How your safari can contribute to a sustainable Africa

An African safari is an adventure like no other. It’s an incredible opportunity to experience wildlife up close, a chance to witness natural phenomenon’s, to re-connect with nature and to gain cultural exposure, insight and understanding. And all of this in lap of luxury (should you so wish!), sipping on a sundowner as you watch the sun glowing red and orange over the vast plains of Africa.

But have you ever wondered what impact your safari adventures have on the countries, communities and wildlife areas that you travel to? How is it all connected and do your tourism dollars truly filter down through the economy? A safari can have a significant impact on both conservation and communities alike, especially when travelling within the ecotourism model.

Your safari can directly contribute to or detract from a more sustainable future for Africa

Tourism boosts the revenue of the local economy and creates thousands of jobs. In South Africa, for instance, the private game reserves bordering the Kruger National Park are responsible for over 60% of the region's total employment, tax and GDP contributions. According to the African Development Bank, more than 20 million people across Africa are employed in the tourism industry. In addition, governments seek to maintain the condition of areas that are visited by tourists and thus tourism contributes to and encourages the improvement and maintenance of local infrastructure. Safaris and tourism also have the social advantage of creating a sense of pride in local communities for their traditions and way of life, as they see it being celebrated by tourists when they visit. One of the most commonly noted positive impacts of tourism is an increase in awareness for the environment. Safari tourism invariably involves educating visitors and showing them the need conserving our environment and why we must protect it: if we don't protect our wild spaces today, they won't be here to visit in future.

The safari industry relies on healthy, functioning ecosystems with abundant wildlife and it is therefore crucial for safari operators to be actively involved in supporting and protecting the areas in which they operate. However, not all safari tourism is created equally, and even so-called ecotourist destinations can and do have an adverse effect on the wilderness they claim to protect. But how do you know who's telling the truth?

Your choice of safari can contribute or detract from a sustainable Africa. Photo Credit: Singita

What is ecotourism?

The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defines ecotourism as “Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education”. It aims to minimise any negative impacts of travel on the environment and local communities, encourage sustainable practices and deliver education around the importance of protecting wilderness areas.

Practically speaking, it boils down to these four factors:

  • The development footprint of operators and the activities they offer must be low-impact and sustainable, which implies low-volume tourism.    
  • The experience for ecotourists should be nature-based and incorporate high levels of educational input and ecological awareness.
  • Outside of the financial rewards to operators, benefits should also result in fair and equitable contributions to surrounding communities and the environment, making ecotourism a pillar of conservation objectives.  
  • All those involved must respect local cultures and customs.  

How does ecotourism work and does it really benefit the environment?

Ecotourism, conservation and biodiversity are all interlinked and work to reinforce each other. A recent study has found that ecotourism funds are more likely to go to parks in wealthy countries, but less likely to go to those that are forested, near large human populations or inaccessible. Here's how this works: as a safari tourist, and especially as an eco-conscious tourist, you are more likely to choose biodiverse areas as your preferred destination. That's only logical, as your love for nature and wildlife means that you want to optimise your time in Africa and make sure you are able to see as many species as you can. 

Lodges and lodge collections that run according to an ecotourism model are focused on delivering incredible safari experiences while remaining conscious of and actively contributing to solving the local environmental, political and social issues. In practical terms, this means that the revenue from your safari not only goes to investors and owners. It also pays for hundreds of staff salaries, anti-poaching units, local community development initiatives and conservation research and projects. True eco-lodges also support the local economy beyond providing direct employment and training opportunities for locals, by procuring produce from nearby farmers and using local service providers and artisans. For instance, the Singita collection lodges have rigorous selection procedures when choosing products for sale in their curio shops. 

