Safaris Are Embracing a More Sustainable, Diverse Future

A growing number of repeat safarigoers want to get out of the vehicle and dive deeper into more remote landscapes.

Safaris Are Embracing a More Sustainable, Diverse Future

A growing number of repeat safarigoers—myself included—want to get out of the vehicle and dive deeper into more remote landscapes.

Illustration by Tim Peacock

Before my first safari six years ago, I envisioned lodges reminiscent of Out of Africa—think leather steamer trunks, dark wood, pith helmets, and lots of khaki. I’ve now experienced close to a dozen safaris across the continent, from Zimbabwe to Tanzania, and I’ve come to believe that the safari industry’s colonial vestiges should remain firmly in the past. Luckily, change is coming—albeit slowly. Here are a few things visitors to Africa’s wild places can expect in the coming years.

Beyond the Big Five

Tourists usually go on safari to glimpse the “Big Five,” a grouping that refers to some of the continent’s most charismatic species. Travelers are perhaps unaware that the term itself is an antiquated hunting phrase that contributes to overcrowding in such areas as Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve. Still, most first-time safari travelers want to see lions, leopards, black rhinoceroses, African savanna elephants, and Cape buffalos in the wild, says Dennis Pinto, managing director of Micato Safaris, based in Nairobi, Kenya. But the company is also serving a growing number of repeat safarigoers—myself included—who want to get out of the vehicle, dive deeper into more remote landscapes, and explore established ones with a new lens.

The industry is answering the call. In Kenya, visitors can see the Greater Mara ecosystem on two feet with Asilia Africa’s culturally focused walking safaris. Or they can trade the Great Migration, when scores of vehicles congregate around wildebeest herds and their dramatic river crossings, for the humpback whale migration off the Kenyan coastal town of Watamu.

Then there are emerging destinations. African Parks, a South Africa–based NGO, works with governments across the continent to manage nature reserves that once garnered little or no revenue. If a park has tourism potential, the NGO creates safari lodges to help fund operations. I fantasize about wildlife encounters in these seldom-visited places, including Pendjari National Park in Benin, where a new lodge managed by Banyan Tree is forthcoming. About 90 percent of the world’s West African lions roam the territory, and elephant herds are a rare hybrid of the savanna and forest species.

Operating camps with an eye to the future

Sustainability practices are far from standardized in Africa’s wilderness areas, but more parks, lodges, and camps are shifting toward operations that contribute to the longevity of their surrounding ecosystems, according to Jamie Sweeting, a vice president at G Adventures, a Toronto-based travel company. A growing number of camps in eastern and southern Africa run mostly on solar power, use gray water treatment systems, and are built with recycled materials. Some government policies encourage better behavior: In 2020, Kenya banned all single-use plastic in its protected natural areas.

Many camps are looking at electric vehicles, but the technology conversion process is often slow and prohibitively expensive. South Africa’s Cheetah Plains camp, which runs entirely on solar power, owns a fleet of solar-powered Toyota Land Cruisers with Tesla batteries that eliminate the need to transport fuel into the remote Sabi Sands Game Reserve. For guests, the quiet machines ensure less intrusive wildlife sightings.

Diversifying customers—and ownership

Images of Black staff waiting on white visitors perpetuate troubling power dynamics, while alienating those travelers who don’t fit this guest profile. Black travel to Africa has increased in recent years, but the safari crowd remains mostly white, according to Naledi K. Khabo, CEO of the Africa Tourism Association. She says business ownership also matters—especially when courting such groups as the $109 billion Black U.S. leisure travel market. “Representation is important, and there are a limited number of Black owners across the continent,” she says.

That is slowly changing. The Black-owned, South Africa–based Motsamayi Tourism Group in 2020 debuted Kruger Shalati, set within a former luxury train on a bridge in Kruger National Park with an interior design that references regional culture. Beks Ndlovu, the Black Zimbabwean founder and CEO of African Bush Camps, owns 17 high-profile camps in southern Africa. And Kenya is home to a growing number of community-owned wildlife conservancies.

Dave Wilson, head of commercial development at African Parks, believes the oft-overlooked domestic traveler also plays a crucial role. A varied demographics model is working in Rwanda’s Akagera National Park, a once-derelict area that African Parks, together with the Rwanda Development Board, rehabilitated into a thriving wildlife preserve with lodgings for both a casual, self-drive market and luxury clients. In 2019, more than half of Akagera’s 45,000 visitors were Rwandans on holiday.

“When you talk about creating a constituency for conservation, it’s not going to come from Mr. and Mrs. Smith from New York,” Wilson says. “It’s going to come from the communities around that protected area, and the [locals] who enjoy that national asset.”

Jennifer Flowers is an award-winning journalist and the senior deputy editor of AFAR.
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