Addressing Africa’s “surface” safari problem

There is no more room for superficial business as usual.

This may not sound very deep as an argument against greenwashing, particularly greenwashing by travel and tourism companies.

But when the person delivering that message is Hollywood actor Ed Norton, people listened.

Speaking earlier this month at the 2022 WTTC Summit in Riyadh, Norton, who serves as the United Nations ambassador for biodiversity, pulled all the punches at greenwashing and what he called a “superficial set of sustainable commitments” that are too easy for the tourism industry to avoid without accountability.

If you didn’t know, Norton has supported global biodiversity for over 15 years.

“The fact that someone comes to see wildlife at your camp does not make you an eco-tourist,” Norton said in conversation with Fahd Hamidaddin, CEO of the Saudi Tourism Authority, during the WTTC 2022 Summit in Riyadh.

He singled out luxury safari operators who need to question where their energy comes from and whether they are using too many fossil fuels. They need to explore sustainable water sources and when they are going to rely on the community, they need to mean it. Finally, he stressed that measuring carbon neutrality to achieve net zero is crucial.

Norton described how a US aid grant helped build a 70km pipeline from a water-clad community to supply private pools of a well-known luxury safari brand in West Africa. He declined to name the brand but stated emphatically that he would never go back there.

“It’s just not acceptable,” said Norton, famous for his roles in such films as “Fight Club.”

With Norton’s observations in mind, Skift reached out to some of the biggest private luxury safari players in South Africa to find out what their sustainable models entailed. Do they think their models are superficial greenwashing or actually workable plans for facilities that need to make the sustainable grade?

Lapalala Wilderness Reserve, Waterberg, Limpopo

Whether you want to call it ecotourism, responsible tourism or sustainable tourism, the emphasis should be on uplifting and developing a community, said Glenn Phillips, CEO of Lapalala Wilderness and director of the Lapalala Conservation Foundation. Phillips has a long history of establishing responsible tourism guidelines and minimum standards with South Africa’s National Parks.

Lapalala has just opened a new carbon neutral campus, funded by the Mapula Trust. Source: Lapalala Wilderness.

Lapalala Wilderness Reserve is one of the largest private Big 5 game reserves in South Africa, spanning approximately 48 000 hectares. It was established in 1981 by Dale Parker and Clive Walker as a protected area – with its Lapalala Wildeness School the crown jewel of its conservation efforts.

Sixty percent of the school’s work is funded, community-based education done in partnership with various schools in the Waterberg area. Each sponsored intake includes 60 children at a cost of $3,300 per 3-day training camp where they learn about nature conservation, environmental management, zoology and botany.

While the reserve has plenty of water thanks to the Palala and Kgogong rivers flowing through it, it faces several energy constraints. The reserve is off-grid and keeps its road networks to a minimum. Also, game vehicles are limited per trading site.

They also use an Earth Ranger software platform for their operations and monitoring center to reduce their carbon footprint as rangers oversee ongoing projects to conserve endangered biodiversity that include rhino and pangolin in the Big 5 reserve.

Tswalu, Kalahari, Northern Cape

To be sustainable, you have to be commercially viable, said Russel Bink, CEO of Tswalu, who added that “their priority is to avoid commercialization at all costs to maintain the lowest visitor-to-site ratio in a privately-owned conservation area South Africa”.

As South Africa’s largest private wildlife reserve, Tswalu covers 114,000 hectares. This recurring biodiversity initiative of the Oppenheimer Foundation for Research and Conservation Generations was formerly 43 degraded farms in the southern Kalahari.

A private safari vehicle and field guide during a game drive in South Africa’s largest private wildlife reserve. Source: Tswalu.

“There is no end goal with maintenance and restoration. It’s an introspective journey into eternity,” Bink said. Tswalu has set its own standards of conduct and targets to show greater accountability and transparency in its “$5.7 million invested in nature and people, with a 26 percent conservation contribution to the local economy.” The reserve has just published its first impact statement (for 2021). The tool was developed in collaboration with The Long Run.

“Gone are the days when visitors just want to take a big game drive, look at animals, have a nice breakfast and sit by a beautiful pool.”

Bink said more than half of visitor fees (from $1,764 per person) go to the refuge’s conservation department and outreach programs. In addition, the safari experience exposes guests to extensive wildlife projects and research, including the Kalahari Endangered Ecosystem Project that examines the impact of climate change on multiple species.

Tintswalo Safari Lodge, Manyeleti Game Reserve, Limpopo

Tintswalo Safari Lodges is spread across 23,000 hectares of the Manyeleti Private Game Reserve. It was obtained through a concession, based solely on the community work done by the owners of this long-standing safari brand.

Their mutual relationship with the communities surrounding the boutique lodges is rooted in education and community development, said Alistair Leuner, Tintswalo’s regional general manager of safari products.

Ecotourism is much more than taking visitors to a game. Tintswalo Lodges develop and train youth from local communities to protect the natural resources of the lodge. Source: Tintswalo Safari Lodge.

Leuner says his tracking department is probably the best illustration of their training model in action with three of his seven trackers trained and promoted to full ranger positions through Tintswalo’s scholarship efforts. A full ranger qualification can cost around $6 000 per student. The reserve has also worked with over 3,000 children from the community to teach them about conservation and biodiversity through the Rhino Kids programme, which highlights and tackles Kruger’s high rates of rhino poaching.

In an effort to expose visitors to a more authentic safari experience, Tintswalo helped its rangers and trackers create a day experience product in their village. “It’s evolving into an alternative community experience. They keep all revenue generated. We outsource it to them as well as the marketing for them. So overall, it will be the village that will benefit.”

Being in a water-degrading area, the refuge also raises money to sink boreholes in the community, with visitors encouraged to participate through donations.

Although these are just a few examples, Africa is a complex mix of countries, each with its own unique challenges. Ultimately, a conservation journey to ensure an authentic, responsible tourism experience begins at the property level. But it also requires ongoing commitment and involvement, with accountability necessary at every step of the safari value chain, especially those who sell and package these experiences.

You can watch the full conversation between Norton and Hamidaddin at 03:46:00 below.

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