02 August 2014 by Kate Turkington

Helping ensure our tomorrow: The Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre

I’m sitting on the wooden viewing deck of Khula’s Cottage in the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre, just 40km from the Kruger National Park’s Orpen Gate.

A stately sable antelope (undoubtedly the most beautiful antelope of all) is grazing quietly by a small dam. Two white rhino lumber by, one with his nose bound up in a large bandage. An orphaned baby zebra, accompanied by its new friends, a donkey and two sheep, is quietly walking along a sandy path on the other side of the cottage.

Crunchy, the first-ever cheetah cub born at HESC Crunchy, the first-ever cheetah cub born at HESC

In this animal haven – internationally recognised for its unwavering dedication to conserving rare, endangered and vulnerable species – victims of human greed and habitat destruction find a new life, new hope and the ultimate destination: the possibility of being returned to the wilderness. (The bandaged rhino had been brutally de-horned and left for dead by poachers.)

The Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre (HESC) is the fulfilment of a dream. South African Lente Roode, who began the HESC in 1990, first dedicated herself to saving cheetahs. 

The Holy Grail of the centre is re-wilding – the successful reintroduction of creatures back into the wilderness.

But as the fame and credibility of the centre grew, other creatures were brought to her and nursed back to health, from Jabulani, now king of the resident elephant herd at Jabulani Elephant Camp in the adjacent Kapama Game Reserve (where you can take the only night-time elephant-back safari in the world), to the Barbary lions from Mozambique. 

As I drive round the HESC in an open safari vehicle, I watch a feeding frenzy at a vulture restaurant where vultures from all over the area come for a quick daily snack, a rare opportunity to see several species of vultures close up. 

The 'vulture restaurant' The 'vulture restaurant'

I stroke the ears of Crunchy, HESC’s first-ever successfully hand-reared cheetah cub; ooh and aah over the rare, impossibly beautiful king cheetahs; watch Caesar and Sara, two lions abandoned at the roadside by a circus, dozing in the sun; and enjoy the antics of Little G (little G, a tiny month-old baby rhino near death, was found by the body of his mother who had been savagely slaughtered by poachers. He’s now a happy, healthy six month-old toddler).

'Research is at the heart of everything we do,' explains ranger Werner Nel, as he navigates the vehicle along the dirt roads of the centre. 'We have a state-of-the-art veterinary centre; we run outreach programmes for local schools; encourage international volunteers; and run very successful breeding and conservation programmes.'

The Holy Grail of the centre is re-wilding – the successful reintroduction of creatures back into the wilderness.

Little G, the orphaned baby white rhino Little G, the orphaned baby white rhino

Not all can or will make it. Some, like Crunchy, will always call HESC home. But others, like Little G, stand a good chance of being returned to the bush. The programmes are carefully designed and monitored to make sure that human interaction is kept to a minimum.

Built round a weeping boer-bean tree, Khula’s Cottage, a charming self-catering three-bedroom wooden house in the centre’s grounds, is the perfect place to stay. 

Do your own thing and cook for yourself, or chill totally and let the friendly and helpful staff of the centre do everything for you. Take your own game drives to the nearby Kruger National Park, or go on a guided game drive (booking essential) to Kapama, where you’re almost certain to encounter the Big Five. 

Try some of the delicious home-cooked food at the centre’s deli, shop in the gift shop, make a donation, or even adopt an animal. Your money will help to ensure that future generations will also be privileged to see creatures that otherwise might become extinct. And one day, your grandchildren might even watch Little G’s grandchildren roaming free in the bush.

As the passionately committed HESC general manager, Gretha Scheepers, tells me, 'Our motto at HESC is: "Help to ensure our tomorrow."'

Khula's Cottage Khula's Cottage

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