The human face of conservation: bringing community and wildlife together

Across Africa, the traditional idea of safari parks is getting an overhaul - and where once locals were excluded, models with community involvement are finding long-term success

When the first of Africa’s national parks was set up in 1925 by the Belgian colonial administration in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, responses were positive. Virunga, as it is now known, was set up well over 40 years in advance of the UK’s first national park and for the first 35 years of its existence, was a model of sustainable tourism. The mountain gorillas it was established to protect thrived under the park management’s benign leadership and poaching was kept to a minimum. But while the animals flourished, the local people, hustled off their ancestral lands by the Belgians, did not. It was an oversight that would come back to haunt the park, with devastating repercussions for the wildlife.

National parks and safari concessions in Africa have long had a bad rap from human rights organisations who say that depopulating areas in favour of wildlife is seriously wrong. They’re right of course but then, so are the conservationists who argue that animals have to go somewhere. So what’s the solution? The answer lies in sensible eco-tourism. Eco-tourism is defined by operators for whom giving back to the community is as important as taking care of the environment, and for a good reason: the two go hand in hand. Encouragingly, it’s something that more and more African safari companies are taking on and the results are exciting.

‘Conservation can happen without community involvement but only in extreme circumstances,’ says Wilderness Safari’s Rob Moffat. By extreme circumstances, it’s worth pointing out, he means an area where there are no inhabitants and those are few and far between. In Africa, only the Namib, Kalahari and Sahara deserts are unpopulated, and even then a few hardy souls cling to an existence there. ‘In normal circumstances,’ he continues, ‘it isn’t even vaguely possible. It’s their [the community’s] land. They and their children will determine what happens to it.’

As far as safari operators are concerned, working with rather than against local communities can bring real benefits for both sides – and not just having fewer anti-poaching patrols. At Singita Lebombo in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, a novel new way to boost the prospects of local communities, as well as improve the culinary output of Singita’s network of African safari lodges has been hit upon. The Singita School of Cooking takes young people, most of whom have been out of work for five years or more, and puts them through a rigorous cooking course. Students leave with a BTEC diploma and the chance to put their newfound skills to work with a job in one of the company’s lodges.

Among the graduates is Origin Khoza, now 23, for whom the school proved a lifeline and a route into a career that he had always dreamt of. ‘I have enjoyed cooking since [I was] young and I grew up wanting to be a chef but I needed more experience,’ he explains. ‘When I came here, I thought I knew just how to do meat, how to do vegetables and then I arrived and we went deeper - learning how to do pies, make puff pastry… It has made a lot of difference; now I can do everything in the kitchen.’

Origin is currently working with the 2011 students and passing on his knowledge while covering for their regular teacher, but he knows how tough trying to make it without the course could have been. As in the UK, university-level courses are expensive and for someone like Origin, they would have been financially out of reach. ‘Fortunately because it was a learnership [apprenticeship] and they [Singita] paid for everything, we could concentrate and learn,’ he says. ‘We were lucky.’

Micro managers

Singita aren’t the only ones getting involved in community development. At Kwandwe, a reserve on South Africa’s Eastern Cape, the owners have launched an organisation dedicated to improving the lot of the locals called the Angus Gillis Foundation. So far, it’s major successes have included helping to fund a shiny new community centre, improve education for primary school age children and encouraging and supporting self-help groups among local women. ‘We focus very much on getting people to recognise the assets they have and build upon them,’ says Lucy O’Keeffe, the foundation’s director. ‘We encourage micro savings and credit groups from which people can take loans to start their own businesses such as raising broiler chickens or growing vegetables to sell.’

She mentions Tata Njonno, a 90-year-old local, whose organic vegetable garden is so fruitful, he’s able to supply the lodge kitchens with fresh produce for guests to enjoy. And he’s not the only one who’s making money from tourists. One of the local women’s groups makes beautiful handmade dolls that are sold through the lodge shops, while yet another is looking to market soap to guests. ‘Kwandwe considers it vital to have good community relations to go with our conservation work,’ says the reserve’s manager, Graeme Mann. ‘We benefit because many of our staff come from the local area, and they’re healthier, better educated and better equipped to deal with life because of programmes like these. We aim to keep families together and functioning, and having these facilities [on site], means that we’re able to do so.’

