Collaboration is crucial to conserve Africa’s last wild places

Wilderness Safaris has proved time and again that collaboration — with governments, communities and even its rivals — is key to conservation success.
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A black rhino. Photograph by Kai Collins.

As dusk settles over the Okavango Delta, we spot him progressing slowly through the grass — vast and grey like a battleship at sea. He looks up at us and then turns to focus on munching grass. The LandCruiser’s engine starts up — we leave him in peace, to continue back to camp.

While any encounter with a white rhino is a special one, this one is particularly so. The beast we’ve just seen is Serondela, one of the first that was moved here in a translocation project that began in 2001 and continues to this day.

By the mid-1980s, poaching in Botswana had resulted in just a handful of white rhinos remaining while the country’s last black rhino was shot in 1983 — the year that Wilderness Safaris was founded up here, in the Delta. It was this collection of lodges and safari camps (which today number 48, operating in seven African countries) that proposed bringing back both black and white rhinos. With the resurgence of poaching in South Africa and Zimbabwe over the last decade, the relocation has fulfilled the role of not only helping to establish founder populations in Botswana, but to provide these animals with an area of relative safety in which to live.

The reintroduction has largely been funded by donations and managed by the safari company’s non-profit wing, Wilderness Wildlife Trust, in collaboration with Botswana’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP). Map Ives, a former Wilderness Safaris Botswana director who now heads up Rhino Conservation Botswana, an umbrella conservation for the animal in that country, says that many guests “have an interest in helping conservation, so if you can appeal to them to donate via your company trust, you have a very good model of a ‘win-win-win’ for everyone. The company does not have to spend money from its bottom line. The guest feels good to be donating to a trust which oversees an important project such as trans-locating rhinos, and because the project is helping ‘save’ rhinos with money coming from the trust and therefore via Wilderness Safaris, then the company gains the very positive conservation credentials that they all care about. As far as I am concerned this is a very successful model which has played a great role in the Botswana Rhino Project. ”

Wilderness Safaris sponsors a rhino monitoring team (currently consisting of two people, with a third to be appointed later this year) that spends its days tracking the rhino through its Delta concession. In 2017, it assisted with the training of new monitors affiliated with other operators. Each now reports their data to Rhino Conservation Botswana, which, after collation and analysis, provides it to the DWNP.

While Wilderness Safaris contributed just 12.1% of the Trust’s coffers for 2018, 87.07% came from its guests and trade partners; the company also provided extensive in-kind support such as accommodation, staff, equipment and fuel). So, without high-end ecotourism, it’s clear that the ability of the Trust to fulfil its work — which numbered 40 conservation projects in 2018 and has included collaborations with the likes of National Geographic — would be severely hampered.

In several of Wilderness’s camps, there are research units where visiting third-party y researchers can live and work. The sustainability coordinator for Wilderness Safaris Botswana, Baz Sandenbergh, told me that the company is keen to assist with any master’s or PhD student interested in doing work on its Delta concession.

Wilderness’s own sustainability team conducts semiannual counts of herbivores and birds which it shares with Birdlife Botswana and the DWNP. Predators are monitored throughout the year, with guides recording sightings on each game drive.

Sandenbergh says that this baseline data can be used by other researchers; but it’s a boon for government too — having good data available helps to develop informed policy.

One of the most important programmes which Wilderness has assisted is the Okavango Large Carnivore survey run by WildCRU at the University of Oxford’s Trans-Kalahari Predator Programme.

“Our main aim is to extensively survey the Okavango Delta, using camera traps, to provide a reliable estimate of the number of large carnivores, with a special focus on lions,” explains researcher Robynne Kotze. “As the Okavango is a difficult environment within which to operate as a result of the flooding, we don’t have updated estimates of the total number of lions, cheetah, wild dog, spotted hyena and leopard that occupy this landscape. The Okavango Delta is an important source population for all of these species, and this landscape is a central and important part of the greater Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA TFCA), which spans Botswana, Angola, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. This data will form part of a longer-term project, which aims to establish corridors for the movements of large carnivores between protected areas in the KAZA TFCA. Using long-term data on lion movement from WildCRU’s extensive lion research in Zimbabwe and Botswana, Oxford University has developed a modelling framework, spanning the KAZA landscape, that predicts which areas can act as potential corridors for connecting protected areas.”

“Large carnivores require large spaces,” she says. “As their movements often extend beyond designated protected areas, safe corridors connecting different populations are important to maintain the long-term viability of populations by allowing for genetic exchange,” she says. “As Botswana is central to this model, our goal is to strengthen the local accuracy and applicability of the model by incorporating as much local data as possible. This includes obtaining accurate estimates of the number of large carnivores in the established protected areas. The data obtained during these surveys will not only help to strengthen the model, but also provide baseline estimates of population size for each large carnivore species which can be used to monitor their progress in the future. This work has only been possible with support from the DWNP, as well as local tourism operators such as Wilderness Safaris.”

