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The Responsible Traveller: responsible safaris

Posted by Richard Hammond at 12:10 on Saturday 19 December 2009

elephant responsible safari greentravellerAfrica leads the world in the use of sustainable tourism to both conserve wildlife and empower local communities. And responsible safaris, often with a side order of luxury attached, are becoming increasingly easy to find...

Getting stuck in a four-wheel drive between a huge musth bull elephant and a herd of elephant cows is not a terribly good idea. The trick, I was told, is to stay calm, control the surge of adrenaline and wait for your driver to interpret the tell-tale signs of the bull’s mood. Thankfully, my driver was Patience Bogatsu (below), a guide from the local Molatedi community whose ancestors have long had to deal with such encounters. She recognised the danger immediately, carried out a nifty five-point turn on the dusty road, and off we sped into the bush, leaving the bull to pursue a receptive female elephant rather than our quaking jeep.

(Above: Up close to an elephant in South Africa; Photo: Richard Hammond)

Patience is one of the first black women in South Africa to become a certified safari guide. She works at Thakadu River Camp in Madikwe Game Reserve on the border with Botswana. Ththakadu responsible safari greentraveller.co.uke camp is run as a collaboration between North West Parks, a South African tour operator, and the local Molatedi community who own the lodge and have traversing rights across the reserve. It is typical of a new breed of lodges in Africa’s safari hotspots where the local communities gain substantial benefits from tourism. The safaris are led by local guides who not only teach you about the wildlife but also about their traditional culture. And just because there’s a local connection, don’t expect mud huts and cross-legged dining. Thakadu is a luxury camping – there are double beds with cotton sheets (below), an en-suite bath and sliding doors onto a private outdoor deck, plus a swimming pool overlooking the Marico River. Yet at these progressive lodges you get an insight into the real Africa - a fascinating mixture of wilderness and development, of innovation and tradition, of dance and music.

(Above right: Patience Bogatsu is one of the first black women in South Africa to become a certified safari guide; Photo: Richard Hammond)

thakadu luxury safariSo how can you find these new breed of responsible safaris? Leading safari tour operators, such as Rainbow Tours, Expert Africa, Tribes Travel and Discovery Initiatives carry out their own vetting procedure. In particular, Tribes Travel, which runs tailor-made holiday in 13 African countries and is widely acknowledged as the UK’s leading responsible tour operator, carries out its own “eco-review” of safari camps based on their environmental performance and social responsibility. Of the 300 reviews, the best performing include Chole Mjini in Tanzania, Sarara Camp at the edge of the Mathews Ranges in Kenya, and Amboseli Porini, a tented camp in the Selenkay Conservation Area, a 15,000-acre private game reserve bordering the northern boundary of Kenya’s Amboseli National Park.

Several African countries have their own ecotourism associations, which list the most responsible lodges and safari operators. The Ecotourism Society of Kenya (ecotourismkenya.org) currently awards its gold rating to just two lodges: Basecamp Masai Mara and Campi ya Kanzi. In South Africa, ‘Fair Trade in Tourism South Africa’ is the world’s first fair trade tourism certification scheme, which assesses travel businesses on fair trade principles, such as whether they provide decent wages and working conditions for their staff. It has certified over 30 South African businesses, including a rhino safari at Leshiba and balloon safaris from Umlani bushcamp in the Timbavati Nature Reserve.

lion safari greentraveller.co.ukNeil Birnie of Wilderness Journeys, which organises safaris in Botswana, Kenya, Malawi, Namibia and Tanzania, says community-run enterprises are most successful when they’re a collaboration between a professional third party operator that understands the international tourism market.
(Right: a lion on morning patrol across its territory; Photo: Richard Hammond)

“Communities have to have a tangible and direct benefit”, he said, “But in my experience, community-owned and operated tourism don’t necessarily do as well as community-owned but third-party operated experiences.”

Birnie points out, however, that this may change in the future. “It may well be that in time, communities will gain the skills in terms of international marketing and business management”.

elephant watering hole greentraveller.co.ukAn example of a highly successful collaboration, he says, is the Loisaba Lodge (www.loisaba.com) on a 250 square-kilometre private ranch and wildlife conservancy on the edge of Laikipia plateau, which is a partnership between the local Koija community (who own the venture) and a private operator who manages the lodge and the conservancy. Income from the enterprise go towards the conservation of the wilderness area and to fund community health and education projects within the neighbouring Maasai tribes.

(Right: an elephant watering hole at Tembe Elephant Park; Photo: Richard Hammond)

As well as choosing a responsible safari operator, Amanda Marks of Tribes Travel says travellers can take responsibility themselves while on safari. Tribes Travel sends out a ‘Good Safari Guide’ to its customers with guidelines on how to treat wildlife, local people and environment. Included in the guide is the insistence that guests stay sitting in the vehicle (“animals tend to see a vehicle as one large object - if you stand up or stick your arms out, you break the shape of the vehicle and the animals could see you as individuals and may put you in danger”). In areas where off-road driving is permitted, Tribes insists that 'bush-bashing' is to be limited as it can cause great damage to the flora.

responsible walking safari greentraveller.co.ukWhile vehicle-based safaris provide a safe, secure vantage point from which to spot wildlife and the mobility to whizz off as soon as the news comes over the radio of where to go for the best action, low impact guided safaris, such as walking or horse-riding safaris are becoming increasingly popular. The pace is much slower, but you are able to follow tracks off-road, catch the scent animals, hear birdsong more clearly and get a closer connection to the bush.

(Left: on walking safari in Phinda Private Game Reserve, South Africa; Photo: Richard Hammond)

There are now many opportunities for responsible safaris in Kenya and South Africa, and other African countries are developing ethically driven tourism as part of an integrated approach to the management of protected areas. According to Neil Birnie, there is a lot Europe can learn from Africa in terms of integrating sustainable economic development.

“Africa is, in my view, 15-20 years ahead of Europe. Many of the protected area systems in Africa have a very sophisticated way of working with the local people - involving them through wildlife conservancies around the buffers of core threats to protected areas. Also most African ministries have a ‘Ministry of ‘Tourism and the Environment’: they acknowledge the important of enterprise - particularly tourism - in the context of environmental protection.”

See also: Five Responsible Safaris


This article, by Richard Hammond, was first published in the January issue of Geographical magazine, available in WHSmith and many independent newsagents. Subscribe online or order your copy by calling +44 (0)1795 414 881.

See also Brian Jackman's article in the Daily Telegraph on the perilous state of Africa's wildlife and how responsible tourism may finally be coming of age: African safaris: Bleak news from the bush



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