Our rhino experience is like a profound Jurassic Park moment – Mantis CEO Paul Gardiner

Paul Gardiner, Chief Executive Officer of the Mantis Collection, joins BizNews to shed more light on the Rhino Conservation programme at Mantis Founders Lodge in the Eastern Cape. The Rhino Conservation Impact Experience is a four-day immersion in the world of conservation, where guests learn from expert conservationists and take part in dehorning and other crucial conservation activities. “Instead of doing that quietly behind the scenes, we invite a group of guests to come for that immersive experience. We’ll actually go out with the wildlife team and dart that rhino, and then you have this whole touchy-feely experience and it’s just one of those life-changing things. When you get close to an animal like that, it’s almost like a Jurassic Park moment. You have this whole new appreciation for those animals,” Gardiner explains. He also delves into what it’s been like to run an international hotel group during a global pandemic. For more information, click here. – Claire Badenhorst 

Paul Gardiner on poaching in the Eastern Cape:

The Eastern Cape, fortunately, has not been as hard hit, and the reason being is we don’t border places like Zimbabwe and Mozambique where you’ve got this extreme poverty right on the border and all those shenanigans that go on there. So we have been quite isolated in terms of that. But a rhino is a rhino. When you’ve got so few left in the world and the bulk of them are sitting in South Africa, it’s pretty frightening. So we are always very vigilant. You know, there are APUs all across the Eastern Cape here now – APUs being anti-poaching units, which require funding. So we’re on it all the time here because, of course, all that happens is, and I’ve heard some ridiculously shocking figures come out of Kruger about the number of rhino that are actually left there. So that vacuum effect now starts moving towards KZN and we [are] the next province in line. So, ja, it’s a sad story.

On how the rhino experience came about:

There are quite a few people doing it. There are quite a few operators out there capitalising on those types of experiences, and I think a lot of this is born out of Covid. You know, we’re sitting around having to think completely out of the box while our lodges are empty and our businesses are hobbling along. So it was definitely born out of that, and I think there’s a future for it, too.

We started a new division within Mantis called Mantis Impact Experiences. So you can either come on a Mantis holiday and enjoy the beach or enjoy bouncing around in a game drive, spotting the Big Five. That’s one aspect. But we’ve sort of flipped it on its head, now. We’re almost saying it’s not about just lying on the beach and it’s not about just bouncing around on the Land Rover, ticking off the Big Five. It’s about immersing yourself in experiences.

We’ve just signed an amazing management contract with a resort that is being developed by the ruler of Bahrain and the sovereign fund. It’s on an island off the coast of Bahrain and the Gulf and it was an existing three-star hotel and the ruler was inspired by Mantis and what we stood for and they said, we don’t want this to be just a resort hotel. We want this to be something quite unique. So what we will bolt on to that product is, we [are] obviously on the coast, so you’ve got a whole marine safari component now. You’ve got one of the biggest migrations of dugong that take place there, and so we’ll immerse our guests into that experience and they’ll go and get involved in that, potentially dive with the dugongs. There are coral reef planting projects. So, again, not lying on the beach; you’re coming into the water, and you’re going to start giving back and contributing. There’s an oryx rewilding programme on the island, on the desert island, so, again, we could do mini safaris and go and set up camera traps and do all of those fun things. So it’s about flipping it on its head, as I said.

[My] dad, who you mentioned earlier, was sort of the original founder of the private game reserve model down in the Eastern Cape. It was obviously taking place up in the Sabi Sands but he was the pioneer down here, and he established Shamwari back in the early ’90s. So there is a Big Five presence down here now and there has been for 30 years. If you go back to 2008, we sold to a Dubai company, but we were left with our small patch of land and our lodge, which is called Founders Lodge – aptly named because Dad pioneered what’s gone on in the Eastern Cape today. Today there are upwards of about 20 other private game reserves that surround Shamwari. So we have our small 400-hectare game reserve, which is bolted onto the side of Shamwari. We’ve got our family home, which has been converted into a lodge, which is called Founders Lodge, and our guests stay at the lodge, but then they go and do these beautiful game drives on the 25,000-hectare Shamwari, and then they retreat back to our lodge.

On what the actual rhino experience entails:

On that 400 hectares, we’ve got a crash of rhinos, as you call them, and obviously, we need to dehorn them because this is one of the things that we practice down in the Eastern Cape – a lot of the private reserves do. If poachers arrive and they see a dehorned rhino, hopefully, they’ll leave them alone. We [have] probably got to perform those exercises every… I think we’ve probably got four lined up for 2022. There’s one that will take place in October this year.

Instead of doing that quietly behind the scenes, we invite a group of guests to come for that immersive experience, and they spend that period of time with us. We’ll actually go out with the wildlife team and dart that rhino, and then you have this whole touchy-feely experience and it’s just one of those life-changing things. When you get close to an animal like that, it’s almost like a Jurassic Park moment. It is really, really very special. You have this whole new appreciation for those animals. So that’s the experience in a nutshell. But then we also add some interesting guests that you’ll meet. One of those, who I just negotiated with this afternoon, is Michael Charton.

There’s quite a lot of activity around the rhino. Believe it or not, when you check out the pulse of a rhino, you feel right underneath its tail – there’s a blood pressure point there – and you can feel a pulse. So somebody will be doing that. Then we use a chainsaw to carefully chop off the horn and somebody’s got to hold that horn as it comes through. We won’t hand the chainsaw to a guest. And there are various other activities – vitamin injections that we’ve got to give them, and we often get the guests involved in that piece of work.

