Africa’s Top 9 Conservation-led Safaris

Travelling to Africa is more meaningful than you think. These conservation-led safaris make all the difference for a wilder world
Written by Melanie van Zyl
03 December 2020

The African Leadership University’s (ALU) School of Wildlife Conservation recently launched a research unit to analyze data about our continent’s wildlife economies. One goal is to create a metric for African governments to analyze and monetize natural resources in a sustainable way that benefits their people. In other words, they want to figure out what the wild world is worth.

The World Travel and Tourism Council offers some figures. In 2019 wildlife-based tourism generated more than US$29 billion annually for Africa and employed 3.6 million people.

Sitting with wild Desert Rhino in Namibia, where the largest rhino population roams outside of officially protected areas | Source: Wilderness Safaris

The entire School of Wildlife Conservation (SoWC) revolves on the premise that to improve wildlife conservation in Africa truly; it must be owned and driven by Africans, benefit people, upskill local conservationists and create leaders. Dr. Sue Snyman, Research Director for the ALU SoWC State of the Wildlife Economy in Africa, Kenya Report says,

“For the wildlife economy to grow and develop sustainably there needs to be ongoing, regular investment in the asset which forms the basis of this economy: the wildlife. Investment in rewilding, as well as monitoring and maintaining current stocks of wildlife, is important for both conservation and development.”

In August, The New York Times published that regenerative travel is the new sustainable travel, and David Attenborough agrees in his latest documentary. He even offers some solutions to our catastrophic era of overconsumption. Chief among them? Re-wilding as crucial to restoring global biodiversity. These are the sorts of trips that do just that.

1. Seek out the shoebill in the Bangweulu Wetlands

Zambia

Shoebill Story Zambia
The eery-eyed Shoebill Story about to take flight in the Bangweulu Wetlands. | Source: Mana Meadows.

This community-owned protected wetland in north-eastern Zambia ticks all the boxes for a responsible safari and travelling to such a remote corner helps conserve some of the continent’s most curious creatures.

These wetlands are legally home to 50,000 people who retain the right to harvest its natural resources sustainably, plus the myriad animals that roam the grasslands and floodplains. However, it is the prehistoric-looking shoebill stork that lures adventurers in as a bucket-list birding tick. It’s cited as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and global population numbers currently estimate between 5,000 and 8,000 birds exist on the planet. Its prolonged presence in Bangweulu requires a little help from the neighbours.

Bangweulu Wetlands Zambia
Bangweulu means “where the water meets the sky”, which is a perfect description of this extraordinary community-owned protected wetland in north-eastern Zambia | Source: Mana Meadows

The Bangweulu Wetlands Project is managed as a partnership between the esteemed African Parks network, the Zambian Department of National Parks and Wildlife, plus six Community Resource Boards. Community conservation, such as the Shoebill Nest Protection Plan, is crucial to the welfare of these wetlands and its endemic wildlife. Local fishers are employed as guards to protect nesting sites and prevent poachers from stealing eggs and chicks to feed the illegal wildlife trade. To date, these guards have helped protect over 30 fledgelings and you can wade through the wetlands to meet the little miracles.

Children Zambia
In 2019, Bangweulu supported four schools, impacting more than 800 students | Source: Mana Meadows

Pssst: Have you heard of Africa’s ‘other’ great wildebeest migration?

 

2. Notch rhinos, set out on snare patrol and more at Marataba

South Africa

rhino South Africa
This female white rhinoceros, which roams freely about the Marataba Contractual National Park in the Waterberg region, has just been darted as part of a rhino notching and DNA collection programme designed to help identification and conservation efforts | Source: Melanie van Zyl

Step away from the safari vehicle. Activities at Marataba Conservation Camps in the Waterberg area of Limpopo province highlight the nitty-gritty business of preserving the wilderness when it’s fenced. Like many conservation-driven stays, conservation fees go directly towards funding vital tools such as microchipping equipment and radio collars for big mammals, such as rhinoceros, plus tech like camera traps.

Marataba Conservation Camps
Inside Explorers Camp – one of two Marataba Conservation Camps where guests get hands-on with conservation in South Africa | Source: Melanie van Zyl

Still, Marataba Conservation Camps takes it one step further. Guests can personally fit these items and see them in action. One can help out on snare patrols, follow cheetah on telemetry walks, conduct elephant impact assessments and partake in whatever else is happening on the reserve during a stay. In other words: hands-on ecological conservation and wildlife management. Even the staff at camp have had the opportunity to get involved.

