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  • Writer's picturePaul Bloomfield

Safaris that give back

Travel writer Paul Bloomfield explores how we can choose African safaris that support both nature preservation and local communities (see also Six of the best conservation and community safaris)

Leopard lies on branch framed by leaves
Heart-stopping moments like these make an African safari unforgettable. Photo: Cottar's Safari/Nick Dale Photography

A leopard lounges on a branch, sheltering from the midday heat. A giraffe plucks leaves from a thorny acacia with its long, black, curiously prehensile tongue. An elephant snorts up water in its trunk from a muddy pool before hosing it into its mouth.


Heart-stopping moments like these make an African safari unforgettable – and, for many of us, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. After all, such holidays come at a cost – not just to your bank balance but also to the environment: for most travellers, reaching Africa involves flying, and while airlines continue to use fossil fuels to power their aircraft, there are significant carbon emissions involved in such journeys.


Safaris themselves also place demands on the local environment, natural resources, and people. However, wildlife conservation on the continent is heavily dependent on tourism, which largely caters to overseas visitors – if tourists stop flying to Africa, the situation for much of its wildlife is likely to deteriorate.


“Most state-run national parks and protected areas receive only about 30% of their total budgets from governments, and rely on tourism to fund the balance,” says Colin Bell, co-founder of Natural Selection Safaris. “Private game reserves, in contrast, rely completely on tourism revenues to cover their management costs.”

female safari guide sitting in jeep with african bush in background
Evalyn Sintoyia is a safari guide in Kenya, East Africa. Photo: Richard Hammond

Safaris also provide important support for communities. “In many southern Africa lodges, the community that leases their lands to the safari company earns a base annual rental plus a percentage of turnover that can be anywhere from 4% to 10% of gross revenues (not profits) of the lodge,” adds Bell. “Under these revenue-sharing models, communities always earn money for leasing their wildlife lands regardless of occupancies, even in the worst years.”


“Many countries are moving away from mass tourism towards a lower density, higher revenue safari tourism model which results in far less impact on the environment and is ultimately more sustainable,” he continues. “The job ratio in higher-end safari lodges in most parts of Africa now often results in one guest supporting anywhere from two to five jobs in a lodge – and a staff member in a rural area has between 10 and 15 dependents, so the tourism reach into communities can be significant.”

safari lodge in africa with pool in background
Tongole Wilderness Lodge, Malawi. Photo: Expert Africa/Tongole

Safari operators are increasingly making claims about their social and environmental credentials, so how can you tell the green from the greenwash? The devil is in the detail. Who owns the safari operator – local communities, an individual or private company in the country you’re visiting, or a large international business? Fortunately, operators offering the most memorable safari experiences and accommodation also tend to be those with a strong conservation and community ethos. 


“Those with the good ethics are typically also the ones clients really like,” observes Chris McIntyre, managing director of specialist tour operator Expert Africa.


It’s worth knowing whether local communities have any equity or revenue share in the business – if so, that should ensure not just benefits for that community, but may also enhance their investment in conservation of the wildlife in their region, the long-term viability of the safari business, its lasting commitment to conservation, and the visitor experience.


“If it’s a longer agreement, very often the property management has a greater platform to invest in people, to invest in the quality of their product, to invest in marketing, to make a better business, to train local people, and to make it a much more meaningful operation,” says Neil Birnie, from Conservation Capital, which facilitates the financing of natural capital projects throughout Africa.

“A lodge that supports a small area of high biodiversity importance is playing a hugely valuable role”.


If possible, find out how the reserve, park, or conservancy you’re visiting operates – their funding, and how the managing organisation assists communities and conservation. “Private conservation areas with landowners who pay levies, or privately managed areas that are well funded through international philanthropy, have a more sustainable funding base than many national parks and other government or community-owned areas that are often largely or even entirely dependent on tourism to fund conservation efforts,” says Andrew Parker, co-founder of Conserve and former director of Conservation Development at African Parks. 

Two zebra leaning on each other
Safari operators are increasingly making claims about their social and environmental credentials. Photo: Cottar’s Safaris/Nick Dale Photography

Often, rates listed by accommodation providers specify payments to local communities and conservation levies. But what other contributions to communities does the operator make? Just as important as cash income is the provision of jobs backed by skills transfer and mentorship, especially for more senior roles. What proportion of employees come from local communities? This often increases over the length of a concession, as more people are trained up and become skilled.


“It’s unlikely that a senior guide or top chef will come from the local area initially,” comments Birnie, “but most of the wider staff could – and, with training, they could rise through the ranks. So if there’s a long term agreement, by year 10 or 15 perhaps 90% or more of the staff might be drawn from the local area.” 


Where some fall down is on the quality of accommodation provided to staff, many of whom may be recruited from the local community. “An often overlooked issue is how staff are looked after,” says Parker. “Guests should ask to see back-of-house facilities to hold the operator accountable.”


Other questions might be: does the safari operator use local companies for the procurement of goods and services such as food products and cleaning? Are they also involved in conservation or research work – for example, anti-poaching patrols or scientific projects? And are these very local, or larger in scope?


“Scale is an important issue,” says Parker. “There are huge economies of scale in conservation, and conservation works better in terms of contributing to functioning ecosystems at scale. Hence a lodge that supports efforts over a larger area is playing a more important role than a lodge that benefits a smaller area. That said, a lodge that supports a small area of high biodiversity importance is playing a hugely valuable role.”


Consider off-season travel, where this can help sustain communities and offer a completely different perspective

Even small local projects can have a significant impact. “The direct contribution of camps and lodges might be relatively minimal,” adds Birnie, “but they have the capacity to act as an engine inspiring guests to support conservation or support local community development initiatives, which in turn foster greater support by local people for conservation.”

Masai woman chatting with visitor
Community engagement at Cottar's Safaris. Photo: Cottar’s Safaris/Valerie Darling

You can also make a difference with the choices you make before booking and during your trip. Consider visiting less well known countries to distribute revenue more widely – Angola, Mozambique or Zimbabwe, perhaps. “In countries where conservation as a land use is under pressure, foreign exchange earnings from tourism confer significant political collateral,” says Parker. “Booking with one of the bigger operators that has a facility in a less-known area is probably the best approach, as the financial flows will be guarded by the prevailing concession agreement.”


Consider off-season travel, where this can help sustain communities and offer a completely different perspective on an area that even experienced safari enthusiasts may find rewarding – the rainy ‘emerald season’ (November to May) in Zambia is an increasingly popular option, for example, with lower rates, lush vegetation and rich birdlife.


Think about visiting community conservancies or private reserves as alternatives to the more popular national parks. The conservancies around Kenya’s Masai Mara offer exclusive experiences and fine wildlife sightings, as well as contributing to communities and conservation.


Finally, consider the impact you want your holiday to have on you and the destination. “A key idea is for people to approach travel as an opportunity to effect meaningful change rather than to simply indulge,” says Parker. 


“Transformational travel is the new buzzword – people want to be changed by their experience, and also to leave the world a better place because of their interaction with it.”

man and two women sitting by campfire at night
Camping at Ol Pejeta. Photo: Ol Pejeta/ Rio The Photographer


This article appeared in the August/September 2023 issue of the Green Traveller magazine.


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