Distribution of salaries in safari tourism between locals and non-locals in the Greater Kruger Region between April 2016 and March 2017. Source: Chidakel (2020)

In this way, ecotourism (when correctly implemented) also indirectly addresses the root causes of wildlife crime in Africa. By providing jobs and opportunity for up-skilling, ecotourism lodges contribute to reducing poverty in communities living inside and around protected areas. As one of the key driving forces behind poaching and related wildlife crime, reducing poverty can also reduce wildlife crime. Beyond this obvious economic link, the ecotourism model also includes providing conservation education in local communities, to illustrate the value of protecting wildlife. The challenge is how to do this in a way that addresses the needs of the local communities first and foremost, as a sustainable solution to the long-term coexistence of people and animals in Africa. Ecotourism also aims to create a shared culture of respect and protection for our beautiful world. Ecotourism models incorporate community visits, and hands on experiences, taking you out of the game reserves and into the real world of living with wildlife. These experiences can create a wonderful opportunity for cultural exchange, where tourists and locals both benefit.

Connecting the dots of tourism, conservation and community. Credit Wild Wonderful World

What is a Sustainable African Safari? Costs, Greenwashing, and Challenges

In today’s day and age of greenwashing, fancy marketing language, explosion of so-called eco-lodges and stunning imagery thrown at us from all angles, it is harder than ever to see the forest through the trees. Despite what it may look like on the surface, lodges and lodge collections who truly uphold conservation values as the core guideline of their business model are few and far between. However, a true commitment to these values often comes with an additional cost, as running a luxury lodge with a long-term vision is constantly in need of re-investment of profits into the upholding of values and principles, for the benefit of future generations.

Is sustainable tourism always more expensive?

There are exceptions to this: choosing to embark on your own 4x4 self-drive adventure across Africa is probably the least expensive and most immersive way to experience our continent while leaving the smallest footprint. However, this type of travel is not for the faint of heart... Trust us when we say this, we've done it! Because overlanding and camping in a foreign country on a different continent isn't exactly everyone's cup of tea, the majority amongst us will opt for a more conventional, safe and guaranteed way of sustainable travel in Africa.

So, as a general rule of thumb, choosing to go on safari to high-impact ecotourism destinations comes at a higher cost. That doesn't mean that the most expensive safari necessarily has the most impact on conservation! But if you choose the right destination & eco-lodge, the amount of money you invest in your safari will directly correlate to the amount of money invested back into wildlife conservation and community empowerment. Research has shown that while private game reserves on the border of the Kruger National Park in South Africa pay out more in salaries to non-local employees compared to national, provincial or community-run reserves, they also pay up to 4 times more salaries to local employees. So if you really want to make a difference while travelling, we encourage you to save space in your budget to accommodate this. To be a true custodian and good steward of the land, investment back into the wildlife and communities living on and around wild spaces, as well as the conscious management of the wilderness areas under their care, are essential. Knowing you are contributing to these initiatives provides a reassurance that you have invested in more than just a safari: you’ve invested in the future of our wild spaces – so that they will be here, not for years, but for centuries to come.

How to book a dedicated conservation safari?

The popularity of the ecotourism concept and the fact that it remains a broad set of principles and guidelines open to wide interpretation, means that anyone can throw the term around and charge a premium for it. But how then, do you know where your money is going? We've personally seen exorbitant prices being charged from tourists to participate in conservation experiences, without much or any indication as to how and where those funds will be used.

Is your eco-lodge of choice transparent about their conservation levies? Credit Amandine de Cumont for Wild Wonderful World

The same caution applies to wildlife interaction experiences, such as visiting wildlife rehabilitation centres. Rehab centres delaying release of rehabilitated animals for the sake of display for tourist visitors, are more common than you may think. However, these instances are not always caused by greed or badwill. Rehabilitating wild animals is extremely expensive, and income from tourist visitors is often the only lifeline for these centres. It is not always easy for outsiders to determine which organisations are truthful in the treatment of the animals under their care.

