Saved by Safaris?

Luxury ecotourism has its problems, but it helps fill the yawning gap in funding required to protect some of Africa’s wildest places.

DOCTOR KAMBWIRI BANDA’S voice crackled over the radio, “I want to push her so she moves to the shade.” He maneuvered the field-scarred Land Rover to encourage the lioness and her one-year-old cub to move from their resting spot in the short grass of Busanga Plains. The cats reluctantly sauntered into a palm grove. No sooner had they relaxed than Banda readied his gun and took aim. In a pneumatic-powered instant, a drug-filled dart ripped through the air and sank into the lioness’s muscular shoulder. She let out a surprised snarl and hopped over her cub. They both clambered onto a termite mound and scanned the surroundings, looking insulted.

“It’s more confusion than pain. It feels like a bee sting,” ecologist Ben Goodheart explained to our group as we watched from an open game-drive vehicle. The lions climbed down the mound but didn’t make it far before the mother collapsed. As the adolescent cub pawed at her, Goodheart narrated: “The drugs can take seven minutes to fully take effect, so soon we’ll go closer and maybe give her tail a little tug to make sure she’s out.”

Goodheart and Banda, a veterinarian, work for the nonprofit Zambian Carnivore Programme. In Kafue National Park and surrounds, they study Zambia’s largest remaining populations of wild dog and cheetah and also monitor lion dynamics. On this excursion, they entertained a rapt audience. I sat with Wilderness Safaris guide Isaac Kalio and four tourists who had paid handsomely for the privilege of taking part in darting this lioness and fitting her with a GPS collar. Serving as our expert host was Chris Roche, a Wilderness Safaris executive who had flown in for the week from Rwanda, where he is developing a new luxury camp.

This “Travel with Purpose” safari is one of a series of trips Wilderness Safaris offers across the continent that link guests with behind-the-scenes experiences. The company channels some of the proceeds to the local conservation and community projects that guests interact with during their trips, in this case the Zambian Carnivore Programme. Funds will help cover the pricey “necklace” Goodheart and Banda hoped to fit on the lioness to allow them to monitor her and her pride’s movements across the region. Roche believes that ecotourism like this will not only deliver dividends to shareholders under the company’s mantra, “purpose is the new luxury,” but can help fill the gap in funding for conservation initiatives in Africa. There are many who agree with this idea.

Others see the conservation safari model as one that allows corporations to lease the best government land as private concessions and create wilderness playgrounds for the ultra-wealthy. As with many things, the issue is complex, but the bottom-line is that most parks need all the help they can get.

THE FUNDING GAP FOR conservation in Africa is a vast, yawning chasm. Just within 282 of the state-owned protected areas in the current lion range — pockets of habitat across the southern two-thirds of the continent — the gap comes to more than a billion dollars per year according to research by Peter Lindsey, a Zimbabwe-based expert on protected-area financing. Lindsey, who also directs the Lion Recovery Fund for the Wildlife Conservation Network, estimates that wildlife managers need $2,500 to $5,200 per square mile annually to maintain lion populations at a middling level of success. Ninety percent of the areas he surveyed are underfunded. On average, they get just $500 per square mile, while many receive drastically less, leaving budgets too thin to pay and train rangers, buy equipment and vehicles, and develop and maintain infrastructure like waterholes, fences, and roads. It’s not just lions that suffer as a result, but also the many other species that share the landscape. The shortfall is even more daunting when considering the hundreds of parks not included in Lindsey’s analysis — those beyond the historical lion range, and those where lions are already extinct.

“In many ways, African countries are doing their bit for conservation to a much greater extent than the rest of the world,” Lindsey told me by phone from Harare. “Several southern and East African countries have a higher proportion of their land area allocated to protected areas than the global average, while the burden of protected areas relative to national wealth is higher.”

