For Mark Witney, the CEO of conservation at Singita, working with communities when conserving wildlife is a no-brainer. “If you’ve got a community working against you, it makes it extremely difficult,” he says.
The luxury game lodge and safari company started out in 1993 with just one high-end lodge, in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve on the edge of Kruger National Park in South Africa. Today, it operates 12 luxury camps and lodges in three African countries, and is the custodian of a million acres of wilderness.
Part of Singita’s success lies in its community and conservation strategies, implemented by nonprofit trusts. In Tanzania, this is managed by the Grumeti Fund.
In 2002, hedge fund billionaire philanthropist Paul Tudor Jones took over stewardship of the 350,000 acre Grumeti concession with the aim of creating a buffer between a growing human population and the Serengeti National Park to protect the region’s massive wildebeest and zebra migrations. Singita came on board in 2006, launching four lodges and camps to draw much-needed tourist dollars to the reserve.
Working with the community has been key to making Grumeti a success.
Jacob Odao, community guide for the Singita Grumeti Fund, says: “To protect the Serengeti ecosystem, you need to have support from the local people, because they’re the ones who are destroying it.”
Standing in the courtyard of the fund’s Environmental Education Centre (EEC), Odao explains that, 17 years ago, the concession was under siege. With no other ways of earning an income, poor villagers at its edges were poaching wildlife for meat and cutting down trees for charcoal and firewood.
But mindsets have shifted, in part thanks to the EEC, which has taught pupils from local high schools — 288 of them in 2017 — about the importance of conservation and a sustainable ecosystem. After a five-day visit to the EEC, each group of 12 pupils forms an environmental club, using illustrations, speech-making, debating and essay writing to spread environmental awareness among their classmates.
The community’s growing realisation of conservation’s benefits is not merely theoretical; there have been plenty of tangible economic benefits too. According to Odao, about 85% of the reserve’s employees come from local villages, earning much-needed income to build houses and open shops in neighbouring areas.
Last year, the fund’s enterprise development programme trained 48 budding entrepreneurs in village workshops. Among them were Mwamba Mabeyo, a farmer who used the skills he learnt to open a restaurant, and Alex Masatu Iganja, who runs a financial services agency.
Iganja credits the programme for his business’s success, saying it helped him grow and expand the business. In less than a year, he was able to open another branch, offering jobs to five people, and increase his net profit by 30%.
Then there’s the Grumeti Horticultural & Marketing Co-op Society (Ghomacos), a farmers’ co-operative incubated by the fund in 2010 that is now fully independent. Piles of organically grown vegetables sit on concrete tables at its marketplace. Much of this fresh produce is headed to Singita’s five Grumeti lodges and camps, which receive 80% of their fresh produce from the co-operative. Last year, Ghomacos earned its 72 members $250,000.
As part of the fund’s commitment to developing employment alternatives, it offers scholarships to promising but underprivileged high school pupils and tertiary students. In 2017, for example, 114 students received funding; 64% of those who graduated subsequently found employment.
Gekuli David is the front-of-house anchor for Singita Grumeti’s Faru Faru Lodge. David grew up in a nearby village of pastoralists where, she says, “they are not supporting girls”. Many are encouraged to get married as soon as soon as they finish primary school (this earns the bride’s family cattle — a key source of wealth). David’s father, a teacher, bucked the trend and supported her continued education.
After David finished high school with excellent marks, the fund supported her studies in tourism. Upon graduating, she completed an internship at Singita Grumeti, before being appointed to a permanent role as a lodge receptionist. She has been promoted twice since then.
“When I joined Singita I was a little bit shy — a girl coming from the village; I didn’t have that confidence to speak with someone like this,” she says. Poised and assured, she is one of several Singita staff who are mentoring high school pupils, providing support, encouragement and advice about reaching their goals and aspirations. “They get motivated,” she says, “seeing you there, telling them your stories and where you came from — we inspire them.”
Since 2003, biodiversity in the Singita Grumeti concession has staged a resurgence: overall large herbivore biomass density has surged by 386%; there’s been a 422% increase in elephants, a 954% increase in buffalo and a 1,625% increase in lions. This is largely thanks to a sophisticated antipoaching operation that includes 132 highly adept game scouts, many of them former poachers.
The proliferation of wildlife in the reserve has, however, meant an escalating risk of human-wildlife conflict, especially as the population at the reserve’s unfenced edge grows. Though cattle grazing in reserve land is forbidden, the temptation is great, given that much of the villagers’ land is overgrazed. But straying into the reserve puts domestic animals at risk.
Last year, resentment at lions’ preying on domestic livestock led to villagers poisoning nine of them.
Then there are the elephants. Witney sympathises with affected communities: they are unlikely to be favourably disposed towards the animals when an entire year’s worth of hard work is destroyed by an elephant rampaging through crops. “You can’t feel very kindly towards elephants and have a positive relationship with the whole concept of a protected area if it’s threatening your very existence,” he says.
To mitigate the fallout, a human-wildlife conflict mitigation unit was formed in July 2017. When alerted to elephants approaching a village, the trained unit deploys, using vehicles, spotlights and loud noises to send the animals on their way. Within six months the unit had responded to 27 incidents, with a success rate of almost 70%.
“It’s PR. You’re trying to get the villagers to not hate the work you do,” Witney says.
Because of the long distances involved in reaching affected villages, a head start is needed. To achieve this, in 2018 30 elephants were collared with tags that monitor their location.
Though initiatives like this are pricey, increased guest involvement can help to offset the costs.
Over the past 25 years, Witney has observed a change in Singita guests’ interest in the impact of their visits on the environment and local communities. Along with this increased scrutiny, there’s been a growing desire to help.
“We can inspire some very high-end philanthropic and socially minded guests to support our projects,” Witney says. “We’ve had some great examples of guests inspired by what they see.”
For example, Singita guests have sponsored four rescue dogs from Washington, DC, which have been trained in anti-poaching and now form the canine response team at Grumeti. For these well-heeled dog lovers, Witney says, “the idea of animals protecting animals was just a dream come true”.
He adds: “One of the challenges for us is to educate guests around what is appropriate and meaningful for them to do, and what’s not.” A container of broken second-hand computers for a rural community that has no electricity or trained technicians is going to have little effect. Close liaising with Singita’s nonprofit partners ensures that any guest involvement — whether donations or organisational partnerships — is relevant and fit for purpose.
Singita has developed “safaris with a purpose” for guests who want a travel experience coupled with active philanthropy. These are customised, depending on what outcome is required. In the first of these safaris, in 2018, six paying guests participated in an elephant-collaring exercise in Grumeti. Without their contribution of $25,000 each, the operation would not have been possible.
Singita has established an expansion fund for its Community Culinary School, based at Singita Lebombo Lodge in its Kruger National Park concession.
The school, which offers a rigorous, year-long City & Guilds-accredited programme, has been a stunning success. In the 11 years since its inception, 70 of its students — all from poor communities in which unemployment is sometimes as high as 90% — have launched careers as chefs.
About 95% are currently employed — some with Singita, others in lodges and hotels across Southern Africa. With the support of guests, it’s hoped the current intake of 10 students a year will double.
High-end tourism is just one piece of the puzzle — it cannot by itself pay for conservation. A hybrid approach, bringing together a range of different stakeholders who share the common purpose of conserving wilderness, is most likely to have lasting success. “We need to work with governments, NGOs, big philanthropists and people who care about these things and find a model that is sustainable for the long term,” says Witney.
I visited Grumeti as a guest of Singita.