Partnering with local communities is one thing, but what about when the local community is your landlord? Uniquely, in Namibia, that’s exactly what has happened. ‘The acid test for most businesses is income per hectare per animal,’ says Moffat. ‘This business [eco-tourism] exists to provide the local community with a less harmful way to use their land that is competitive with other options such as strip mining or cattle farming. I can’t think of anything else that achieves the same income other than photo safaris and it has lots of secondary benefits such as career advancement for locals on their ancestral land.’

Interestingly, whereas the majority of African wildlife reserves are either government or privately owned, in Namibia, land is community owned, which gives them a direct stake in tourism operations. ‘The government here has been exceptionally good at providing people with the wherewithal to use their land,’ says Moffat. ‘It has created a perfect synergy between people and wildlife.’

Bringing back natural heritage

But that’s not to say that government-owned parks don’t provide locals with a stake in conservation. For a start, parks such as Kruger have strict environmental rules, which means the likes of Singita Lebombo – eco-tourism operation or not – have no choice but to follow the rules. Whether they choose to take it further is up to them but the more responsible operators generally do. At Lebombo for example, the gorgeous wooden cabins, the interiors of which wouldn’t look out of place in a London boutique hotel, literally float above the ground, which means that they can exist and be removed without impacting on the environment at all. Local staff working at the lodges pick up on this, and take the environmental message home. Then there’s the safari company-run programmes such as Wilderness’ Children in the Wilderness foundation, which brings deprived urban youngsters into the bush for a closer look at their natural heritage. ‘At Kwandwe, we do a lot of what we call kiddy bumbles where we get kids from local schools and do conservation lessons with them,’ says Mann. ‘We take them out on a game drive, they get to see some of the animals that run around inside the park and then we will have an hour-long talk about it. The challenge you get when you have big electric fences around the outside, is that a kid who goes to school at Fort Brines just across the road from us is going to walk past the fence every day and see this huge fence and fancy cars going in and out but not know what is going on in there. So we need to show them what happens.’

A similar school of thought underpins community operations at Singita Pamushana – Singita’s Zimbabwean property. Located in the spectacularly beautiful Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve, much of the company’s efforts have been directed at poverty relief, health and schools, although a significant amount of work has been done on environmental education. The man in charge of feeding 19,000 local school children every day is Shepherd Mawire, Pamushana’s Community Development Coordinator. His extremely varied brief includes everything from teaching conservation to children to explaining the art of using condoms to local youths. ‘In the past, you wouldn’t say “a condom” in front of others but now I have taken off that mask and I say it as it is,’ he explains. HIV is a big problem in Zimbabwe, as in the rest of Africa, so for Shepherd, getting to grips with the problem is an essential part of making Pamushane’s community work bear fruit.

‘We can’t talk of developing the community and ignore issues like HIV/Aids and malaria because this is a malaria prone area, and it is also very prone to HIV and Aids because we are very, very close to the South African border.’ For Shepherd, tackling it means coming up with a whole host of creative ways to get the message across. ‘We try and use a lot of different methods, especially concerning HIV. Sometimes, we dramatise, sometimes we take a TV and DVD player and draw some lessons from there, sometimes we do a talk show or a debate, sometimes we do a road show where we take a whole PA system and play music for people dance to. We give out T-shirts with HIV and Aids messages or give out pamphlets. We are trying to “edu-tain” people. We are trying to teach them while they are entertained because, to be honest with you, if you ask people to come “let’s sit down, I am going to lecture, you are going to shut up and listen,” they are not going to enjoy it and the next time they won’t come.’

Back in Virunga, things have changed dramatically in the 86 years since the park was established. Far from being a haven for gorillas, it has become a slaughterhouse with poaching spinning out of control. Local people, with no stake in the survival of the park’s wildlife, treat it as a wild larder, although the problem has been exacerbated by the succession of wars and dictatorships that followed in the wake of independence. For the Congolese people, who have never had a particularly good deal from anyone – whether Belgians or other Congolese – taking care of their national heritage comes at the bottom of a list topped by survival. Elsewhere though, things are very different and for Moffat, safari companies and national parks who don’t allow locals a stake are building on sand. ‘It’s a failed concept,’ he says. ‘Shoving people off the land has no merit going forward and it has caused irreparable harm to eco-systems. Businesses [like Wilderness] need to capture the best of the free market and harness it to the public good. Here that means carbon sequestration, protecting biodiversity and so on. Our kids deserve to inherit a functioning planet.’

Journeys by Design can tailor-make bespoke itineraries including Singita’s lodges ( / 01273 623790)

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