“As one of the main tourist operators in the Okavango, Wilderness has been the perfect partner in conducting these surveys particularly with regards to the complicated logistics involved in carrying out our large-scale surveys in a dynamic, and at times, inaccessible landscape,” Kotze adds. “Wilderness has provided invaluable logistical support to our ground teams by providing accommodation, food, flights (for researchers and equipment), and fuel as well as access to research vehicles and boats in some of the more remote areas of the Delta. The staff of the environmental department have also added immense value to our surveys by assisting our teams in the setup, takedown and monitoring of our camera traps, providing on the ground expertise on the areas in which the surveys have been conducted and assisting in the follow up of predator sightings.”

The camera traps have also been used to monitor rhino, as well as shyer species such as aardwolf, aardvark and the rusty-spotted genet.

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A black rhino is released into the Okavango Delta. Photograph by Kai Collins.

Wilderness Safaris helps to conserve 2.3 million hectares. In 2018, of this, 51.7% was leased from the state (in national parks and game reserves, for example — for which it paid P51m in park fees) while a further 45.9% was leased from communities (which cost it P13.9m).

These contributions are vital to bolstering state conservation agencies, which, starved of resources, have been unable to adequately protect the land in its charge or create income opportunities for neighbouring communities. The company has had a concession on the Busanga Plains in Zambia’s Kafue National Park since 2006. This has boosted the park’s operating budget and catalysed outreach and conservation projects — in turn resulting in less poaching and a healthier ecosystem. Aerial surveys done in 2007 and 2017, showed increases of 487% for red lechwe, 113% for blue wildebeest and 87% for red hartebeest.

Back in Botswana, where Wilderness has most of its lodges, the company has enjoyed good relations with its previous president, Ian Khama. An avowed conservationist who banned trophy hunting, he also has small stakes in two of the company’s subsidiaries (investments which the company says predate his political career) and was also present when Wilderness released the first two white rhinos into the Delta.

Masisi has set a markedly different tone on conservation to his predecessor. He is considering reintroducing the culling of elephants as well as dropping the hunting ban. Not long after being appointed last year, he also disarmed the DWNP’s anti-poaching unit which had been established by Khama (Botswana Defence Force anti-poaching patrols still carry arms). Since then, local media has reported that at least eight rhinos have been poached in the Delta. It is difficult to determine to what degree the poaching — in what till very recently has been considered a safe haven for these beasts — is a result of the DWNP unit losing its firepower.

The two’s relationship has become publicly rancorous in the months since Masisi was appointed. Wilderness did not respond to questions as to how Botswana’s political changes might affect its conservation efforts.

Since 2010, African Parks, a non-profit conservation management organisation, has managed Rwanda’s Akagera National Park in partnership with the Rwandan Development Board. African Parks has appointed Wilderness Safaris to operate a luxury lodge in the 1,122 sq km park — which is home to central Africa’s largest protected wetland — that opens its doors later this year.

Jes Gruner, the park’s manager and CEO, says that partnering with Wilderness was a natural choice.

“African Parks is primarily a conservation organisation, and we recognise the strength in partnering with specialists in other areas, such as Wilderness Safaris in the tourism field, to promote high-end tourism and market a destination. A brand like Wilderness Safaris makes these lesser known [wilderness areas ] accessible to people, through increased marketing and greater global awareness of conservation areas that may not otherwise get noticed.”

Kotze echoes this, saying: “The development of tourism plays a large role in conserving landscapes as well as the species that occupy them. It brings awareness to the last of the world’s wild places, but also acts as motivation for keeping them intact. This is important not only for rare or endangered species, but also for landscapes such as the Okavango Delta which provide important ecosystem services. Tourism operators which operate in remote areas have the potential to bring in much-needed revenue to local communities by allowing communities to benefit from the natural world. By providing jobs, improving infrastructure and providing access to health care and education, lodges in remote areas can incentivise local people to protect their natural resources rather than focus on consumptive use. Additionally, by operating in remote areas, tourist operators can act as logistical bases that support research in areas that would otherwise be difficult and expensive for scientists to access independently.”

Increasingly, Wilderness’s collaborations extend beyond governments and non-profits to include work with its safari rivals too. Last month, along with Singita, &Beyond and Conservation Travel Fund By Ultimate Safaris, it announced the formation of the Lionscape Coalition. Each company is committing an initial US$50,000 (with further funds to be raised from guests) towards the Lion Recovery Fund’s vision of doubling Africa’s lion population by 2050. It’s an ambitious goal, especially considering that population pressures and habitat encroachment are only increasing. But, with Wilderness having demonstrated the power of partnerships again and again, it’s more than possible that this can be achieved.

An edited version of this article appeared in the Financial Mail‘s 25 April 2019 edition under the headline “Safari operators step up conservation efforts.”

I visited Botswana as a guest of Wilderness Safaris. 

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