Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

“Do people really need more inspiration to travel? They should start staying home more, learn more about their neighbors and give the planet a chance to heal.”

That sentiment was written by “Lola” in the comments section of a New York Times travel blog under a blurb announcing the publication of Geoffrey Kent’s autobiography, “Safari: Memoir of a Worldwide Travel Pioneer” (HarperCollins, 2015).

It’s hard to argue against the admonitions of either “love thy neighbor” or “protect thy planet,” but I doubt many would agree with Lola that it’s an either/or proposition in regard to travel. It’s entirely possible to support these virtues and take a vacation.

But the fact that Kent, the CEO of Abercrombie & Kent, would inspire such a reaction is not completely surprising. His life combines adventure, over-the-top luxury, environmentalism, celebrity, exploration, wowing the uber-wealthy, innovation and business shrewdness.

He can speak passionately — and advocate effectively — on behalf of endangered animals and concurrently ensure that his one-percenter passengers never feel threatened. I do not doubt that he is careful, always, to recycle his guests’ empty tins of caviar.

Kent does not appear to exhibit the guilt that privilege sometimes engenders, and that is in many ways what makes him a fascinating personality. He will raise environmentalist eyebrows by flying a private jet full of millionaires to, quite literally, the ends of the earth, but then make a point to provide a platform for one of his billionaire guests, Ted Turner, to underscore the need for sustainable practices before a collection of global CEOs assembled by the World Travel and Tourism Council.

Last week, I had lunch with Kent at Steve Wynn’s Encore in Las Vegas on the day of Kent’s book launch party at Virtuoso Travel Week. He had recently been quoted in several media outlets, including this one, for his reaction to the shooting of Cecil the lion and had recounted his feelings after being encouraged to hunt an elephant at the age of 15. Killing the animal, he said, horrified him and turned him against shooting wildlife with anything other than a camera.

He loves to tell first-person stories involving the global social elite; he regaled me with a tale about being called to arrange a plane on short notice for a stranded Bill Clinton and Sting so they could try to complete a trip to Borneo to see orangutans.

But he also demonstrates sensitivity to the complex problems ordinary Africans face in preserving their wildlife. “It has to start from the bottom up, not us telling them what to do,” he said.

He can rightfully take credit for helping to protect Uganda’s gorilla population in a scheme that also funnels about a million dollars a year to local communities, and he worked with fellow Kenyan and former classmate Richard Leakey, the anthropologist, to outlaw hunting in Kenya in 1997.

To accomplish that, he points out, there had to be an alternative income source from wildlife: tourism. As a result, “not much was missed when hunting was banned,” he said.

So take that, Lola.

While Kent’s concern for animals is authentic, he does not pretend it is entirely altruistic.

“It’s possible that in 10 years, we will lose all the rhinos,” he said. “Cheetah will be next. Wild dogs are on the edge. Elephants, maybe 20 years. Lions are being poisoned and killed. If you go to Masai Mara [National Park in Kenya], and all you see is cattle and an occasional elephant, the safari business is dead.”

As for Africans, he said, “We need to look at wildlife like the Saudis look at oil. People still poach rhinos and get away with it, but if someone came and started pumping oil in Saudi Arabia without permission — well, it just couldn’t happen. That’s how African governments need to look at their wildlife resources.”

Animals are central to his business, he continued: “Where will A&K expand next? Wherever there is wildlife. Think of it this way: Why did Steve Wynn go to Macau? It’s where gamblers are. It’s the same principle.”

It’s easy for people in the centers of American and European commerce and arts to feel a bit chauvinistic about their importance, but it has always struck me that people living in seemingly remote corners of the world can make a huge impact. James Norman Hall caught the world’s attention when, living in isolated Tahiti, he published “Mutiny on the Bounty” in 1932. And his son Conrad, raised in French Polynesia, became a multi-Oscar-winning cinematographer.

Kent is among Kenyans of a certain age who have made a worldwide impact; Leaky and primatologist Jane Goodall are among the others. We discussed why this might be, and Kent concluded that post-colonial events were likely the catalyst.

“Richard [Leaky] and I had family farms that were taken away,” he said. “If not for that, I might have lived happily and anonymously as a farmer.”

The paradoxes embodied in Geoffrey Kent — unapologetic bon vivant/spokesperson for endangered animals/first-mover in fragile territory/environmentalist/peerless self-promoter — will likely continue to spur reactions such as Lola’s.

But her concern for the planet, which I believe is shared by a rising percentage of the population, demands attention and respect from the industry. If she challenged your autobiography, how would your life and practices stand up?
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Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/awtravelweekly.

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