Still, multiple poaching crises and declining wildlife populations indicate that the status quo isn’t cutting it. Lion numbers, at some 20,000, are half of what they were 20 years ago, and prey species haven’t fared much better. Elephants have dropped 20 percent in just a decade to around 415,000, but populations, even in most protected areas, are a fraction of what they should be. Rhinos cling to existence with around 5,000 black rhinos and 20,000 white rhinos left. The last male of the Northern white rhino subspecies died in 2018; the Western black rhino was declared extinct in 2011.

In Zambia, protected areas cover an ambitious 40 percent of the land compared to a global average of just 12 percent. The massive Kafue National Park, at 8,650 square miles, is bigger than Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Glacier, Yosemite, and Canyonlands National Parks combined. And Kafue is just one of the nation’s many parks — Zambia packs 20 national parks into a land area slightly larger than Texas. These parks are core conservation areas that prohibit human settlement and most consumptive uses. The biggest land contribution to the country’s protected estate comes from 36 game management areas, or GMAs, spanning 65,000 square miles. GMAs were designed as buffer zones around parks where wildlife and communities could coexist.

But a lack of funding for managing parks and rapidly expanding human populations threaten a system that looks so promising on maps. Bushmeat poaching and habitat encroachment are rampant. In a 2014 paper, Lindsey estimated that the biomass of large mammals in Zambia’s national parks was just a quarter of what it should be and that most GMAs were performing substantially worse.

Kafue and its surrounding GMAs could be one of the world’s greatest protected ecosystems, but parts are in danger of becoming “paper parks” — places protected on maps, but not on the ground, a common problem in Africa. If protected areas become degraded and depleted, the political will to maintain them can falter, opening the door to downsizing or degazetting. The opposite — expansion and rehabilitation — is necessary to stave off extinctions. The question is, how? Zambia simply can’t afford robust management programs across 40 percent of its land. The country needs help to safeguard these global assets. Already, more than half of Zambia’s wildly insufficient conservation budget comes from donors. Perhaps ecotourism can make up some of the difference.

BANDA PULLED UP NEXT to the unconscious lioness as the concerned cub retreated to the nearby palms. After poking the lioness with the dart gun and getting no reaction, Banda covered her eyes with a rag and checked her vitals. He collected hair and tissue samples as Goodheart began fitting the GPS collar.

Banda invited the tourists to help take measurements. Peter, an actor from New York, peeled the lioness’s lips back as Goodheart checked her impressive teeth. Photo ops abounded. A South African model, Victoria, snapped Instagram shots of her hand holding the lioness’s impressive paw. Everyone took turns posing behind the prone animal, an evolved version of the classic trophy-hunter portrait. It felt like an instant, but the lioness had been out 47 minutes when Banda announced it was time to wake her up.

In the lioness’s territory here in Busanga Plains, in the far northwest corner of Kafue, it’s hard to believe that the park’s wildlife numbers are depressed to less than a third of capacity. The Lafupa River bursts its banks here each rainy season, inundating and renewing the low-lying floodplains. A water-loving antelope, red lechwe, grazes the flooded plains in the thousands, while puku, roan, wildebeest, and zebra stick to higher ground. Hippos wallow in the channels, and shy sitatunga navigate the swamps on splayed hooves. Herds of buffalo and elephant visit often, and a riot of birdlife relies on habitats here.

Busanga’s wildlife riches are partly due to ecology. But Busanga also thrives because it’s a private concession — national park land rented by tourism operators. Wilderness Safaris runs two camps here and another outfit, Mukambi Safaris, runs a third. The hefty lease fees the companies pay augment government coffers, and their presence helps protect wildlife. Zambia’s Department of Parks and Wildlife staff, writing in the IUCN’s PARKS Journal, described the arrival of Wilderness Safaris in 2006 as “the most remarkable achievement” in terms of tourism-related revenue for Kafue. It’s an example of the private-public partnerships that Lindsey reckons African governments need to court if they lack the financial resources to manage parks effectively.

