I have barely been in Zarafa, Botswana’s newest exclusive safari camp, five minutes when I have my first encounter with a wild animal. I am halfway along the pathway that leads to my tented room when a bull elephant emerges out of the bush and stands, stock still, just 20 yards up the path, directly in front of me. I hold my ground, as the guides instruct you to do, but I can hear my heart beating, partly out of excitement and partly out of fear. For a moment there is complete stillness as two tons of bull elephant stares down on 190 pounds of puny homo sapiens.
Then I hear footsteps and, looking over my shoulder, see the lean figure of Dereck Joubert striding towards me. As he passes me he raises his hands and claps twice. The big bull shakes his head, looks Joubert up and down, and turns off the path towards the fever berry trees. “Isn’t that fantastic?” Joubert says with a broad grin. “These elephants are so relaxed. They’re already getting used to this camp and we’ve only been operating here for six months.” That isn’t quite what is going through my mind.
Joubert is one person you would expect to know the difference between a relaxed elephant and one that in an instant would drop its head, flatten its ears and charge you with deadly effect. He has, after all, with his wife Beverly, spent the past quarter of a century living out here cheek-by-jowl with wild animals. In that time, spent mostly in tents, they have come to know the wilderness and its inhabitants in the way we city dwellers have come to know the neighbourhood shops, art galleries, bars and restaurants… the contents of our urban lives.
Once Joubert has dispatched the bull elephant he returns to the main camp and I walk on to my room. Then I sit for half an hour on my veranda looking out onto the lagoon that lies in front of the camp. That brief exchange between man and animal, the smell of the bushveld, the serene quiet of the wilderness and the changing light as the sun begins to set behind the ilala palms beyond the lagoon – all of this infuses me with the spiritual nourishment that seems absent from so much of our scurrying daily lives in the so-called civilised world’s great urban agglomerations.
Out here I can breathe again, I can feel connected to the planet whose sides I barely touch in my city life. Out here my olfactory senses come alive and my skin tingles as the evening breezes whip up.
Joubert’s call from the main tent interrupts my reverie. We are to drive off across the lagoon to look for a lion pride that has recently moved into the area. The Jouberts are now the most famous wildlife film-makers on the continent: five-time Emmy winners who last year released their first major film. In 25 years of bush living they have all but become integral parts of the ecosystem, as much components of the environment as the leopard, lion and elephant. Now this camp, Zarafa, and Great Plains, the wildlife tourism company they have launched with Colin Bell, a conservationist, and two other partners, promise a revolutionary step into the future for African wildlife conservation.
The company’s mission is “conserving and expanding natural habitats”, according to Bell. The strategy: high-tariff, low-volume tourism. Instead of paying fees based on the number of tourists who come in, camp owners guarantee payment every month to the local people, regardless of occupancy. In exchange, the tribal landowners agree to create and maintain a viable and sustainable conservancy that ensures that wildlife prospers. Great Plains claims to make these communities direct financial beneficiaries (and even shareholders), earning income streams from tourism, encouraging the tribespeople to become custodians of the African wilderness.
If a model based on working with the community sounds blindingly obvious, one should be aware that, in most of Africa’s diminishing wilderness areas, safari tourism has had such minimal financial impact that local tribespeople see the animals as competitors for the land.
Zarafa is the penultimate stop on a long trek that began in Kenya and has taken me through the Maasai Mara, KwaZulu Natal in South Africa, the fabled Kruger National Park and Botswana. Ahead lie a couple of days at South Africa’s Londolozi, the private luxury camp on the border of Kruger.
Everyone I have met on my trek says the same thing: the wilderness is at a tipping point. Hell, the whole of Africa is at a tipping point, faced as it is with unsustainably massive population growth, attendant poverty, corrupt government and the growth of misguided mass-tourism safari outfits. It has been like this for decades, but the decline of animal populations seems to have accelerated with the turn of the century, and the veld, that last refuge for the planet’s most varied mammal and bird population, is facing a crucial decade.
The problems have become especially apparent in Kenya’s Maasai Mara reserve, one of the world’s most famous safari destinations, which has for decades been cursed with low-revenue, high-volume tourism. There has been little benefit for the fast-growing local communities and a shocking impact on the animals.
