Photo by author ©Natalie Howells

Can a Safari be a Responsible Travel experience?

As travellers become more and more interested in sustainable and responsible travel, we start to question the types of experience we invest in. We start to reconsider time-honoured trips and look at how they affect the environment — not just the physical, but also the local and cultural.

Having recently returned from my first safari, I was excited to see that sustainable and responsible practices are indeed possible, and there are safari companies out there working hard to avoid the theme park experience that over-popular adventures have created in some areas.

Conservancies in Kenya

My experience was made by the places I experienced, and a lot of work has gone into those places to make them what they are today. I was lucky to stay — without realising — in a number of conservancies.

The conservancy concept has been introduced in recent years to great success. Effectively, the aim has been to expand the area of protected habitats for wildlife, outside the National Parks.

The concept addresses the three main causes of wildlife loss in Kenya — habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict, and over-exploitation of natural resources, while creating benefits for everyone involved.

Land surrounding the national parks is leased from the local Maasai tribes, and tourism is strictly controlled in the camps that inhabit the conservancy.

No more than 1 tent per 700 acres. No more than 12 tents per camp in total. No more than 1 vehicle per 1400 acres.

Photo by author ©Natalie Howells

The conservancy concept works because everyone involved benefits.

The local tribes get a regular income from the lease of their land. Additionally, they’re engaged with the safari operators and most of the staff, guides, drivers and spotters come from this community.

Tourists get a more authentic experience, avoiding over-crowding and having more opportunities to see wildlife that isn’t surrounded by vehicles.

The wildlife gets a wider area to roam, does not come into conflict with the local tribes, and has the opportunity to reestablish itself.

Photo by author ©Natalie Howells

The camps are committed to sustainability — where we stayed, there were no plastic water bottles. Every tent has reused glass bottles filled with mineral water, andevery guest is given a reusable drinks bottle to take out on game drives, topped up with mineral water.

Towels and linens aren’t washed every single day unless there’s a real need. You request showers, meaning water is only heated when required — warm water for washing is delivered every morning, too.

A central charging point is provided in the camp, so power isn’t run to every tent and wasted by devices being constantly plugged in. Solar energy is used for lighting.

Does it work?

One of the camps I stayed at had a dissertation about the conservancy concept, looking at how effective it was. The premise was simply to look at the prevalence of wildlife in conservancy and non-conservancy areas.

The results were dramatic — the number of animals in the conservancy areas had skyrocketed (sadly, I didn’t take notes of the numbers). The study looked at new conservancies — circa 12 months old — as well as those over 5 years in action. The results were visible within 12 months, highlighting the immediate improvements created by this concept.

From a purely unscientific perspective, I can certainly attest to the fact that I saw many, many more animals in the conservancy than I ever expected to see. And we’re not talking little critters, here. We saw big cats, elephants, and hippos — some were so close to camp that we could hear them eating during the night (don’t worry, it was perfectly safe).

In fact, we often saw more in the conservancy than in the parks themselves. In addition, we didn’t have twenty other vehicles crowding round to catch a glimpse. Spending an hour as the only jeep anywhere close by, watching 9 lions chilling in the shade — that’s what a safari should be.

Can a responsible safari be a luxury experience?

One of the arguments I’ve heard against sustainable and responsible travel is the idea that it involves depriving us of the joys of travel, avoiding the finer things in life, or ‘slumming it’.

My experience couldn’t have been further from that bleak image. Take a look at the safari ‘tent’ on offer at the Porini camps…

Photo by author ©Natalie Howells

Proper beds, crisp linens, comfort. All the things that travellers accustomed to luxury appreciate. The food — prepared by talented chefs and absolutely delicious. The staff — members of the local Maasai tribe, proud of what they’re achieving with the area and determined to offer the best possible service. The showers — ‘safari showers’ involving a bucket of hot water filled by the staff and hoisted up to the roof of the tent.

Ok, so that last one sounds less than luxurious. But the sustainable nature (conserving water, heating only the water that’s necessary, avoiding waste) does not diminish the fact that the showers were actually fantastic. In a quick but satisfying shower, I never ran out of hot water, the water pressure was better than showers I’ve endured in plenty of hotels, and the toiletries provided were gorgeous. Not bad for a responsible shower.

Safaris are a unique and wonderful experience. Knowing they can also be responsible, for the physical environment and the local culture, makes them that much better.

Traveller, writer, knitter, boardgame geek, sesquipedalian nightmare.

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