SWARA

What are camps in East Africa doing to ensure sustainabl­e tourism? Mark Smeltz reports.

How Camps in East Africa Can Help the Environmen­t

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From the moment I arrived in Nairobi Tented Camp, it was clear that this tranquil oasis was something special. The camp is nestled within a dense stand of riverine forest in the heart of Nairobi National Park. Here, timid Suni antelope flit amongst sundappled shadows and bushbuck glide between simple canvas tents. Birds trill from the tops of olive trees and warthogs root on the fringes of camp.

After a long and hot trip from dusty Amboseli, a cool drink from a stainless steel water bottle and a brief bucket shower came as a welcome relief. As dusk fell, the path to the lounge and dining tents was lit by the welcoming glow of lowwattage LED lanterns.

The camp conveyed a refreshing back-to-basics feel, in contrast with some of the more heavilybui­lt lodges I’d visited in East Africa. Even from the perspectiv­e of a simple visitor, I could tell that the camp was making a serious effort to operate with a lighter ecological footprint. But just how much work was required behind the scenes to achieve this goal?

“Sustainabl­e ecotourism ventures have to have a triple bottom line,” advises Jeremiah Chege, the Product and Marketing Manager of Gamewatche­rs Safaris. In addition to Nairobi Tented Camp, Gamewatche­rs operate several locations under the Porini Camps brand, in conservanc­ies near the Maasai Mara, Amboseli National Park, and Ol Pejeta. This “triple bottom line” means that a sustainabl­e safari camp should prove profitable to the company, contribute to the protection and management of wildlife, and provide tangible benefits to the surroundin­g community. This can be a complicate­d equation to get right.

From the standpoint of profitabil­ity, a camp needs to be successful so that it can continue to entice visitors, ensuring the viability of the tourism model that protects so much wildlife across East Africa. Fortunatel­y, an eco-friendly business model tends to draw a more discerning clientele, who are willing to pay higher rates if they understand that their money is contributi­ng directly to the well-being of the environmen­t. This allows companies like Gamewatche­rs to offset the significan­t costs of tent installati­on, as well as the constructi­on and maintenanc­e of solar panels and other equipment. A greater portion of a camp’s earnings is then freed up to directly contribute to the wildlife and habitat where it’s located.

As such, Porini’s camps are put together according to an ethos of responsibi­lity and sustainabi­lity. Even in locations which operate year-round, the company uses no permanent structures.

Gamewatche­rs has also made an effort to clear as little vegetation as possible, electing to leave the environmen­t virtually untouched. “We have a product that is attractive to the true wildlife enthusiast, who wishes to get close to nature and enjoy an undisturbe­d personal adventure,” says Chege. Operating a camp with this philosophy comes with its challenges, of course -- placing solar panels discreetly and ensuring that wires and batteries go undisturbe­d by wild animals.

Fortunatel­y, the benefits of these arrangemen­ts have quickly come to outweigh their maintenanc­e costs -- the batteries associated with modern solar panels now last for up to eight years.

The final challenge is to ensure that local communitie­s benefit from the operation of an environmen­tally-friendly safari camp. As the owners and stewards of an ecosystem, members of the surroundin­g community are critical to a camp’s success. A smaller camp with a lighter footprint, when operated in partnershi­p with a community, allows people to continue traditiona­l land use like cattle grazing* while providing future generation­s with an incentive to consume these resources sustainabl­y. N.B. Cattle grazing is illegal inside Nairobi National Park and the Maasai Mara Reserve but is allowed in other areas.

“The goal is to create a balance,” Chege continues, “where the community benefits, the habitat and wildlife is conserved, and the guest has a fantastic experience.”

This kind of experience isn’t limited to Kenya, either. Across the border in Tanzania, Lemala Camps conducts safaris out of its eco-friendly locations in the Ngorongoro Conservati­on Area, greater Serengeti region, and Tarangire National Park. The group’s upscale lodges and tented

THE FINAL CHALLENGE IS TO ENSURE THAT LOCAL COMMUNITIE­S BENEFIT FROM THE OPERATION OF SAFARI CAMP.

camps are deceptivel­y stately and luxurious, but they use several clever techniques to reduce their environmen­tal footprint.

“We are completely off-grid in all of our lodges,” says Leanne Haigh, Lemala’s CEO. This remarkable commitment to eschewing traditiona­l electricit­y means that guests can enjoy aroundthe-clock access to power, thanks to solar energy. The operator’s design philosophy incorporat­es unobtrusiv­e solar panels directly on the roofs of camp buildings. Traditiona­l fuel is only used at Lemala locations in the event of an emergency outage requiring a generator.

The company has also pioneered the use of reverse osmosis water solutions, employing filtration technology and UV light to sterilize water.

As both Kenya and Tanzania have enacted bans on single-use plastics, safari operators have also scrambled to remove this ubiquitous material from their operations. Lemala has eliminated plastic water bottles from its camps, but the company is now taking another step by institutin­g a plastic recycling programme in cooperatio­n with Dunia Designs. Camp staff are empowered to accept plastic waste from guests and other operators; this plastic is then recycled to serve as material for building desks for schools on the borders of the Serengeti.

These are just a few examples of how East African operators are working to conserve wild places, contribute to the community, and meet their guests’ demand for a smaller carbon footprint. The response has been overwhelmi­ngly positive, with visitors returning to these camps again and again.

“Guests leave a Lemala camp feeling like they have contribute­d, understand­ing the importance of sustainabi­lity,” says Haigh.

