The awe of sustainable safari

Observing wild animals is not only a breathtaking spectacle, it’s good for our wellbeing too. However, the impact on natural habitats isn’t always so positive. Aaron Millar outlines four destinations that balance tourism and conservation

Whether it’s watching lions stalk a herd of gazelle, or grizzlies gorge on spawning salmon, few thrills can match being close to animals in the wild.

But there may be more to it than just a simple buzz. A 2009 study, published in the academic journal Current Issues in Tourism, believes there are intrinsic emotional benefits to human-wildlife encounters too.

“Participants are totally absorbed in the spectacle,” Dr Susanna Curtin, of Bournemouth University, writes in the paper. “This provokes a deep sense of wellbeing … leading to spiritual fulfillment and psychological health benefits.”

Identifying key themes of the experience, Curtin argues that when we spend time with wild animals, we reconnect with our roots. Time slows down. We feel a deep connection to the planet and to ourselves. We are spontaneously happy.

Sadly, the benefits don’t work both ways: many wild species are increasingly threatened by the encroachment of human populations. The number of African Lions has decreased by almost 50% in just over 20 years. Illegal elephant poaching is on the increase, and in our lifetime the Indian Tiger may, unfathomably, cease to exist.

The reasons underlying this damage are complex: local people, who are often struggling themselves to survive, rarely benefit from the surrounding wildlife, seeing it as a threat to their land, livestock and way of life. Poverty is an issue, as is increasing population size, with many communities forced to clear natural habitats for agriculture.

But there may be a solution: sustainable tourism can help protect wildlife, conserve the natural landscape, and at the same time benefit local populations.

A leading example is the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), which has, to date, helped launch 12 community-owned safari lodges on the continent.

“Everything begins with a conservation objective,” Brian McBrearity, AWF director of conservation enterprise, explains. “We identify landscapes and ecosystems that are critical to wildlife and the future of the planet, and are also under threat. Then we work with the local community, who own the land, to try to provide them with economic incentives to set aside a portion of that land for conservation.”

Those economic incentives are generated by sustainable safari lodges, which are built by the local community in partnership with established private sector tour operators, who bring the necessary expertise and marketing reach to make the business a success. Crucially though, “the community retains ownership of the land and lodge,” McBrearity explains. “The operator manages the property and pays rental income to the community, as well as providing jobs and other benefits. In exchange, the community agrees that part of their land is reserved exclusively for wildlife conservation. Many of these communities are land rich and cash poor, so it’s a win for the wildlife and a win for the local community.”

It’s also a win for travellers, providing a more intimate safari experience, and one that they know will benefit their destination as much as it benefits them. Positive travel at its best.

Here are some of the AWF’s latest and most successful projects, well worth considering if you love animals and want to connect with the natural world in a profound way.

Machenje Fishing Lodge, Zambia
These recently opened solar-powered thatch cabins overlooking the Zambezi River in Zambia offer easy access to Victoria Falls, wonderful river safaris and some of the best fishing in Africa. Constructed and staffed by the Sekute Chiefdom, a percentage of annual revenues goes directly to community development projects, while the lodge itself conserves a vital 20,000-hectare elephant corridor, enabling the animals to pass safely between feeding grounds without fear of human conflict.

Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge, Uganda
Nestled above the lush rainforests of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda, there are few places better for spotting the critically endangered Mountain Gorilla in the wild than these cosy mountain cottages. Owned by the Nkuringo – who have, to date, earned more than $150,000 towards community projects – the lodge has helped conserve the forest exclusively for the gorillas, enabling their numbers to steadily increase over the last decade.
Tel: +256 (0) 414 251182

Bale Mountain Lodge, Ethiopia
Opening November 2013 in Africa’s largest remaining tract of pristine moorland and cloud forest, guests will stay in eco-friendly thatch and bamboo cottages, exploring the surrounding wilderness in search of wolves, lions, monkeys and more. The first of its kind in Ethiopia, it is hoped the lodge will reduce the level of illegal logging, poaching, and over-farming in the region, stimulating instead the development of a robust new conservation industry.
Tel: +251 912707709

Scotland’s Big Five
Spotting wildlife doesn’t have to mean adding to your carbon footprint. Take the train north and spot dolphins in the Moray Firth, kayak with seals in the Arisaig skerries and climb the Cairngorms in search of Golden Eagles and wild reindeer on a week-long wildlife adventure across Scotland.
Tel: 01479 420020
Wilderness Scotland, Inverdruie House, Aviemore, Cairngorms National Park, PH22 1QH