Grace Sekobane is the Front of House team leader at Marataba Conservation Camps. She says, “It was magical to be able to be up close to the rhino, to touch and feel their heartbeat was a phenomenal feeling. I deeply felt connected to nature. The experience was amazingly powerful.’’

Rhino marataba
Grace Sekobane kisses a rhino upon seeing it for the first time on its heels like this at Marataba in South Africa | Source: Marataba Conservation Camps.

The most exciting offering has to be the rhino notching experience, however. Marataba forms a part of the larger Waterberg Biosphere Reserve and is home to a globally significant population of rhino, reportedly the second-largest in South Africa. The aim is to notch 30 to 40 rhinos every year to better identify and monitor the animals in the area. Trackers can then recognise population changes or be alert to a missing animal.

 

3. Track desert-adapted rhino in Damaraland

Namibia

Namibia rhino
Desert rhino tracking with Wilderness Safaris in Namibia | Source: Wilderness Safaris

If the thought of helicopters, tranquillisers and impact assessments sounds more like homework than a holiday, perhaps a day pursuing rhino on foot is more up your alley.

Impressively, Namibia is home to the largest unfenced population of black rhinos in Africa. Set out to track them on a walking safari under the expertise of trained guides in the desert wilds of rocky Damaraland with Wilderness Safaris at Desert Rhino Camp. Based in the Palmwag Concession, guests can join the trackers who patrol and protect the unique population of desert-adapted mammals.

Wilderness Safaris rhino
On patrol to protect the desert-adapted rhino of Palmwag in Namibia | Source: Wilderness Safaris

​This enigmatic species remains critically endangered and is closely monitored, but there’s some good news! The IUCN recently reported that the black rhino population is slowly increasing as conservation efforts counter the persistent threat of poaching.

 

4. Encounter the world’s most trafficked animal

Central African Republic

Have you ever heard of the African black-bellied pangolin? Neither had I, until watching a documentary that outlined there are, in fact, four species of this curious creature living in Africa. This particular pangolin – the only diurnal species – climbs trees in the Congo Basin rainforests.

Run from Sangha Lodge, the Pangolin Project works with the local Pygmy people to protect this highly-trafficked animal and revolves around research, rehabilitation and community involvement. Guests of Sangha can meet the researchers and spend time observing this fascinating species.

The precious African black-bellied pangolin | Source: Sangha Lodge | Jacha Potgieter

 

5. Meet mountain gorillas – at a social distance

Uganda and Rwanda

Easily one of Africa’s leading examples of conservation-led safaris, mountain gorilla population numbers have vastly improved thanks to eco-tourism. The Financial Times recently reported that during regular travel season, “one gorilla family rakes in $12,000 for an hour’s work each day” and such tourism is what affords them protection.

Bwindi Uganda
Walking through the aptly-named Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda, seeking out mountain gorillas with trained guards | Source: Melanie van Zyl

While the world grappled with a global pandemic, the mountain gorilla population shifted seats on the IUCN Red List, from critically endangered to endangered. According to most recent studies and gorilla census data, there are 1,063 individuals left in the wild. Teams surveyed the Bwindi-Sarambwe ecosystem, which straddles the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Thanks to funds raised from tourists, adequate protection is in place for these charismatic animals. Currently, you can still see them, but masks are mandatory as these animals are susceptible to human disease.

 

6. Walk – and better understand what it takes to protect – the Masai Mara conservancies

Kenya

Kenya wlaking safari Asilia
Asilia’s head Kenyan guide, Roelof Schutte, leads a walking safari through the Mara North Conservency | Source: Greg Funnell | Asilia

According to the ALU State of the Wildlife Economy in Africa, Kenya Report, “Over 60% of Kenya’s wildlife lies outside protected areas on community and private lands in the rangelands, making them important for future expansion of wildlife management areas”.

