 it was a 3000-acre farm. The farmland was ‘completely abused and degraded’ he says emphatically. ‘The area was suffering from a severe drought; the farms were overgrazed and full of exotic plant species and lots of the farms were owned by absentee farmers who only employed a few herdsman – there was very little employment for the local community.’

For Adrian, who only ever imagined the land as a weekend retreat for his family to escape to from Port Elizabeth, it might have always remained so had he not met one of Africa’s biggest wildlife and wilderness conservationists, Ian Player. ‘He was a huge inspiration to me,’ said Adrian, his blue eyes twinkling. ‘He really motivated me to put back what man had successfully removed over many years.’ Ian also encouraged him to keep expanding the reserve from a modest 3000 acres to a vast stretch of 60,000 acres by buying up other local farms that came on the market.

I ask him what sold him on the idea – a dream of a lusher Africa or a niche in the market? ‘Ian encouraged me for both reasons – we needed the space if we were to introduce the prime predators, and there was also a niche as it had never been done privately before.’

Adrian has a natural charm and a relaxed manner, but underneath I sense the steely grit of an entrepreneur. The initial opposition from neighbors was ‘huge’ he recalls. ‘In one meeting a farmer got up and said, “my Grandfather got rid of the last brown hyena so you won’t be able to see us putting them back.” To put the lions back he needed to get a signature from everybody and to design the fencing with the province. So what convinced Adrian he knew better? ‘My instinct told me that if we could successfully reintroduce the Big Five into a malaria-free area, we had a winner.’

The rewilding was no easy task. When Adrian arrived the farm had a few scattered antelope and baboons. But lions and elephants? No way. Lions hadn’t roamed the Eastern Cape since 150 years earlier when they were eradicated by livestock farmers.

The elephants and rhinos came in quickly, while the release of the first predators took ten years. The first three years alone were spent cleaning up, getting rid of fencing, creating road systems, checking the waters. Following his mentor Ian Player’s advice, the animals were introduced in stages, starting with indigenous species. Why not just introduce them all at the same time? ‘Three reasons,’ says Adrian. ‘Cost, availability and the recovery of the land to sustain herds.’

The rewilding has not come without trial and error. There were mistakes along the way. They put in wild dog at one stage. ‘It was a major error,’ he admits. ‘We had to take them off. They are the prime predator. They would pick a species; wipe out that species and then move on to the next easiest one to catch. They’d run game into the fence. You really need a massive block of land.’

Adrian recounts his most gratifying parts of the journey; introducing the white and black rhino, thereby saving them from extinction; introducing and flushing out the complete eco system from dung beetle to elephant. His son Paul chips in: ‘Mine was the day the predators arrived.’ he says. ‘They’d disappeared 200 years ago. To wake up the next morning to the roar of a lion is really special.’

It’s impressive and moving stuff. But what about the value of National Parks, which are subsidized by the government? Is private ownership—where one must pay a high ticket to enjoy the gifts of nature— really a better model?

‘National Parks are not sustainable,’ Adrian declares. ‘I fight with our local government and it’s because they have 26 reserves in our area which they do nothing with,’ he says gravely. ‘If I was a neighbour living near one of the reserves that are totally useless and protected for just some wildlife which is not really being protected I would be the first to break the fence down.’ He explains that these parks mainly have antelope – there are no predators and no elephants although a few have rhino. Plus ‘the land produces no income through tourism.’

He emphasizes that for a reserve to work, the community has to support it. This requires education on why the land should be protected, and a collective understanding that employment creation will follow the establishment of a viable tourist attraction.

As for attracting the tourists? There’s nothing like getting the Big Five in. Though it’s more complicated that it seems. One needs a host of tools at his disposal: initial funding, expertise, careful management and impotantly, security against poachers. Rhino poaching in particular has become a serious problem as the illegal trade in rhino horn continues to escalate on the black market. Last year alone, 333 rhino were killed last year in South Africa according to Wildlife Society of South Africa.

But could this model work on a huge scale or is it always going to be pockets of land reserved for the very wealthy? Adrian believes even more privatisation of land is in order. ‘There’s lots of land which is quite vast but a lot of it is in government hands. So they need to get the people like ourselves with the experience to exploit it, to make it useful.’

The private ownership model is funded 100% by its visitors, which makes economic sustainability essential. ‘Otherwise everything we have done would be lost,’ says Adrian.

Does that justify the high prices Shamwari charges for its safaris? ‘There are no hand outs from any conservation company or other organisation so you have to make your own money.’ He believes government – through tax breaks or the like, should reward conservation efforts. But what does he have to say about those who can’t afford to visit Shamwari? ‘They can visit National Parks of which we have many such as the Kruger National Park.’

By the time we’re on coffee, we’re talking about the bigger picture. The Shamwari model has pioneered the restoration of wildlife in the Eastern Cape. On a wider scale, Adrian sees the Shamwari model for sustainable conservation serving all of Africa and around the world. ‘That’s the bigger plan,’ says Paul. This is not to say the recession has left Shamwari unaffected. Three years ago Dubai World Africa acquired a major shareholding of the Shamwari Group. ‘We needed an international partner – the world financial situation is precarious and visitors to South Africa from the UK have dropped by over 30%.’

It appears that some African governments are now turning to Adrian for advice. The day before Adrian had been in discussions with the Gambia Ministry of Tourism. He’s been involved with the Senegal government; drawn up a management plan for the Rwanda government which they are implementing and is consulting on a game reserve in Zimbabwe (‘the tourism is starting to come back’ says Paul).

With all the discussion of wilderness I had almost forgotten where I was. Even the thought of these panoramic scenes had elevated me somehow. Then in the background I hear an old-fashioned telephone ringing at the reception and then a siren wail. Almost an hour has past and Adrian has another meeting lined up – also in the hotel it seems it seems.

Before he goes I asked Adrian the biggest question of all. Given the threat of extinction for so many species, what does he think about the state of the natural world today?

Adrian’s expression turns serious. I get the impression it’s something that worries him a lot. ‘Unless there are more people interested in saving it we’re going to implode. You can’t carry on abusing it like we are doing – taking all the fish out of the sea, cutting down the forests. I often think about it for the grandchildren.’ He paused for a moment, looking stung by the thought of it all. ‘What we can try and do is try and make a difference. It’s about nurturing nature today for tomorrow and conserving a vanishing way of life.’

—Laura Sevier

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