Kwena Gardens Croc Farm
End of an era. Back in 1985 I received a telephone call from Shlomi Ranot, an Israeli whom I had met at a Crocodile Specialist Group (IUCN) meeting in Zimbabwe back in 1982. He worked with a large conglomerate of companies in Israel called CLAL and informed me that they were establishing an exclusive crocodile farm at Sun City and offered me the job of curator. I was running my own newspaper at the time in Heidelberg and immediately took the job.
It was an exciting venture with Dave Kirkby of Top Turf doing most of the crocodile enclosures and trucking in large trees and Patrick Watson, formidable landscape architect looking after the design and landscaping. Most of the adult crocodiles were trucked in from the late John Seaman who was based in Maun, Botswana.
This was in the days of Bophuthatswana and we had exactly three and a half months to complete the project as that was the only date available for President Lucas Mangope to do the official opening. The man behind the entire operation was Shabtai Kalmanovits, a Russian spy who was the Bophuthatswana trade representative in Israel and a close associate of Mangope. He was said to be one of the main reasons for the military coup led by Malebane Metsing. Kalmanovits ended up in jail, was released and assassinated. But that is a story for another day.
With the genius of Patrick Watson and support from the Top Turf team, Kwena Gardens was opened on time and by President Mangope. Kalmanovits arrived by helicopter and there was a strong government presence as well as senior Sun International members. More than a hundred people attended the grand opening and Kwena Gardens, named after President Mangope’s son, was impressive.
The park was twofold – a glitzy tourism venue with coffee shop and curio store as well as a commercial crocodile section where crocodiles were bred and raised for their skins. The tourism side of the business was slow with people visiting Sun City to gamble or watch shows with international stars who would not perform in South Africa because of apartheid.
With close on three hundred adult crocodiles, we had loads of eggs but a high fatality rate amongst hatchlings within the first year. This was pretty much the case at most commercial crocodile farms in South Africa and Zimbabwe. With help from Prof Gerrie Smith, a professor in animal nutrition at the University of Pretoria and Mark Verseput, we soon got on top of crocodile husbandry and within two years we had excellent results.
I soon got promoted to general manager but at about a third of the previous general manager’s salary. This, they told me, was because I was not Israeli. Needless to say, I moved on.
My good friend Brandon Borgelt took over the running of Kwena Gardens and lasted just over ten years and then Dave Leigh who has been there since.
I have just returned from Sun City and was hoping to photograph some of the magnificent crocodiles at Kwena Gardens but was informed that the park has closed and virtually all of the crocodiles moved off site. Sun International did not release their lease and the premises will no longer function as a crocodile farm. Sad to see so much effort and expertise go to waste. The end of an era.