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NNestled in the Tembe Elephant Park, a Big Five reserve set in a lush sand forest savannah and swamp ecosystem in northern Maputaland that is home to some of the largest big tuskers in Africa and over 250 of the largest elephants in the world, Tembe Elephant Lodge represents a community conservation success story like no other. Tembe’s success is built on a three-way partnership between Ezemvelo-KZN Wildlife, who manage the park and animals and the Tembe tribe who still own this pristine piece of their ancestral land as well as owning and managing the Lodge in conjunction with their private partners. Tranquil, sustainable and located in the heart of the sand forest, Tembe Elephant Lodge is testimony to the care and pride the Tembe people take in a project that has done much to uplift their community and continues to do more. Tembe Safaris has grown to become the biggest private sector employer in the region and is the largest contributor to the local economy. The lodge currently employs 45 people, all from the KwaTembe region who are provided with professional training in hospitality or as guides. Staff remuneration sees over R3.5 million flow into what was formerly one of the most impoverished areas in South Africa, while community levies collected at the Park gate brings in R300 000 annually for community assistance and funding for community projects. In addition, Tembe supports college bursaries valued at over R1 million for students from the community and provides financial and consultative assistance to other lodges in the KwaTembe region to assist with their conversion from self-catering options to fully catered and serviced accommodation, which offers far greater opportunity for community employment. Community conservation education in the form of free game drives valued at over R150 000 annually, ensures that the Tembe people understand and treasure ‘their’ reserve and the role it plays in conservation in the region and value the contribution it makes to the community’s well-being – in stark contrast to the often strained relationships between proclaimed conservation areas and neighbouring communities. The Lodge itself offers a luxury tented experience that is an affordable take on high-end safari lodges, this makes it attractive for local tourists while still appealing to the international visitor – a factor which accounts for its consistently high occupancy rates. The warmth and friendliness of the Lodge staff under the legendary Tom Mahambe are cited as a major factor in the high incidence of repeat visits (as a visit to the Lodge’s TripAdvisor page or a cursory glance at the Guest Book in reception will show). The Lodge has recently undergone major upgrades to the public dining and reception areas using natural, sustainably-sourced materials under magnificent soaring thatch. The tents, each located for maximum privacy and seclusion invite guests in with comfy camping chairs on private stoeps, high quality linen and attractive use of natural materials throughout. Each has its own outdoor shower and "massage/spa" tent alongside which offers serenity and privacy. Everything has been done to minimise impact on the environment and blend in beautifully with the bush. Tembe Elephant Lodge is a wonderful local product which excels in the sustainable tourism category and is a successful example of how community involvement can benefit both conservation initiatives and economic upliftment in South Africa.

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