In the early Eighties there were maybe half a dozen lodges in the Mara with fewer than 300 beds; today there are more than 25 permanent lodges and well over 3,000 beds. East African conservationists say that soaring visitor numbers have severely damaged roads and grasslands.
Equally threatening to wildlife have been the growth and changing lifestyles of the rural population. The once nomadic Maasai have left their mud-and-wattle homesteads and gravitated to more permanent settlements along the borders of the Mara reserve. Thus the wild animals that have moved in and out of the reserve are now competing for habitat with Maasai livestock that no longer move over the vast plains, and large-scale crop cultivation that comes with a more settled lifestyle.
According to a recent report by the International Livestock Research Institute, the reserve’s ungulate population declined sharply from 1989 to 2003 as a result of poaching and human encroachment. Giraffe numbers are down 95 per cent, warthogs 80 per cent, hartebeest 76 per cent and impala 67 per cent. The carnivores that depend on these wild animals are, according to the institute’s Joesph Ogutu, the next casualties. “The number of lions are going down, the cheetah numbers are declining, “and the wild dogs in the Mara system have become extinct,” he says.
The Mara is famously the setting for the annual wildebeest migration, also known as the greatest wildlife show on earth. In previous decades more than 1.2?million wildebeest and an attendant caravan of predators – mainly large lion and hyena groups – would move from Tanzania’s Serengeti up onto the Mara plains. A recent count suggested that migratory numbers have now dropped to 300,000. According to Brian Heath, chairman of the Mara Conservancy Trust, “the migrations into the Mara will not be sustained if the numbers keep falling as they have in recent years.”
This rush towards extinction in one of the world’s most famous wildlife habitats supports the views of Bell and the Jouberts that nothing short of a conservation revolution will save Africa’s wild places.
Great Plains’s move into the Maasai Mara is a great test of the Bell and Joubert model. In Botswana, they are operating in an environment of relative stability with government support that is free of corruption; by comparison Kenya is the Wild West. Conservationists argue that cynical tour operators and lodge owners, and corrupt county councils, have over the years siphoned off most of the profits from foreign tourism, leaving almost nothing to trickle down to local tribespeople. Add to this a volatility surrounding foreign tourist arrivals, which fell spectacularly after the 2008 post-election riots and are now subject to the global downturn in foreign travel following the credit crunch, and it’s easy to see how the ordinary Maasai need some convincing that their financial security is best served by ecotourists photographing animals.
Thanks to guaranteed community payments by Mara Plains, Great Plains’ six-room, 12-bed camp on the Olare Orok Conservancy (OOC) on the Maasai Mara’s northern border, the Maasai have moved their homesteads, cattle and goats out of the 30,000-acre area. Lions and other predators are starting to come back. Wild Africa is reclaiming itself.
The OOC deal was brokered by Jake Grieves-Cook and Ron Beaton, two respected Kenya hands who have long been involved in wildlife tourism, and among the four partners are Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin group and the Great Plains group, which have collectively put up $250,000 (£160,000) for the right to build and operate tented camps. What is unique for Kenya about the OOC is that it has strict limits on visitor numbers: there is one tourist tent for every 700 acres of conservancy land. “This land is critical to the survival of most resident and migratory wildlife species such as elephant and wildebeest,” says Dickson Ole Kaelo, a well-known Maasai ecologist, who is urging the government to support the expansion of conservation and tourism on Maasai community lands along the lines of the OOC. “These conservancies have demonstrated pragmatic approaches to sustaining the Mara’s wildlife, giving a better tourist experience and providing returns to the land owners for investing in conservation.”
Botswana is Africa’s conservation poster boy, in large part because of its stable government. In contrast, many wildlife rivals – Kenya, Tanzania and Zimbabwe – have been riven with corruption that starts in the higher reaches of public office and finds its way to the gates of the national parks. One conservationist in east Africa told of an official arriving at the conservancy he manages with a black briefcase which, when opened, revealed $200,000 in crisp notes.
