By Dorine Reinstein
By Dorine Reinstein
For most consumers, Africa conjures images of untouched and vast areas of wilderness dotted with a few rural villages. Westerners imagine large predators roaming sweeping savannas among huge herds of grazing herbivores.
“To this day, the image we sell of Africa is that of a sea of animals with islands of humanity” said Peter Allison, sales and marketing manager for the safari company Natural Selection. “The reality is the absolute opposite. Africa is an ocean of people with small and shrinking pockets of wildlife.”
Jane Edge, managing director of Fair Trade Tourism, which promotes fair and responsible business practices across Africa, agrees that the travel industry must be careful not to oversell the myth of wild Africa.
“Don’t tell people that Africa is a continent teeming with wildlife,” she said. “There are people in those beautiful landscapes, and these people are often very poor and directly affected by the wildlife. It’s crucial that they are brought into the tourism economy, because if they’re not, we are facing a very uncertain future for our wildlife.”
“You’ll never meet a hungry conservationist”
Conservationists across the continent agree that loss of habitat and human-wildlife conflict are two of the most important issues facing conservation of wildlife in Africa today.
Chris Roche, chief marketing officer at Wilderness Safaris, said that increasingly in the modern world, biodiversity and ecosystem conservation come down to the management and engagement of people.
“As our population and geographic spread and utilization of resources continues to grow, it increases the pressure on the remaining wild areas,” he said. “Managing these impacts and the people who cause them are far and away the most important elements of conservation strategies in Africa.”
Roche said rural Africans are often excluded from the consumptive utilization of resources in national parks. What’s more, as the parks’ neighbors, they frequently live with the additional costs of human-wildlife conflicts, such as crop raiding and livestock losses. As a result, wildlife areas have seen the illegal utilization of resources such as bush meat poaching and the retributive killing of problem animals.
Allison observed that, “Communities surrounding wildlife areas think, ‘This area is for animals and the rich people who like them.’” Among people who live in extreme poverty and whose children are hungry, he said, conservation is the last thing on their minds.
“You’ll never meet a hungry conservationist,” he said.
One of the solutions to this problem is to reduce the threat of wildlife in the communities and to actively include locals in the wildlife economy in order to convince them that the land is far more valuable with wildlife than without.
Don Scott, owner of the Tanda Tula Safari Camp, said that more commitment is needed to include communities in the wildlife economies and to forge genuine business relationships in which local communities form an important part of the supply chain to management authorities in the protected area as well as to tour operations.
One initiative that has seen a huge success is the Singita Grumeti Fund, a nonprofit organization that is carrying out wildlife conservation and community development work in the western corridor of Tanzania’s Serengeti ecosystem.
Neil Midlane, the manager of conservation projects for Singita, a conservation company with 12 lodges and camps across South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, said the nonprofit has been successful in increasing the wildlife numbers in the Singita Grumeti Reserve, to the point where the area now has five times more elephants and eight times more lions than when Singita took over the reserve 12 years ago.
“The wildlife has increased significantly, but so has the potential for conflict,” Midlane said. “This is because the number of people in the communities surrounding the reserve has increased as well as the number of cattle. In short, it has created the perfect storm.”
To help manage conflict between people and wildlife, Singita is deploying a dedicated human-wildlife conflict mitigation unit, which responds to requests for help if elephants are approaching crops or if lions are surrounding communities. Midlane added that Singita has initiated a research and collaring project for elephant movements in particular. The collars send a GPS coordinate every hour, which enables the team to foresee potential danger.
Besides the mitigation of conflict, Singita is making sure communities benefit from the reserves.
“We not only employ almost 800 locals,” Midland said. “We have also opened an environmental education center where Singita educates close to 2,000 school children.”
Choose conservation actions carefully
Conservation has definitely piqued the interest of travelers from the United States, according to Jeremy Townsend, marketing coordinator for the custom safari specialist Next Adventure and a member of the Safari Pros trade group.
“Increasingly, we see an interest from U.S. travelers to go behind the scenes of conservation and lift the veil,” Townsend said. “They want to see what’s really happening, how things work and how areas are managed.”