If you want to get hands on during your safari and participate in conservation operations, make sure to book those experiences with well-connected, well-informed and responsible travel organisations who are 100% transparent with you about how much the operation costs, who gets paid what, and are open to answer all the difficult questions. If you are wanting to participate in conservation during your safari, enquire to plan a conservation safari that directly funds conservation projects.

The Wild Wonderful World difference: conservation first.

Are conservation and safari tourism really compatible?

This brings us to the crux of the matter: doesn't all safari tourism, eco or not, have a negative impact on wildlife? What is the point in funding rehabilitation centres, if they can't release the animals because they would loose their income? Shouldn't we just let our wild spaces be wild, instead of treating them as large, live-in zoos, where people pay to spy and intrude on the lives of wild animals?

This question becomes even more pressing when we look at the (predicted) growth curve of Africa’s travel and tourism industry: Africa travel more than doubled between 2000 and 2023, with a predicted growth rate of 6.5% per annum over the next decade. It is expected that in the next decade, tourism’s combined contribution to continental economies could reach over US$300 billion, doubling the number of travelers by 2033. Combined with the ever-increasing awareness of climate change, safari companies will be more and more likely to throw the terms eco-lodge and ecotourism around in an attempt to stand out from the crowd. But can Africa's game reserves sustain this increase?

Strict game viewing protocols, rigorous ranger training and vehicle limits in sightings, allow you to view wildlife with minimal negative impact on the environment. Credit Matthew Poole.

The sad truth of the matter is this: if there is no economic value in it, no one deems it worthy of protection and investment. This is just as much true for our wild spaces and wildlife, as it is for the New York Stock Exchange. Whilst their ecological value is inherent, safari tourism has given our wild spaces and wildlife their economic value. Without that value, no one would be able to mobilise the exorbitant amounts of money needed to safeguard them. If nothing else, this is what the Covid-19 pandemic has really shown us: a 93% decrease in tourist arrivals, forcing the majority of safari companies to lay off employees and cancel planned tours and trips, an increase in wildlife crime due to increased poverty, and funds that were flowing from safari tourism being cut off from key conservation projects. Today, four years after the start of the pandemic in 2019, we are just starting to see the African safari industry bouncing back.

So yes, conservation, safari and true ecotourism are compatible. We sound like a broken record when we repeat this quote by Sir David Attenborough, but he really does hit the nail on the head:

No one will protect what they don't care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced.

And so, we keep bringing you to Africa, to see and experience the magic of the African wilderness for yourself - in a responsible way with the values of ecotourism at its core. And inevitably, this also means that you will witness the dark side and the challenges we face on a day-to-day basis to conserve and expand that wilderness for future generations. So that hopefully you will continue investing in conservation initiatives long after you have returned home.

How can I make a difference whilst on safari?

One thing we all have available to us, is free choice in how you select your safari. In the dense, smog-clouded forest of so-called "eco-lodges", it can feel extremely difficult to choose the safari model and destination that are right for you. So set yourself up for success at the outset, by choosing a travel agency whose values align with yours. Be discerning and selective when choosing who to work with, and ask the hard questions at the outset, so you can be sure your safari really contributes to a sustainable Africa.

At Wild Wonderful World, we aim to capture the heart of ecotourism, while providing you with life-changing adventures. We work only with responsible partners while planning our safaris around intentional and ethical experiences that awaken the soul and inspire a passion for the beautiful world we live in. They aim to bring you closer to the wild, while also giving back in order to ensure that these wonders remain long after we are gone.

Each and every safari that you book with Wild Wonderful World generates sustainable funding for our conservation: 20% of proceeds from our safari bookings are donated to the Wild Wonderful World Conservation Fund.  

Our travel advisors are always ready to assist you with sustainability information about your chosen lodges and destinations, helping you to navigate the often confusing and treacherous waters of green-washing and false advertising of “eco” lodges. When you are ready to start planning your sustainable safari, we will be here.

Written by Michelle Pengilly and Evelyn Poole

Tap an image to view full screen
No items found.

Looking for more?