“This was what he was offering me to allow some Middle Eastern clients to come big game hunting in this proscribed park,” he told me. “I told him to get off the conservancy immediately.”
Without strong, stable government, Africa’s wildlife is particularly vulnerable, as is painfully evident in Robert Mugabe’s all but collapsed Zimbabwe. With almost no policing of the country’s proscribed wildlife areas, famous national parks such as Hwange have become open house for illegal hunting parties. Conservationists say that we will only know the true cost of almost a decade of anarchy when the Mugabe era is over and a full audit is taken of once-abundant parks.
Botswana also stands out from its neighbours for its wise policies when it comes to tourism. In the Eighties the government took the advice of a group of conservationists and decided to develop the high-revenue, low-volume tourist model, with communities being direct beneficiaries. The policy has paid off handsomely, as Botswana has not been as susceptible to the ebbs and flows of western tourists as, say, Kenya, which has traditionally depended on more mass-market tourism. Kenya’s volatile mixture of political instability and dependence on western tourists hit home in 2008, when post-election riots stopped international tourism in its tracks during its peak season and left most of the Mara’s lodges empty for the first half of the year.
The Botswana government also wrings a bigger commitment out of the companies that run the lodges and safaris in its wildlife parks. Companies such as Great Plains, Wilderness Safaris and Abercrombie & Kent are obliged to pay sizeable lease fees – sometimes up to $250,000 per concession per annum – to the local communities, plus 4.5 per cent of turnover during the year. According to safari insiders, that 4.5 per cent works out at about 25 per cent of the net profits of a well-run safari operation. On top of that, leases are contracted for 15 years, encouraging camp operators to invest in their surroundings. By contrast, in east Africa most operators pay only a bed-night lease fee, which means that the community benefits only if someone sleeps in the bed . In a bad year, such as 2008, when tourists stop coming, revenue dries up, and local communities – left questioning the benefits of wildlife tourism – are thus inclined to revert to other land uses, such as domestic livestock and subsistence agriculture.
The Toyota Landcruiser is bouncing across the rutted track when Joubert sees movement in the jackalberry trees to the left of the vehicle. It is a female leopard heading west into the dusk light.
Reluctantly, Joubert tells our driver, Dukes, to keep going or we will miss seeing the lion pride hunting buffalo. This part of Botswana was until recently a hunting area, and the Jouberts’ conservation philosophy is not surprisingly driven by a fierce anti-hunting position. Dereck points out that in the time it took him and his wife to make their documentary film Eye of the Leopard, about a leopardess called Lagadema, “10,000 leopards like her were legally hunted and killed, all with permits approved by CITES, [the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species].”
Although sport hunting was banned in Kenya in 1978, it remains legal and a source of considerable revenue in Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa and some parts of Botswana. Thanks to the Jouberts, Bell and a small group of like-minded conservationists, Botswana is leading the drive to ban hunting completely in prime areas. There are now seven major wilderness areas in the country, totalling two million acres, that have been converted from hunting to photographic safaris. Botswana’s president, Ian Khama, a close friend of the Jouberts, has personally endorsed the initiative.
Bell and the Jouberts are taking their anti-hunting message into the heartland of big game safaris: Tanzania. Trophy fees there have remained the same since the mid-Eighties, making Tanzania the international hunter’s bargain basement. Though there are no statistics available on the number of animals shot annually, it is estimated that Tanzania generates $13?million from what is coyly termed “wildlife utilisation”, which includes hunting and live animal capture. In South Africa, which does keep statistics, more than 54,000 animals of all species were hunted in 2006, earning the country more than $250?million in trophy fees. Big business, indeed.
“We are buying the hunting licences in the Selous Game Reserve and tearing them up,” says Joubert with glee. “Our total bill will be close to $90,000 this year. We are saying that we are going to own these animals for the year.”
Having wrenched Dereck away from the lone leopard, we head out into the evening looking for the lions. It isn’t long before we find them, a pride of nine animals doing little more than lolling around in the turpentine grass, occasionally standing alert as a nearby herd of buffalo shows signs of movement.