The 152 staff in Wilderness Safari’s Kafue camps sustain more than a thousand dependents who spend locally, boosting the economy.

Beyond direct income, a major hope for ecotourism is winning over hearts and minds. Perhaps a guest who has a life-changing experience, say, helping to collar a lioness, will book return trips, donate to charities, and advocate for their governments to earmark aid for conservation. Ecotourism is also the critical link between conservation work and local economies. The biggest threats to conservation in Africa are competition from habitat-destroying land uses like agriculture and mining, and pressure from growing populations still reliant on bushmeat and fuel wood from the wild. Ecotourism, the argument goes, can garner local support for conservation through job creation and other economic benefits that demonstrate the value of intact ecosystems. “Tourism is an agent for change. If you don’t have a functional ecosystem, you don’t have tourism,” said Roche.

The power of ecotourism to create jobs and change attitudes is more than wishful thinking. Susan Snyman, a former Wilderness Safaris manager of communities and culture, interviewed 1,700 people across six countries about finances and attitudes towards conservation in 2009 and 2010 for her PhD. She found that while communities can benefit from infrastructure improvements, lease fees, levies, and donations, the most substantial contribution often comes through wages. In the communities Snyman surveyed, ecotourism offered most employees their first full-time job. On average, each employee supported seven dependents, and brought in the primary or only household income. The 152 staff in Wilderness Safari’s Kafue camps sustain more than a thousand dependents who spend locally, boosting the economy. They also have money to invest in “luxuries” like education, a phone, and, for some, a vehicle.

“My research definitely showed more positive attitudes [towards conservation] in the communities,” Snyman told me. However, she found that communities often associate tourism benefits with the company, not necessarily the protected area. “The link has to be made,” she said. “If the communities don’t understand that the benefits are actually coming from within the park, they won’t value the park.”

Employees are important in spreading this message. No one was more anxious than our guide, Isaac Kalio, when Banda injected the reversal drug to wake the lioness. Kalio wasn’t born an animal lover. “I grew up hating animals,” he explained, with a deep laugh reminiscent of the hippos calling from the pool. “I never thought I’d be best friends with them.”

A terrified Kalio saw his first lion as a child, walking at sunset with his parents in Chiawa, a village on the Zambezi River. For his family, wildlife posed a threat to life and livelihood. His father traveled frequently for work, leaving Kalio and his mother to tend their crops. The duo slept in a treehouse overlooking their corn fields. In the dark of night, Kalio’s mother would brandish a burning log to chase hippos away. She beat pots and pans to ward off elephants and ran after bush pigs. Kalio patrolled by day, keeping watch for baboons, but following such stressful nights, he often fell asleep on the job.

Tourists, who have paid handsomely for the privilege, help fit a GPS collar on a lioness and check her vitals in Zambia’s Kafue National Park.
Tourists, who have paid handsomely for the privilege, help fit a GPS collar on a lioness and check her vitals in Zambia’s Kafue National Park.

After graduating school, a visit to his brother, a guide on Lake Kariba, set Kalio on a path to ecotourism. Kalio joined him on safari and, for the first time, felt excited rather than threatened by wildlife. He soon landed a job as a porter and worked his way up to guiding canoe trips, then moved into driving and walking safaris in Lower Zambezi National Park. He joined Wilderness Safaris in Busanga in 2008.

Now he is inspiring the next generation: The week after our trip, Wilderness Safaris will host 30 local kids as part of their Children in the Wilderness program that introduces youth to environmental education and opportunities in ecotourism. “They see a guy like Kalio,” explained Roche, “And think, Wow! This guy drives a car, he has a camera, he knows the wildlife. He’s respected.”

BUSANGA BUSH CAMP is the less luxurious of Wilderness’s two Busanga camps but offers a rustic experience some guests prefer, and at a lower price point. Raked sandy paths connect six spacious canvas tents to the common area. The combined lounge, bar, library, and dining room is a rectangular wooden platform, lacking walls but shaded by a twin-peaked mountain of khaki canvas.

