People, Wildlife, Ecosystems: A Return to Africa

Excitement mounted as our Cessna Grand Caravan came in for the final approach to the lone landing strip at The Buffalo Springs airport, Northern Kenya. Hearts thumping and eyes glued to the airplane windows, we eagerly searched the tawny, dry landscape to catch a glimpse of Africa’s most iconic species roaming below. After all, this was why we were here, to see with our own eyes, what it takes to save Africa’s majestic elephants. As our plane landed, a rainbow of color wizzed along the left side of the Cessna. There, on the edge of the dusty runway, a group of handsome Samburu Warriors, decked out in a kaleidoscope of beaded necklaces and bracelets, leaned casually on the open air Land Rovers waiting to welcome us to their home. After months of planning, weeks of anticipation and, over 24 hours of travel, we had arrived.

Like us, most travelers who visit East Africa expect to encounter ‘The Big Five’: Cape buffalo, lions, leopards, rhinoceros, and elephants. However, it’s the semi-arid world of Samburu that is one of Kenya’s best kept secrets. There is no place like it on earth. Here, you will find ‘The Special Five’, a group of animals that are uniquely adapted to the dry conditions of this part of the world. There is the graceful long-necked Gerenuk, or ‘Giraffe-Gazelle’, that can spend its entire life without ever taking a drink of water; instead, getting all of its water needs from the foliage it eats. There are the critically endangered Grevy’s Zebra, of which only 2,500 are left in the wild. There are the blue-necked and legged Somali Ostriches who have a kick so strong it can kill a lion. There is the Reticulated Giraffe, a species often considered one of the most stunning with their rich orange-brown patches, defined by striking white geometric shaped lines. And, lastly, the Besai Oryx, an antelope species with spindly black parallel horns and remarkable ability to control its body temperature to protect it from extremely hot conditions. Above all, what truly makes Samburu special are the large number of elephant families that reside here and the Samburu people who share the land with all of these endangered and extraordinary creatures.

With a growing number of luxury eco-lodges, a plethora of flights from both the U.S. and Europe, along with an increasing interest in seeing animal conservation in action; tourism in Africa has been on the rise. But this year, Africa is experiencing a drought... not of rain, but a drought of tourists due to the global Covid-19 pandemic. This goes beyond just cancelling a ‘trip of a lifetime’, the lack of tourism has a profound impact on the people, the wildlife, and the fragile ecosystems where they coexist.

Seeing wildlife up close and personal is, of course, a main draw for any trip to the African continent. However, it is spending time with the local people and those who have dedicated their lives to conservation on the ground that makes these adventures extra special. Now, more than ever, species conservation is as much about uplifting communities through employment opportunity, education, and meaningful involvement in conservation initiatives, as it is about saving wildlife. “The future of Africa’s elephants lives in the hearts and minds of the people who live there with them.” Frank Pope, CEO of Save The Elephants (STE), located in Samburu National Reserve, recently said during a webinar hosted for their donors. “The way people think about elephants, that’s what will secure their future.” 

Obviously, a side effect of the global pandemic is that tourism all over the world, and especially in Africa, has ground to a halt. One of the less reported outcomes though is that without tourists, conservation doesn’t get funded, poaching increases, confrontations between local communities and wildlife is more frequent and much needed revenue that is generated in the local economy goes away. All of this has a lasting impact on the health and wellbeing of everyone and everything in the ecosystem. While some conservation organizations like Save The Elephants, may not be directly funded by tourism, tourism is still key. Head of Fundraising for STE, Pooja Dutt, said “Tourism plays a vital role in inspiring guests who come to Samburu as tourists, and leave as committed lifelong supporters of elephants. With lodges and camps in the area closed, we've lost that powerful tool for connecting our donors to the elephants. We are creating virtual opportunities to transport them to the bush, but it can't beat the real thing."

Without tourism, wild animals may only be seen as a nuisance to the local communities.  Consider the negative impact on livelihoods when hungry elephants invade farmers’ crops or when lions attack livestock, these are real problems for the people who must coexist with wildlife. “When tourists come to see elephants and lions, it helps create a mindset shift with locals. All of those elephants are now worth more alive than dead.” Matt Brown, Africa’s Regional Managing Director for The Nature Conservancy, recently remarked in an online article for TPG news. “In the absence of tourists wild animals are just trouble [to locals] ... and they do not have value. We see tourism as a really critical link with conservation. They work hand in glove”. 

As a result of my first trip to Africa, I have been involved in elephant conservation for over a decade now, hosting small groups of travellers to Africa two or three times a year since 2015. Every trip I have ever hosted is remarkable in its own way. Whether it's being surrounded by a family of elephants in Samburu, coming face to face with gorillas in Rwanda, experiencing an exhilarating river crossing during the Great Migration in the Masai Mara, dancing with warriors under the stars, or sipping sundowners overlooking the vast landscape; Africa is simply unforgettable. But, the next trip to Africa will be especially memorable because it means I can return to the continent I love; and, finally, get back to introducing travelers to the wonders of a still largely unblemished part of the world. 

When we are able to understand what it means to coexist with nature and to see with our own eyes what’s worth saving, it motivates us to become stewards of our natural world. Experiencing new cultures, meeting people who don’t look or think like us, and tasting flavors we can’t find at home is what we dream about. But, what we don’t think about is how a vibrant and well-managed tourism program is the ‘rain’ that produces new green shoots of opportunity for local economies and conservation. Could it be that, during this ‘dry spell’ of world-wide travel, our eagerness to get back on planes will be seen as the rain clouds on the horizon? Could it be that, in a small way, we as travelers are the ‘rainmakers’; not just for Africa, but everywhere?

I know I look forward to my next journey.  I simply can’t wait to be a part of a vanguard of travelers back to Africa.  More importantly though, I can’t wait to bring new groups of ‘rainmakers’ along for the adventure, so that together we can help to end this ‘drought’ and do our part to revitalize the ecotourism industry that supports the wonderful people, wildlife, and ecosystems across Africa.

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