“Conservation is about protecting a shrinking asset.
If Covid has taught us one thing, it’s that we cannot be at the whim of international travellers.
We have got to change our approach, even the language.
We need to think about environmental investing – to go from the defensive to the offensive.”
So says Fred Swaniker, co-founder of the African Leadership Group, who has been advocating for alternatives to tourism as a way to protect Africa’s ecosystems for the past 10 years.
His words hit at the core of a sensitive confluence: not only is African conservation tourism being affected by Covid; the model is being compounded by the climate emergency, and questioned as the Black Lives Matter movement proliferates far beyond the United States.
While a year of zero is not unique to Africa – the effects are unique on a continent where wildlife, as opposed to cultural or beach tourism, is the main draw.
But in Africa the situation is profoundly precarious. When will we be able to go back? And, crucially, what will be the right way to do so?
Mass tourism isn’t Africa’s sickness, as it is Europe’s.
Numerous African companies have been “doing the right thing” by their communities and ecosystems since their inception.
Ten, 20 years before the pandemic hit, they were already leaning into the zeitgeist as it is currently being described, regenerating depleted areas and advocating a conscious, connected humanity.
“A lot of people have finally realised what a big role ecotourism plays in conservation in Africa,” says Luke Bailes, founder and CEO of Singita, which is one of the luxury leaders in African safari lodges. While he still faces a very challenging situation, Bailes is more fortunate than most.
The conservation partner of Singita’s Tanzania operation is under the aegis of the Grumeti Fund, a not-for-profit organisation responsible for anti‑poaching, community relations, and wildlife and ecosystem management in a 350,000-acre area buffering the Serengeti National Park, largely underwritten by various donors and philanthropists, including the American hedge-fund manager Paul Tudor Jones II.
Wildlife, if we are to protect it, has to pay out in other ways.
NGOs can’t carry it. Philanthropists can’t save it. Endowments can help.
There are attempts to bring back the big spenders. The luxury lodge operator Great Plains Conservation recently launched a 12-night JFK-Nairobi round-trip designed to keep “the bubble” as clean as possible: a private lounge at both international airports, private immigration clearance, plus the conscience-clearing fact that in the hold of the 787 are “tons of donated PPE” for African communities.
This is a stop-gap solution – one of a number of such initiatives on a super-elite scale.
The good news is that alternatives are evolving.
Look over these ‘Guiding Lights’ … five safari companies for their long-term commitment to community and wildlife, and corporate transparency.
“We have a chance,” says Swaniker, reaching for a silver lining – and it’s not simply visiting the Serengeti for the reductive reasoning that, right now, you will get it all to yourself.
“Constraints drive innovation. We have to reimagine the future, to make this crisis the first phase of the next stage.” As for travellers, with our pent‑up desire to get back on the road?
The only thing any of us can be sure of in this uncertain world is that our choices matter.
Above image credit: Singita Sasakwa Lodge, Grumeti, Serengeti, Tanzania, photographer: Mark Williams
Top image credit: Duba Plains & wild dogs, Botswana: Great Plains Conservancy
Article courtesy of the Financial Times by Sophy Roberts: Africa’s year of zero: a special report on the future of wildlife tourism