As dusk envelops us and the extraordinary night sky fills with stars, we find ourselves contemplating the impact homo sapiens is having on this magnificent wilderness. Dereck stares intently at the pride and says “around the time the occupants of this vehicle were born just over half a century back, there were more than 450,000 lions roaming across Africa.” His voice echoes in the stillness: “Today, there are fewer than 20,000 left on the whole continent.”
Soon, grim statistics and analysis are punctuating the night air. We all agree we are overpopulating at such a pace and to such dramatic effect that we are minutes from midnight ecologically, with rural Africa experiencing one of the highest population growth rates on earth. For most of human history, the fields grew plants, the plants made cellulose, we ate the plants, we ate the animals and we were living off current sunlight. From the earliest evidence of human civilisation, around 150,000 years ago, until the industrial age in the 19th century, that was how we lived and our population did not pass a billion people. Our second billion took just 130 years to appear, the third only 30 years, taking us to 1960; since 1963, our population has doubled to more than six billion. We are living on environmental credit.
The pressure in Africa is most serious. The population has grown from 100? million at the beginning of the 20th century to 700?million at the end. By midway through this century it will have ballooned to two billion and, although the massive concentrations are in the cities, the wilderness areas are increasingly under pressure from burgeoning rural populations and their domestic animals. It’s most notable in the Maasai Mara, increasingly one of the most competed-for tracts of wilderness on the continent – both from the point of view of local residents and foreign tourists.
My last stop on this extended safari is Londolozi, a private reserve with four luxurious camps. I feel I need to catch up with Dave Varty, the man who, by creating in the early Seventies one of the first high-revenue, low-impact safari camps on the edge of South Africa’s giant Kruger National Park, set the tone for luxury light safaris. Where once big names such as Teddy Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway and John Huston used to go on safari with hunting rifles and retinues of bearers, their present equivalents pitch up with a few overnight bags on a private jet and hope that the spa and masseurs are in order and that the wines have been kept at the correct temperature.
Like the most progressive East Africans, Varty thinks the solution lies in returning this entire area of South Africa to wildlife, moving the rural population that is pressing up against Kruger’s western boundary away from the area, and creating an enormous wildlife corridor that reinstates the elephant migratory paths that existed here until the arrival of white colonials.
There are five dirt-poor villages with some 40,000 people living in this hardscrabble landscape, and to say that their existence is subsistence almost understates the case. The men are away in the cities earning money; there is nothing here for the women and children. In the same way that the Maasai have been given incentives to move out of the OOC, so Varty believes that wildlife tourism can help the translocation of these communities into more viable rural towns.
Over the next two days, we drive around Londolozi tracking leopards, looking for lions and watching a large herd of elephant drinking and grazing along the banks of the Sand River. This is part of the 155,000-acre Sabi Sands reserve, and Londolozi and its similarly luxurious neighbours, Mala Mala, Singita and Richard Branson’s Ulusaba, promise their wealthy American and European clientele accessible wildlife from the comfort of a vehicle with perfectly mixed sundowners at some beautiful spot at the end of the drive.
Over sundowners on my last night, Varty goes intergalactic, waving his arms around and raving about corridors and optimum land usage and why “we Africans have to tell people like Sir Richard Branson and Bono what it is exactly we need here. We don’t want a school to be built here – we want you to pay for 300 miles of fence and you can tell the world that Virgin built the Sir Richard Branson Fence.” Then he’s off again, this time addressing South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma. “I’m not going to build a school here, Mr Zuma,” he declares to an audience of elephants washing themselves and drinking down at the water’s edge. “No, let’s build one at Thulamahashe or at Bushbuck Ridge [rural towns some way off]. Let’s put up proper housing, proper towns. There is nothing for people in these semi-arid, low-rainfall areas. This is for wild animals. Don’t put any more bricks and mortar on this thing.” Then he falls silent. There is nothing nuanced about what Varty is saying.
And there you have it, the rolling thunder of so many voices, desperate to be heard, messianic in their message. Cut corruption. Stop hunting. Create corridors. Move people. Pay people. Make tourism pay.
The sun has set, the elephants are barely visible in the soft moonlight. The stars stud the inky sky. It has all been said. Is anybody listening?