Management follows a recipe that Wilderness Safaris has perfected through decades of experience. The Botswana-born company, now the biggest of its kind, runs 48 camps across seven African countries. They operate over nearly 9,000 square miles, roughly half of which is leased state land in national parks and game reserves. The other half is leased from communities. As a luxury safari company, Wilderness Safaris focuses on exclusivity. They have just 884 beds in a combined operating area the size of New Jersey, offering 50,000 guests a year the deceptive impression that Africa is filled with pristine wildlands.

Wilderness Safaris frequently earns awards for responsible tourism, and its lodges, many of which are works of art, crack lists of the world’s top hotels. Here at Busanga Bush Camp, the scatter cushions piled on leather couches and rattan chairs are a mix of animal print and geometric patterns. Thick coffee table books offer photos of Zambia’s toothiest charismatic wildlife and lushest landscapes.

Luxury in the wild comes at a cost. Busanga Bush Camp charges $1,000 per person per night. It’s a steep price for glorified camping in a country where half the population survives on a few dollars a day. Yet, it’s a bargain compared to some of the company’s pricier camps. Mombo, in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, commands $3,500 per person per night.

In a region renowned for high income inequality, luxury tourism can seem distasteful. Its emphasis on exclusivity and private concessions prevents budget travelers and the local middle class from visiting some of the most impressive government land. There’s also an environmental cost to relying on tourists jetting around the world to fund protected areas. Yet on the local level, fewer, higher-paying visitors tread lighter on the land than do the travelling masses. And while there are surely examples of unscrupulous operators ploughing little back into the protected area or local communities, as a publicly traded company, Wilderness Safaris’ books are open.

By focusing on high-value, low-volume tourism, Wilderness Safaris has done a lot for communities and conservation. Twenty-five percent of pre-tax profits funds projects through two philanthropic arms — the Children in the Wilderness program as well as another known as the Wilderness Wildlife Trust. In Busanga, that money pays for local kids to visit, supports anti-poaching work, and sponsors research and wildlife censuses. The latter show that in the decade after Wilderness Safaris’ arrival, Lichtenstein’s hartebeest numbers increased 78 percent, the blue wildebeest population doubled, and the red lechwe population grew from 2,000 to 12,000 — an amazing recovery from the 100 that survived overhunting to see the park’s establishment in 1950.

Safari employees like driver Isaac Kalio (pictured) are key to spreading word about the benefits of wildlife conservation among local communities.
Safari employees like driver Isaac Kalio (pictured) are key to spreading word about the benefits of wildlife conservation among local communities.

But over gin and tonics sipped around a crackling fire, Roche confided that his company’s two Busanga camps hadn’t turned a profit in the 12 years since they opened. Roche has scoured the continent, scouting locations for new lodges, but there’s nowhere he’d rather be in the height of the dry season than here in Busanga, both for the wildlife spectacle and the wilderness feel. Why can’t one of the most experienced ecotourism companies make it work in such a spectacular destination?

“There’s this massive push that tourism is the panacea that’s going to solve all financing problems,” said Susan Snyman, who now works for the IUCN advising governments on tourism, protected-area finance, and community wellbeing. “Tourism has such particular requirements; it just doesn’t work everywhere. It takes years for money to start flowing from a new camp.”

Busanga presents several challenges. Annual floods close the camps for seven months. Remoteness is an asset but also a liability — guests and goods come by expensive charter flight or arduous ground transfer. And Busanga doesn’t fit well into Wilderness Safaris’ existing “circuits” — groups of complementary camps that encourage longer stays and inspire future visits. “There’s no foot traffic out here,” Roche joked.