Although there are numerous activities in Africa that benefit conservation, it’s important for travelers to do their research, as it can be difficult to know which operations are ethical and which are not. Midlane warned: “A lot of places will claim to do conservation, but in reality, they embark upon questionable activities.”
One rule of thumb that everyone agreed on is that any kind of hands-on interaction with wild animals is off limits. Edge said Fair Trade Tourism feels it is not acceptable to touch any dangerous animal.
“People love to ride elephants,” she said. “However, the training methods used are almost 100% cruel. The animals are shackled and whipped during their training. Most people are unaware of this.”
Fair Trade Tourism, a nonprofit that promotes best practices and responsible tourism in Africa, also opposes predator breeding, as this is never done for conservation purposes.
“Lions can’t be reintroduced in the wild if they’ve been “Lions can’t be reintroduced in the wild if they’ve been captive bred for a host of reasons,” Edge said. “But mainly because they are habituated to humans.”
Roche agreed, adding that one good example of a so-called conservation practice with no validity is something like “walking with lions.”
“In such cases,” he said, “young lions are exposed to human interaction — often hands-on — with the claim that they will later be reintroduced to the wild to bolster wild lion populations. Such reintroductions are almost always failures, fraught with risk because of the earlier human interaction. The net result is to divert attention, funding and actual positive outcomes away from credible and valid conservation projects.”
South Africa’s controversial lion breeding industry has grown year after year and has links to wildlife trafficking, according to a new report titled “Cash Before Conservation: An Overview of the Breeding of Lions for Hunting and Bone Trade,” by the international wildlife charity Born Free.
Will Travers, Born Free’s president and co-founder, said, “As many as 8,000 lions languish in more than 200 captive breeding facilities across South Africa. These animals are cynically bred exclusively to generate money. Unwitting tourists fuel this despicable industry by participating in activities such as petting cubs and walking with lions, while unsuspecting volunteers rear cubs in the mistaken belief they are destined to be released into the wild.”
Not true, he said.
“Once adult, many of these animals are moved to ‘canned hunting’ facilities to be shot in enclosures by ‘sport hunters,’” Travers said. “Their bones are then sold into an international trade sanctioned by the South African government.”
The canned hunting facilities should not be confused with legitimate hunting operations. Although a controversial subject, especially with memories of the slain lion Cecil still fresh on everyone’s minds, conservationists assert that hunting can actually help mitigate habitat loss in the African landscape.
Scott said there has been a shift in thinking among the parties, particularly the photographic tourism trade, in their view of hunting’s role in the wildlife economy of Africa. The focus has become one of protecting African wilderness habitats, whether through photographic or hunting safaris.
Beks Ndlovu, CEO of African Bush Camps, a safari operator, agreed, adding that there are certain remote places where photographic tourism simply isn’t viable.
“In those cases, would you prefer a well-regulated hunting operation and keep the land protected for wildlife,” he asked. “Or would you like to see it be overrun with cattle and crops?”
Responsible hunting areas are strictly regulated, with huge amounts of money channeled back into conservation, according to Paul Stones of Paul Stones Safaris Africa. He added that hunting safaris take place in very remote and unspoiled areas of Africa.
The key, however, is to work with responsible organizations, and not all conservation activities are created equal.
There are still possibilities for travelers who are looking for a more involved approach to get a good glimpse behind the scenes of conservation without harming the wildlife or the environment.
Midlane said that although it’s not possible to take travelers into the heart of human-wildlife conflict, there are other opportunities. Travelers can, for example, visit an anti-poaching K-9 unit.
“It’s a case of guarding against overtourism and maintaining an integrity for the real work,” he said.
Scott added that the only type of behind-the-scenes experiences he would condone are interactions with game reserve management teams and researchers, who can explain and contextualize the work that is being done in protected areas.
“Ecologists showing erosion work and alien plant control measures or anti-poaching teams (off duty preferably) giving a window into the work they do are very valuable,” Scott said.
