Wilderness – a History of Sustainable Ecotourism

Jan 19, 2017 Conservation
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2017 has been declared as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, the aim of which is “to celebrate the contribution of the tourism sector to building a better world.” (World Tourism Organisation)

We’re thrilled at this announcement as it aligns precisely with our vision, which is: To be Africa’s leading ecotourism organisation, creating life-changing journeys in order to build sustainable conservation economies and inspire positive action.

For the past 34 years, in a variety of terms or names, this has been Wilderness’ goal.

How did it all start?

All it takes is two men and a Land Rover…

In 1983, two experienced, passionate safari guides – South African Colin Bell and New Zealander Chris McIntyre – who had been working in the remote reaches of Botswana since 1977, decided to strike out on their own.

Their reasons for taking this plunge?

They wanted to offer authentic safaris with integrity that catered for people as passionate about nature as they were. And they wanted somehow to ensure that the financial benefits of their safaris flowed to Botswana and its people and ensured the sustainable protection of the country’s wildlife areas.

At the time, most professional photographic safari outfitters did not pay tax in Botswana, employed mainly ex-patriots and sourced their supplies in neighbouring South Africa. Colin and Chris’ thinking at the time was simple: “There has to be a better way to do this!” They accordingly registered a Botswana company and based themselves in Maun, south of the Okavango Delta.

In retrospect, this approach was logical and today forms the central tenet of ecotourism the world over, but in the early 1980s it was a ground-breaking philosophy that set Wilderness Safaris apart.

Birth of a Skimmer

What also set this young company apart was its pursuit of the specialist market. Colin and Chris, themselves competent naturalists, worked closely with the region’s pre-eminent ornithologists and bird book authors. As a result, they offered specialist safaris to the Okavango Delta and northern Botswana in search of the region’s special bird species: Pel’s fishing-owl, wattled crane, African skimmer and others.

It was out of this focus that the company’s logo was born. The African skimmer is the only representative of its family in Africa and its feeding (skimming the surface of large rivers using its unusual bill to catch small fish) and breeding biology (nesting on seasonally-exposed sandbanks) needs the existence of pristine ecosystems; places where natural flood cycles are not interrupted by manmade dams, or waters sullied by erosion or pollution.

In other words, it needs “wilderness” in its most basic sense.

Since these were the areas that Wilderness people loved, and where proceeds from safaris could be channelled into their conservation, with the help of surrounding communities, the skimmer was perfect as a logo.

A sense of place

At first, only mobile safaris were offered. Then, Colin, Chris and new partners like Russel Friedman (a well-known natural history book dealer) decided to branch out into establishing tented camps on exclusive sites.

As a result, the lodge-operating side of the business was born and in 1985 the first two permanent tented camps were developed: Xigera in the heart of the Okavango Delta and Xaro in the Okavango Panhandle. In 1990 the company was offered a little-known camp called Mombo…

“One of the finest wildlife locations in Africa”

Mombo, on the then-boundary of the Moremi Game Reserve on the northern tip of Chief’s Island, was in an area that had been heavily hunted. Within a few years of photographic safaris replacing hunting however, Mombo had an enviable international reputation – becoming known as one of the finest wildlife viewing locations on the African continent by National Geographic and others.

This was thanks mostly to a phenomenal wilderness landscape with remarkable wildlife viewing, including exceptional large predator species in a spectacular setting – one into which plains game streamed once it was clear that hunting was no longer practiced there.

Wilderness Safaris’ custodianship of Mombo, including overseeing its incorporation into the expanded Moremi Game Reserve in the early 1990s and reintroducing black and white rhino into the wild ten years later, confirmed that our principles, values, ethics and business model could make a substantial contribution to sustainable socio-economic development for the future of Africa’s wild places.

A broader conservation footprint

Meanwhile, the company had begun to explore new regions and broaden its footprint. The first lodges in Namibia and South Africa opened in 1993, Malawi in 1994, Zimbabwe in 1995 and Zambia in 2000. In 2003, North Island in Seychelles opened, with Kenya joining in 2012. Rwanda’s Bisate Lodge opening in 2017 is the next thrilling chapter in the story.

People at the heart

All along the way, however, the question was always: How can we make a meaningful difference to Africa and ensure the conservation of the continent’s incredible store of biodiversity – while at the same time including those people for whom this biodiversity is at once the root of their subsistence and their birthright?

Conservation, after all, is as much about people as it is about the environment.

The next ground-breaker then was about creating sustainable partnerships with the communities in the wilderness areas in which we operated: With Damaraland Camp, Wilderness was the first safari operator to create an equity joint venture with a rural Namibian community.

Until 1995, the area around Damaraland Camp was in decline; there was no formal conservation protection, wildlife numbers were rapidly diminishing and unemployment was close to 100%. Today, thanks to the successful partnership between the community and Wilderness, and the implementation of a viable ecotourism model, some 350 000 hectares of land are under the protection of the Torra Wildlife Conservancy, wildlife numbers are thriving and its people have money in the bank and employment. In fact, the success of Damaraland Camp enabled the community to have the area proclaimed a wildlife conservancy two years after the camp was built.

In this and further partnerships over the years, poverty reduction, conservation, responsible tourism and empowerment were all placed together on the same agenda – with resounding success.

Partners from around the world

The vital element to Wilderness’ success has been our guests and agents the world over – discerning, globally-caring travellers who understand the difference their travel to Africa makes. They are particular in who they travel with, returning time and again to experience different ecosystems and simply reconnect with both nature and themselves.

With their support we have been able to bring sustainable protection to more than 2 million hectares (6 million acres) of precious African wilderness.

Looking to the future

Listed on the Botswana Stock Exchange since 2010, our company's financial robustness has allowed our ecotourism model to withstand the world's inevitable financial cycles, for which we are sincerely proud.

We view our responsible ecotourism business over the past 34 years as one that has enhanced biodiversity conservation, engaged and uplifted rural communities, partnered with governments, added a real viability to Africa’s protected area and had a net positive impact on the world.

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By Ilana Stein

Ilana has been writing and editing for Wilderness Safaris for over ten years now, and has been lucky enough to have written about Children in the Wilderness and the Wilderness Trust, and to see many of the amazing places that Wilderness operates. She has a particular fondness for baobab trees.

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