“Every year, the executives talk about what to do [with the unprofitable Busanga camps],” he said. “The main question is, if we pulled out, what sort of vacuum would we leave?” Without the vigilance of the private camps, Busanga, far removed from understaffed and under-resourced park headquarters, might be more inviting to poachers. Locals snaring bushmeat and the insidious criminal networks slaughtering for the ivory and lion-bone trades would find little resistance. So far, proceeds from the company’s more successful camps in places like the Okavango Delta have allowed them to keep the Busanga camps going, and Roche hopes these camps will soon turn a small profit as well. “We were in the Okavango 20 years before things really took off there,” he reasoned.

Despite the tourism-related challenges in Busanga, the region is free of the instability and armed conflict that hamstring ecotourism in many of Africa’s most threatened ecosystems. Conservation is far down the list of priorities in countries engulfed in civil unrest like Somalia, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic.

Roche, Lindsey, Snyman, and many conservationists across the continent are encouraged by the successes of one conservation group — African Parks — in many such areas. The organization is testing a unique approach to protected area management. Through private-public partnerships with willing governments, African Parks has taken over complete responsibility for the security, rehabilitation, and long-term management of 15 national parks and protected areas spanning 40,000 square miles in nine countries: Benin, Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, and Zambia. The group’s work has a strong focus on economic development, and it invests in poverty alleviation programs for communities living nearby.

Busanga Bush Camp charges $1,000 per night. Ecotourism isn’t a silver-bullet, and it won’t work everywhere. Still, as Roche put it, “Every dollar you spend is a vote for a different world.”
Busanga Bush Camp charges $1,000 per night. Ecotourism isn’t a silver-bullet, and it won’t work everywhere. Still, as Roche put it, “Every dollar you spend is a vote for a different world.”

While tens-of-millions in annual donations from individuals, organizations, and governments fund African Parks’ work, the long-term goal is financial sustainability. Ecotourism, of course, is a big part of that plan. Places as lawless as Chinko in the Central African Republic, Garamba in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Zakouma in Chad have seen social, economic, and ecological progress since African Parks took over. For instance, following security improvements, Zakouma attracted more than 2,000 intrepid tourists in 2017, generating a quarter-million dollars in revenue.

It’s unlikely that ecotourism could help much to fund conservation in troubled countries like these that the US State Department advises against visiting. But if African Parks can shepherd protected areas to a time of stability, there is hope. Consider Rwanda. Following its horrific 1994 genocide, governance focused on security, infrastructure, and private sector investment made Rwanda an ecotourism success. Limited permits to spend an hour with mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park now fetch $1,500 each. With intensive management enabled by tourism, the gorilla population has grown to over 1,000 individuals, more than there have been in decades. In Rwanda’s Akagera National Park, under African Parks management, tourism revenue increased tenfold to $2 million in 2018, funding 80 percent of the park’s budget. Wilderness Safaris’ newest camp, Magashi, opened there this May.

Ecotourism isn’t a silver-bullet, and it won’t work everywhere. Still, as Roche put it, “Every dollar you spend is a vote for a different world.”

LEAVING BUSANGA PLAINS, it was comforting to know that Banda and Goodheart will be checking on the lions, wild dogs, and cheetahs. As umbrella species, predators indicate how the wider ecosystem is faring. Location data contribute to research on movements through Kafue, the GMAs, and the surrounding unprotected lands. Of more immediate benefit, frequent visits to collared individuals and their families help save snared animals. The Zambian Carnivore Programme has so far freed 38 lions from potentially deadly snares in Kafue and South Luangwa. These rescued cats subsequently gave birth to 148 cubs — a significant number in a combined population of perhaps 600 lions and a good reason for Wilderness Safaris’ tourists to be proud of their contribution.

Kalio was anxious that the rains would soon close the camps, separating him from the lions he loves for seven long months. “You’re a part of [Kafue] now and we need to be on the same page,” he reassured his departing guests at the airstrip. “We’ll keep you updated.”

Roche, perhaps pondering the future of Busanga, quipped, “We always end the safari with a cliffhanger.”

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