So it’s incredibly immersive, or you can just stand by and watch. Then you’ve got to roll the rhino on its side or on its forelegs – there [are] different positions that it needs to take – and the vet instructs everybody and it’s kind of like going down into a scrum with the bomb squad because that thing is THAT heavy. You get down and dirty; it’s good fun. You’re going to get dusty and you’re going to get a bit muddy and whatever else. But it’s very satisfying.

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On the lodge and how many guests it can take: 

We take 12 at Founders. What we are doing is we [are] expanding the experience slightly. So we [are] building a pod bedroom overlooking one of the valleys which will be mounted on top of the lodge. It’s going to be pretty, pretty cool.

When we were youngsters, Dad got hold of a railway coach and he upgraded it to this first-class coach and we used to hitch it onto the Algoa Express, which traveled from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town. So the coach was retired many years ago and what Dad did was he said, no, I’m going to take that off to Founders, and so we’ve created a siding. The train is mounted on the siding and it’s tucked away right at the foot of a spur. So the lodge is a good couple of kilometers away and you’ll have your own chef there. You’ll have this amazing coach in which you’ll sleep and dine. There’ll be a boma, so you can have some bush dinners and it’s got three bedrooms – one for the parents and then two little ones for the kids. It’s going to be a charming sort of family product, I think, that we’ll launch later this year. So by the end of that, there’ll be 10 rooms, so call it 20 guests that we can accommodate on the reserve.

On the pricing:

It’s coming in at about R8,000 per person per night and that’s fully inclusive of all your meals, [and] your drinks. You do morning and evening game drives into Shamwari. We’ve got a dance group down in one of the local townships and they come up and they’ll do a wonderful performance on one of the evenings. We obviously have the lecturers coming in. Dad’s going to try and be there. If he’s not out, I’ll fill his shoes and we’ll tell the story of Shamwari, which is so fascinating. We’ll probably get somebody like Dr Andrew Muir – the head of the Wilderness Foundation. He’s very vocal and active in the Eastern Cape and [he’s] done so much for this province. So it includes all of that and then some other immersive experiences like our bee project and there are a few tricks up our sleeves.

We’ve priced it pretty competitively. I think we’ve also got to be respectful of the fact that we’re not near Johannesburg and the Eastern Cape is not like Johannesburg or Cape Town. So you don’t have that uber wealth that you do up there. So I think we’ve had to cater for our local province as well, but I think it’s quite competitive.

On how Mantis has coped with the pandemic:

It’s been pretty frightening. This is when you really want to be diversified and have other businesses because this is kind of our lives and we’ve been in this now for 30 years. So it’s hit us hard. I think we are very, very fortunate in that we are slightly diversified in that we’re not entirely- we are reliant on bums in beds, as we say, and of course, all the lockdowns have affected us tremendously. I mean, we’ve got the most beautiful collection of luxury boats on the Chobe River – the Zambezi Queen Collection – and the Zambezi Queen and her three princesses have been sitting empty for 15 months. You’ve got multiple border crossings and Botswana had different rules, Namibia had different rules, and there was no sort of uniformity between those countries. So it absolutely shut us down. So we’ve had to just ride the storm but we [are] starting to see little green shoots come through now. The Germans are starting to travel, the Austrians, the Swiss, the French, and we just waiting with bated breath for South Africa to come off the red list of the UK because that is the biggest market for our country.

This particular province is so reliant on the Brits. There’s that old British settler history here, it’s malaria-free – there’s lots of things that attract them to this part of the world. All the game reserves here have been marketing to the UK market aggressively for 20 years now. We are just so reliant on it and there’s just no sign of when that’s going to come back, which is incredibly frustrating. I mean, there is a big campaign by the South African Tourism Services Association. It’s called SATSA and it’s led by David Frost and Mantis has been involved in that.

We are on a mission to try and get us off this red list, because, you know, the Delta variant has taken over from the Beta variant, and that was what the problem was initially. The British vaccines, the AstraZeneca in particular, was proving to be a little bit more unsuccessful against that particular variant but it’s now been taken apart. AstraZeneca is the winner in terms of the Delta and, of course, South Africa is riddled with Delta, so, you know, what’s the problem? We just can’t win that fight. I think they’ll just do it when they’re ready. But if we can be a little voice in the background shouting from the pulpits, hopefully they will change. So I think there’s another announcement happening in about a week’s time and we’ll see what happens.

Where we have been fortunate is we’ve got a very strong development arm. So we’ve been building lodges and hotels for 30 years. It started with Shamwari, and if you think about that IP that we’ve built and established over the last 30 years, it’s pretty, pretty useful. I don’t think you realise it until you start scratching under the surface of Mantis because through this period, we are busy with the most amazing project in Stellenbosch – we’re building a hotel for a very wealthy individual there. We are incredibly involved in Rwanda. I think we’ve got almost several hotels and lodges there. We’re managing some stuff for the government, the Akagera National Parks Lodge, which is great. We’ve just upgraded the whole facility. There’s another big project which I can’t disclose now that we’re busy with for the government of Rwanda. Then my little team in the UK – there [are] five of us there – and we’ve been doing master planning for wealthy individuals that want ecolodges. One of those happens to be in Barbados. The other is Iceland, another one in Norway. We’ve got two in the UK and we’re about to announce two great hotel projects in the Middle East. So that’s kept the lights on. That’s what’s certainly kept our heads above the water, which has been amazing.

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