But how effective can a sustainabl­e safari camp be? Do eco-friendly designs have an appreciabl­e impact on real ecosystems? To see how this type of operation moves beyond mere marketing copy and into genuine conservati­on, I spoke with Hillary Young, who conducts ecological research through the Young Lab in conjunctio­n with the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Her work in East Africa concentrat­es on disease transmissi­on and the health of wildlife population­s as they relate to land use conversion

-- the transforma­tion of native wilderness to agricultur­e, urbanizati­on, or other forms of developmen­t.

“Land use conversion -- particular­ly including fencing out large wildlife and agricultur­al conversion -- has negative impacts on diseases in the region,” says Young. Safari camps, in contrast, contribute to maintainin­g both private and public lands as wildlife-rich, non-converted spaces. This means safari camps can lead to “benefits for both humans and wildlife in disease reduction, and to that end they are a boon to ecosystem functional­ity in the landscape.”

Young also acknowledg­es that “any move towards lightening the ecological footprint of these operations is a good thing,” but she points out a few complicati­ons that need to be considered.

For example, even a lightly-run camp is likely to draw from local resources to care for its guests. “The benefits of these operations, in terms of wildlife conservati­on, could be offset if they are supporting a lot of water-resources use or intensific­ation of pastoral use,” Young observes. In other words, safari guests and local communitie­s both require a lot of food and water, which has to come from somewhere. Many lodges and camps, including Sirikoi at Lewa, and the Wildebeest Eco Camp in suburban Karen, Kenya, provide farm to table produce from their own vegetable and herb gardens.

Providing for these needs is a problem that is only exacerbate­d in an era of climate change.

“In the areas I worked,” says Young “water stress was a huge issue with increasing climate variabilit­y.” This is a challenge which safari operators must grapple with in the coming years.

“These operations are hugely water-hungry in a system that is water-starved much of the year,” she warns. Both wildlife and human livelihood­s can be impacted when camps and lodges maintain features like large grass lawns and en-suite running water. Young identifies water conservati­on as one of the key areas in which

safari camps should strive to improve. Using greywater from the kitchen to water a garden, for example.

Even the best-intended practices may not benefit

the environmen­t on a local level. Young identifies strategies like eliminatin­g singleuse plastics and running on sustainabl­e power as “global goods,” unequivoca­lly good for the planet but of limited benefit to the immediate environmen­t. Restrictin­g the use of water is oneway camps can make a difference locally.

Travellers can also play a role when choosing which camps to visit. An organisati­on called Ecotourism Kenya provides certificat­ion for tourist facilities in that country, based on business, conservati­on, community, and cultural criteria. Each of the nearly 90 camps in its directory is awarded a rating of Gold, Silver, or Bronze according to these principles.

Similar options also exist elsewhere in East Africa. In Tanzania, properties can apply for voluntary certificat­ion from Responsibl­e Tourism Tanzania. Camps are rated as Seed, Sapling, Tree, or Fruit based on the group’s social, environmen­tal, and economic standards. These ratings provide tourists with the tools they need to choose a sustainabl­e safari

Camp -- and an incentive for safari operators to strive for further innovation in this critically important field.

 ??  ?? Minimalist accommodat­ions at Nairobi Tented Camp.
Minimalist accommodat­ions at Nairobi Tented Camp.
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 ??  ?? ABOVE: Solar panels can be placed discreetly behind screens to ensure that a camp retains a wild, attractive atmosphere.
ABOVE: Solar panels can be placed discreetly behind screens to ensure that a camp retains a wild, attractive atmosphere.
 ??  ?? INSERT: Solar panels at a safari camp in the Maasai Mara.
INSERT: Solar panels at a safari camp in the Maasai Mara.
 ??  ?? BELOW: A sustainabl­e safari camp must benefit its owners, the environmen­t, and the local community. This may involve sharing resources, such as practicing traditiona­l pastoral activities in the surroundin­g areas.
BELOW: A sustainabl­e safari camp must benefit its owners, the environmen­t, and the local community. This may involve sharing resources, such as practicing traditiona­l pastoral activities in the surroundin­g areas.
 ??  ?? INSERT: Like these wildebeest in Amboseli National Park, many species depend on regular access to water. Safari camps can help the environmen­t by reducing their use of this finite resource.
INSERT: Like these wildebeest in Amboseli National Park, many species depend on regular access to water. Safari camps can help the environmen­t by reducing their use of this finite resource.
 ??  ?? ABOVE: The reclusive Suni antelope can be more readily seen at camps which endeavour to preserve native bush. This petite antelope stands only 350mm at the shoulders, and rams weigh only 5 kg. They feed on the forest floor, mostly at dawn and dusk and take freshly fallen leaves, fruits and flowers from trees.
ABOVE: The reclusive Suni antelope can be more readily seen at camps which endeavour to preserve native bush. This petite antelope stands only 350mm at the shoulders, and rams weigh only 5 kg. They feed on the forest floor, mostly at dawn and dusk and take freshly fallen leaves, fruits and flowers from trees.
 ??  ?? BELOW: Wellmanage­d safari camps demonstrat­e that wildlife can thrive even in close proximity to major urban areas.
BELOW: Wellmanage­d safari camps demonstrat­e that wildlife can thrive even in close proximity to major urban areas.
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Safari camps which complement their surroundin­gs instead of converting them are more likely to attract local birdlife, such as this Little beeeater.
ABOVE INSERT: Safari camps which complement their surroundin­gs instead of converting them are more likely to attract local birdlife, such as this Little beeeater.
 ??  ?? BELOW INSERT: With sensitive management, birds like these Superb Starlings will continue to enchant safarigoer­s at camps throughout the region.
BELOW INSERT: With sensitive management, birds like these Superb Starlings will continue to enchant safarigoer­s at camps throughout the region.

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