At the end of the summer, I did something out of character. I went on holiday. Usually if I get time off I go and climb a mountain and come back more tired and haggard than I was before, but this was a proper break in Namibia. It gave me the unusual privilege of seeing the safari business from a tourist's perspective.
A superb example of a triumph for tourism is Okonjima to the north of the capital Windhoek. In partnership with the Africat foundation, they're combining carnivore conservation with safaris. Cats and wild dogs that are rescued from all over Namibia are brought here, rehabilitated and released into a massive reserve. It is so big that you have no sense of being inside a managed park, but tourists have a much higher chance of sighting cheetah, leopard, honey badger and wild dog, which are rarely seen elsewhere. However, there is a bigger picture. As an NGO, Africat's goal is to mitigate conflict between humans and wild predators across Africa. It's a genuine challenge. One of the proprietors Donna Hanssen says; 'In the UK your farmers have difficulty managing to live harmoniously alongside foxes and badgers.
Here in Namibia they deal daily with lion, leopard, hyenas, hippos, elephants... they need practical help if both wild animals and farmers are going to live in harmony.' The money garnered from tourists who stay at Okonjima goes into providing pragmatic projects, such as one that funds corrals for farmers to put their cows in at night. Corrals make cattle less vulnerable to lion predation; in exchange farmers agree not to persecute the cats. For visitors, there's nothing heavy-handed about Africat's message. If you choose to, you can see cats being rehabilitated, learn about their stories, their plight, and what can be done to protect them across the continent. But that's not obligatory; you could just go out on a sundowner drive and see a leopard yawning in the shade, or track cheetah on foot, and have these gorgeous felids purring so close you can feel the reverberation throbbing up through the ground. An experience like that could convert someone to conservation for a lifetime.
Another reserve with an enlightened ethos was situated on the edge of the Etosha national park. When we arrived, the waterhole outside the lodge was so rammed with zebra and elephant we couldn't see the water. We tracked lion across the reserve, before watching them gamboling in the dust, the youngsters practicing their stalking, leaping on their siblings while the elders looked on, occasionally letting rip with a roar that gave us goosebumps. But it wasn't actually the wildlife that left the biggest impression. Hobatere had been a conventional lodge until five years ago, when it burned down, and the land was returned to cattle farming. A year ago the indigenous landowning tribe was given help by a consortium to buy the lodge. They took it over, rejuvenated it, and now run the place themselves, returning all the profits to the community. The landowning tribe have a real sense of ownership and pride over their lodge, which is genuinely quite touching. When a group of lion came down to their waterhole, the waiters stopped work to cheer, and borrowed our binoculars to watch in wonder; the lion had come back to their land! On our Game drives and walks, we were led by Bushmen who had lived their whole lives in this rusty soil, and while much of their commentary focused on how good various animals were to eat, we heard stories and information from a uniquely intimate perspective.
In conservation, the term 'stewardship' is an omnipresent buzzword. The idea is to give indigenous people incentive to protect their own lands, investing them in the future health of their environment. Having travelled all over Africa filming wildlife, it's obvious that this enlightened ideal is not the norm. Most high-end hotels import their highest paid staff in from elsewhere. Any locals who do get employed end up working as gardeners and cleaners. Precious little profit finds its way back to the communities. The case of 'Cecil' the lion in Zimbabwe brought to global attention how sport hunting generates mega bucks, but that money is siphoned off by big external companies, while local landowners receive next to nothing.
In my day job making wildlife films, we spend most of our time living out in the wilds, sleeping rough, cheek by jowl with locals who are friends and equals. All too often we'll finish one of those shoots, come back to civilisation and stay in a hotel where Colonialism is alive and well. In Mozambique, we stayed in a lodge where the white owners called their black staff; 'boy', yelling, barking orders, threatening casual violence... it was as if apartheid had never been abolished. And there are countless examples of how tourism highlights and even exacerbates the gulf between haves and have nots in Africa. I've filmed several times with anti-poaching patrols; armed guards who risk their lives to protect endangered animals from poachers. Though they are undoubted heroes, it's difficult presenting this situation as a simple hero vs villain triumph of good over evil. After all, these are (often underprivileged) Africans in gun battles with penniless and desperate Africans, and it's all in aid of protecting wild animals... so those animals can be photographed (or worse shot) by rich tourists on luxury holidays.
As the world's richest get richer, luxury resorts in far off places are booming and the potential is obviously enormous. That influx in greenbacks could do so much to alleviate poverty, and aid conservation in developing nations. However, it doesn't seem right that wildlife is present in high-end reserves at the expense of human life, or that tourists could be sipping champagne in a $5000-a-night suite, while the traditional landowners have no running water. Hobatere was a blueprint for a more uplifting and Holistic solution; there an entire community has a way to profit massively long term from the wildlife, and so they will protect it, and treasure it.
This is a massively simplified and idealised sliver of a complicated and difficult situation. It would be hopelessly naive to say that if the whole of Africa follows these models everything will be fine for wildlife. It won't. Africa is a huge complex continent, and no two countries are the same. Many other countries face greater challenges. Kenya for example is smaller than Namibia, but with a far greater population. South Africa is also far more densely populated, and with political, social and economic unrest, poaching is on a different scale. Everything is easier in Namibia. But these few enlightened models gave me hope. Tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry worldwide, and grows every year, with high-end tourism the biggest area of growth. It would be a crime for all that cash to just be pocketed by billionaire foreigners. The lucre from tourism needs to be spread around, so that it benefits us all.
When we left Hobatere, the entire staff stopped work to sing to us, still wearing chef hats and gardening gloves. Things like this can have a sky-high cringe factor, but it left us almost in tears. It was spontaneous, the smiles were genuine, and we didn't feel like customers, but like honoured guests. They were honestly thanking us for coming, for bringing unimagined prosperity to their community, for the new future we represented.