Haute cuisine, plump pillows and sundowners in the bush - visiting a game reserve in southern Africa invariably means a luxurious ride into the wild. Today, with African game species under threat like never before, safari-style pampering increasingly underpins vital conservation initiatives.
As the sun's final embers fade in the skies over Botswana, a nocturnal chorus starts up at Mombo Camp. Guests sipping Amarula liqueur around the campfire are treated to their very own wildlife show as hippos grunt in nearby waterways, an army of frogs sets up a medley resembling Geiger-counter clicks, and lions growl throatily in the distance.
Run by Wilderness Safaris, one of the largest safari companies in southern Africa, Mombo Camp is located on the northern tip of Chief's Island, within the Okavango Delta's Moremi Game Reserve. Built under large, shady trees, it comprises nine spacious tents raised two metres above the ground. Bathrooms are en suite, with indoor and outdoor showers - it's not often one can bathe al fresco while watching hippos graze nearby.
But the camp at Mombo is not only about luxury wildlife viewing - it's also about conservation and sustainability. Black and white rhinos have returned to the camp's environs thanks to the Botswana Rhino Reintroduction Programme.
In 2001, Wilderness Safaris, together with Botswana's Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP), initiated a programme that has resulted in the white rhino running free and wild in the Okavango Delta once again. The first group of four white rhinos arrived at Mombo in November 2001, with Wilderness Safaris financing the construction of bomas, or open-air enclosures, and much of the transport and the monitoring costs. Another 22 rhinos arrived as a result of an exchange programme between South Africa and Botswana.
"The ultimate accolade has come from the rhinos themselves," says Mpho Malongwa, who oversees the project for Wilderness Safaris. "In August 2004, the first white rhino calf was born in the wild in Mombo, 16 months after its mother was released in 2001. Since then, the steady birth rate more than indicates the success of the programme. It's a joy to see these animals back in the Okavango Delta, where they rightly belong."
Rhinos are one of the most endangered species in Africa. Across Botswana's border to the south, nearly 1,000 animals were illegally killed in South Africa for their horns last year. Despite the fact that rhino horn is made up largely of the same material as a human fingernail, China and Southeast Asia are the biggest markets for a product which many still consider to be an aphrodisiac.
A large percentage of the rhinos killed in South Africa live in Kruger National Park, one of the largest game reserves in Africa. Covering an area the size of Switzerland and bordering Mozambique to the north, it is almost impossible to patrol properly.
Adjoining Kruger, the far smaller Sabi Sand Private Game Reserve is home to a number of luxury safari lodges, and is one of the best places in South Africa to see the so-called "big five" species - lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo and elephant.
Although rhinos have also been lost here, the reserve's smaller size means antipoaching measures are far more enforceable. A growing contingent of park rangers are fighting back with an arsenal that includes automatic weapons, tracker dogs and smartphone technology.
"Yes, it's a full-on war," says David Powrie, Sabi Sand operations manager. "Our security costs are soaring, and we're even looking at buying a helicopter. But if we don't fight back, then these majestic animals will just disappear."
Antipoaching measures are not just about rangers with guns. Everything from rhino farming to injecting horns with poison to prevent human consumption is being considered. "We need to employ all the tools at our disposal," says Rob More, CEO of Lion Sands Game Reserve, boasting three luxurious lodges inside Sabi Sand.
"The growing cost of protecting rhinos is really affecting the viability of some reserves in southern Africa," he says. "But this issue is bigger than just money. Rhinos are part of the glorious ecosystem people expect to see when they come here. We can't afford to let the slaughter continue. If we don't draw the line at rhinos, next thing it will be elephants and lions."
Of southern Africa's game species, it's not only the rhino that's in danger. The world's fastest land animal, the sleek and long-legged cheetah, is losing its race for survival.
About two hours north of Cape Town, Inverdoorn Game Reserve is home to the Western Cape Cheetah Conservation Programme, which rescues the big cats from across southern Africa, and breeds and rehabilitates them. A highlight of visiting Inverdoorn is the "cheetah interaction" activity with one of the reserve's two tame cats, Velvet and Iziba.
"In 1900 there were approximately 100,000 cheetahs in the world; today there are less than 10,000," says Damien Vergnaud, founder of the programme. "We try to get cheetahs from as many different regions as possible in order to create genetic diversity. Weak genes are one of the main threats, as well as human conflict, especially with farmers."
Despite the range of pressures it faces, nature remains one of southern Africa's greatest assets. Tourism, especially low-impact luxury excursions, represents one of the region's most effective ways to preserve and protect biodiversity while creating much-needed jobs and income for local communities. Camps and reserves, such as Mombo and Sabi Sand, may be unaffordable for many travellers, but without them African wildlife would be in a far more precarious position.
Wilderness Safaris: www.wilderness-safaris.com
Lion Sands Game Reserve: www.lionsands.com