In recent decades it has become increasingly clear to many people that our planet is not in the best of health. Likewise in the safari business the often cavalier way things had been done in the past (waste water and sewage polluting wetlands and underground water tables, diesel generators spewing out carbon, enjoying the fruits of an area but putting little back) was out of step with local communities and emerging conditions, and also no longer justifiable in the light of modern technology and thinking.
Among those who first saw the way forward was co-founder of Wilderness Safaris and Great Plains, Colin Bell. Especially with the latter, he and his partners set out to create a new generation of safari operations that would maximise renewable energy, using the best available technologies, and show that a top-end safari experience could also be one that casts its benefits far and wide. Year in and year out at the travel expos around the world, he noted safari operators showing off various awards, or selling themselves as ecotourism operators – when he knew only too well they were making empty promises. A kindred spirit was Colin’s long-time friend and travel writer David Bristow, who agreed that the “green-washers” of the industry should be exposed. A plan was finally hatched in 2009 when Colin invited David to be among the first to paddle the Selinda Spillway, a temperamental side channel of Botswana’s Okavango Delta. In 2010 Colin exited the safari-lodge industry which allowed him to move from an insider with vested interests to an independent outsider. We knew who were some of the biggest green-washers, but how were the travelling public, travel agents and tour operators to know? So we designed a project that would quantify the greenness of operations and showcase those who measured up the best. A year spent trawling the continent for candidates from the thousands of lodges and camps out there, followed by another year doing an initial vetting of around 250 properties, refined our list to around 170 places in 15 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and the associated Indian Ocean islands of Seychelles and Madagascar. A team of nine environmental specialists (see The Africa’s Finest team) was assembled and for approximately two years we visited those places – at our own expense – to conduct vigorous on-site environmental assessments. A full, standardised report was submitted for each place visited. A scoring system was devised concentrating primarily on operations, conservation and community effort, and each place was scored out of 10. Those places scoring 8 and above are the main entries in this book. Places scoring between 7 and 8 feature among the “Other Green Places” to visit in each country.
During this process we became aware of more potential places and we visited as many of them as we could: some appear in the book, others did not make it. We might have missed a worthy place or two, it can happen. However, no similarly exhaustive and comparable independent study of the industry has been done, and we have the methodology to back it up. What was especially important to us was that we remain totally independent at all times. No lodge paid us to include them; no lodge paid us to travel there to assess them; no operator paid anything to be included in this book. None of us is a stakeholder in any place featured. That is why you can be certain that every place featured in this book is unquestionably one of a fellowship of the most responsible and sustainable nature-based tourism operators in Africa. Learning the New Three Rs. Most schoolchildren these days learn to reduce, re-use and recycle. Most adults don’t, and many safari operators, even though they are dependent on the well-being of the natural environment, also don’t. Some of the safari lodges we found to be among the worst environmental offenders are darlings of the travel media and have all manner of “best ecotourism operator” accolades hanging on their walls like Christmas decorations. This is not to say that all environmental awards are meaningless, just most of them. But the most insidious cases we found were the secret violators: operators who take the money from paying guests and divert it to overseas bank accounts. Thus they dodge not only local taxes but also cheat their neighbouring communities out of the bed levies owing to them and the foreign exchange due to the various national treasuries. In East Africa, where the practice is endemic, it’s called “leakage”. These eco-pirates have done more than anyone else to sully the name and reputation of “ecotourism”.
Any safari destination not featured in this book should therefore be approached with some circumspection. Many might offer great service, good game viewing, charming characters and fine wines. In most cases we have looked under floorboards and often down toilets too and have found them wanting. What surprised – even saddened – us most though, was how few of the places we considered made the grade. One possible omission that could be levelled at us is the general lack of places specialising in non-motorised activities (walking, horseback, canoe and cycling safaris). They are nearly all, almost by definition, the greenest of the green. In our defence we chose to focus more on traditional lodges and camps that enjoy by far the biggest slice of the tourism pie.
That great man of electrical invention, Thomas Edison (1847 –1931), understood that the future of power – if there were to be a future – could not be based on non-renewable resources such as wood, coal or oil. He believed that forces such as the sun, wind and tides should be harnessed to supply our energy needs. “We are like tenant farmers,” he said, “chopping down the fence around our house for fuel when we should be using Nature’s inexhaustible sources of energy.” He said he’d put his money on solar, and time has proved him right. Research has shown that some lodges spew out half a ton of carbon pollution into the atmosphere for every hour their generators run. We have witnessed how prices for solar electricity have plummeted. In 2005 it would have cost around US$7 per watt. By early 2012 it was down to less than US$1 a watt for Chinese manufactured panels and a little more than that for German, Bosch panels. The best photovoltaic panels now have a 50-year life expectancy. With inexpensive and reliable solar power now available, any safari operator not planning to convert to solar or another renewable power source is part of the problem. And this thinking should permeate the organisation: to reduce, re-use and recycle in every department (even sewage).
People who run safari businesses, and those who visit them, are among the economically top ten per cent of the world’s population. They have a moral duty to share some of their vast fortunes among the “have-nots”. You could buy another watch, another yacht, another villa with your next share dividend or bonus. Or, to make a positive difference, you could support an effective conservation organisation. Better still, you could partner an indigenous community, helping to uplift their living conditions through wildlife conservation, conservancies and tourism.
Back when Colin Bell was MD of Wilderness Safaris, to celebrate a victory for land restitution and ecotourism in the Greater Kruger National Park, he presented the local Chief Maluleke with a traditional three-legged cooking pot.
Colin said the legs represented the environment, tourism and community. Under the old South African political regime the pot did not have a third leg. Now with the counter-balancing third support they could all look forward to an effective and sustainable partnership.
While on safari you will almost certainly see rural communities living in often dire circumstances around the perimeters of many of Africa’s game reserves and wilderness areas. Some of that land was once theirs. Or, even if it never was, they still sit on the outside of the park boundary looking in at the riches being enjoyed inside. If we do not start to share the spoils with these people, they will in time “inherit” those places – one way or another. In some cases the wildlife will likely end up in their three-legged cooking pots unless they come to see it as their asset.
All places featured in this book are meaningfully involved in uplifting their local communities, sometimes in the most inventive of ways. We suggest that one of the best ways – and certainly the most exciting and enjoyable – is to travel to Africa on safari; and you would be well advised to use the places featured in this book. Demand it of your travel agent and tell them we sent you. Our final category is places that were not yet operating when our project started, we did not learn of in time, or were otherwise unable to visit. In the table below we present what we believe are the emergent best green places.