Small groups of tourists joining research teams in the field, where they are not hindering or affecting the primary work, can also be very useful and provide a meaningful experience for travelers, Scott said.
“I know of quite a few instances where small groups of tourists have joined researchers, ecologists and vets during elephant collaring exercises, rhino DNA sampling and lion census studies,” he said. “In all cases, the tourists are not interacting with any animal other than being close to the operation while an animal is under anesthetic and unaware of their presence. These experiences need to be under highly controlled conditions, with the vet and ecologists being able to focus on the work at hand and with tourists being under the tight control of an experienced guide or a member of reserve management.
“These are not everyday events. They only take place when needed by the reserve and are never orchestrated simply for the enjoyment of the tourists.”
Back to safari simplicity
Travelers don’t have to embark upon intensive involvement to make a difference in Africa’s conservation sphere.
Allison said it’s important for travel agents and tour operators to gauge what the traveler wants, because conservation is hard work.
“You sweat, and you swear and sometimes things go wrong,” he said. “Travelers hear these great stories of conservationists being chased up a tree and think that’s what they want. But, on the other hand, they don’t want to be really afraid for their life.”
According to Allison, a walking safari is a great experience that will bring you to the heart of the wilderness.
“You don’t need to be chased up a tree to experience the thrill of the wilderness,” he said. “Simply walking through lion territory, knowing you’re surrounded by wildlife, is as authentic as it gets.”
Ian Michler, a safari operator for Invent Africa and specialist wilderness guide, consultant and environmental photojournalist, agreed, saying, “Anyone who is coming on a safari to Africa is making a huge difference and is benefiting the continent’s conservation, thanks to what we call the ecodollar.”
Michler said that by visiting Africa through a responsible tourism company, travelers are creating employment. As a result, local communities benefit. As an example, he cited northern Botswana, where close to 50% of the economic activity revolves around ecotourism.
Ndlovu agreed, adding that by employing just one person, game reserves are often supporting more than 10 people in a family.
“Small little businesses are also making an income, thanks to wildlife tourism,” Ndlovu said. “Tourism lodges purchase from the local chicken farms or vegetable farms, thereby creating a stimulus to the local economy.”
Michler further urged travelers to look beyond the well-known wildlife parks, such as the Okavango Delta and the Masai Mara, to consider more remote areas in Africa.
“We need the lesser-known areas of Africa to receive attention and to thrive to make sure we can preserve that land for conservation, Michler said. “Explore the Kalahari in Botswana or Liuwa Plain in Zambia.”
Defining authenticity in modern Africa
It’s important to move away from the outdated perception that authenticity in Africa consists of pure wildlife areas without any human impact.
Roche said there are still vast swathes of wilderness areas and intact ecosystems, where “the world goes on as it once did over a far wider area 500 years ago.”
Which is not to say that humans can’t be part of true and authentic wildlife experiences.
“Both man and megafauna have evolved in tandem in Africa over millennia,” he said. “And so often, an authentic wildlife experience might well include a component of man.”
Sherwin Banda, president of African Travel, said, “While the argument could be made that as soon as humans enter the environment, you can no longer classify it as a ‘true and authentic’ wildlife experience, there are absolutely opportunities to still experience wildlife in a way that can be realistically defined as true and authentic.”
Moreover, he said that to define any interaction between humans and wildlife as unnatural draws a distinct line between the so-called natural world and the human world, which can in fact be harmful to our overall approach to coexisting with nature.
Scott agreed, saying that the African wildlife experience has a significant and exciting future, though Westerners need to change their perspective on what in the past was considered a true and authentic experience.
“The old colonial construct of an Africa devoid of humans and teeming with only wild animals, as if it were the very Garden of Eden, is an invention of the romantic poets and writers of the early 20th century, Scott said. “They painted a picture of an Africa that never existed; there were always humans in the picture.”
He added: “I believe there are numerous spaces in Africa today where one can experience the quiet and restorative processes that make the wilderness so special, but these can be delivered in a contemporary African way, where African people are part of that experience.”