Asilia Kenya Mara Conservancies
Crossing the Olare Orok river, Mara North Conservancy, Kenya | Source: Greg Funnell | Asilia

Travellers will better understand the undertaking that is wilderness protection by strapping on some hardy shoes. As well as being an exciting walking safari in Big Five country, traversing the Naboisho, Mara North, Lemek and Ol Chorro conservancies on foot with Asilia Adventures is also a daring journey. Walking between 15 and 20 kilometres per day, this itinerary is not for the faint-hearted – much like conservation itself. Unlike fenced parks, conservancies have other struggles and walkers will learn first-hand about the community and conservation projects that support both the land and its people, such as the Maa Trust, Mara Predator Programme and the Mara Elephant Project.

Local women do beadwork, creating jewellery that can be sold to tourists, at the Maa Trust, Masai Mara | Source: Greg Funnell | Asilia

The Maa Trust is particularly appealing to me and forms part of the core belief of the Asilia company that empowering women is good for the planet. While men generate income from land lease payments from conservation, livestock sales, and formal employment in tourism, women often remain financially dependent on the men in the household. Without direct benefits from conservation, women thus see no purpose in protecting the wildlife, which they often come into conflict with while undertaking their daily chores. Staying with Asilia helps fund two programmes of the Maa Trust – Maa Beadwork and Maa Honey – providing women with a way to generate an independent income.

 

7. Marvel at the turtles of Maputaland

South Africa

Turtles South Africa Maputaland
A loggerhead hatchling on Mabibi Beach, in South Africa. | Source: Melanie van Zyl

South Africans have been tracking sea turtles for over 50 years, which may not seem that long, but it stands as the oldest turtle monitoring program in the world. Loggerheads and leatherback turtles return each year to nest on the sandy shores of northern KwaZulu-Natal. Members of the local community are trained to monitor the nesting sites, which has proved to help prevent poaching of the eggs (which, like rhino horn, have been attributed with medicinal value).

Turtles Sodwana Bay
The wide open sands of Sodwana Bay make the perfect nesting sites for loggerhead and leatherback turtles | Source: Melanie van Zyl

Travellers can behold the hefty reptiles hauling themselves from the water between Kosi Bay and Sodwana Bay, or seek out the nests with a guide to witness the wonder of a hundred tiny turtles returning to the sea.

 

8. Set out on a snorkel safari among the Cape’s kelp

South Africa

Snorkel Cape Town
Explore the fascinating underwater world of False Bay where renowned cinematographer Craig Foster filmed ‘My Octopus Teacher’ | Source: Tintswalo at Boulders

Take your safari straight into the enchanting sea on a Marine Exploration Adventure Experience with Shark Warrior Adventures. The Cape’s cold waters soared to fame thanks to the popular Netflix documentary, My Octopus Teacher. See the rich biodiversity of these waters yourself when staying at Tintswalo Boulders. Profits go directly back into protecting the Cape’s wild waters thanks to environmental education projects such as its Swim Like A Shark project, which teaches disadvantaged children to swim.

Prefer warmer water? See why snorkelling with whale sharks on Mafia Island helps us to understand them better.

 

9. Gather wild honey and join tracker dogs at Segera Retreat

Kenya

Segera is home to one of Africa’s all-female ranger team. Source: Crookes and Jackson

The Laikipia Plateau is renowned for hosting Kenya’s second-highest concentration of wildlife, after the Maasai Mara. Still, it is the conservation and sustainability projects that will genuinely delight safari-lovers. Segera Retreat is a 20,000-hectare eco-ranch that strikes an impressive land-use balance between wildlife, cattle, and community.

You can meet with East and Central Africa’s first female ranger team, modelled after the pioneering Akashinga and Black Mamba Rangers in Zimbabwe and South Africa respectively. These tough ladies will impress you with their bush knowledge, skills and passion for conservation as they tackle poachers and loggers.

There are over 200 traditional beehives spread across Segera. Source: Crookes and Jackson

Experiences also include the opportunity to become a ‘poacher’. You’ll be let loose and encouraged to try and evade the dogs, which can track your scent from kilometres away. These canines are also used to track cattle rustlers in the neighboring communities. Alternatively, you can gather wild honey, with over 200 traditional beehives spread across Segera. Beekeepers will take you through the harvesting process, dress you in a protective suit and send you on your way with your own honey.

Pssst: You can now sleep in a ‘Bird’s Nest’ in Laikipia 

Book your next trip with us

South Africa Namibia Morocco Kenya Ethiopia Madagascar Rwanda Mozambique

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