Conservation tourism for Africa’s wildlife and local communities

A safari in Africa.

Great Plains Conservation offers responsible tourism in Botswana, Kenya, and Zimbabwe. In their eco-camps, safari-lovers can experience the amazing African wildlife while helping sustain the existing wilderness and local communities. The award-winning organisation says that their “model takes stressed and threatened environments, surrounds them with compassionate protection and intelligent, sustainable management, and funds them with sensitive, low-volume, low-impact, tourism.” Julia had a chat with Hilton Walker, Managing Director of Sales, Marketing and Reservations at Great Plains to hear more about their effort to protect African wildlife with responsible tourism.

"Conservation tourism is not just about how we soften our footprint at the camps or minimise our waste for example. It also has a lot to do with how we responsibly work with and support our local communities."
Hilton Walker of Great Plains Conservation
Hilton Walker
Managing Director of Sales, Marketing and Reservations

Julia Brunner (JB): How does Great Plains connect wildlife protection with responsible tourism?

Hilton Walker (HW): Responsible tourism allows for us to enact wildlife protection. It is a hand in glove process from where our guests’ revenues derived from stays at our camps are directed toward wildlife protection. One such form is through the payment of conservancy and park lease fees. This allows us to ensure that large tracts of land are left pristine and underdeveloped for wildlife to remain safe and free.

JB: Why is wildlife protection in Africa in such a dire state, and how can responsible tourism help with that?

HW: Wildlife populations are under constant pressure by… humans. There is encroachment as the human population grows, poaching to supply illegal wildlife into the dark world of wildlife trafficking, and desire to exploit pristine wildlife areas for mining of minerals just to name a few. Responsible tourism ensures that revenues derived through this form of tourism secure these areas in order to protect and maintain landscapes and wildlife numbers.

Hilton Walker of Great Plains Conservation
Hilton Walker of Great Plains Conservation. Photo: Great Plains Conservation
An elephant photographed during a safari.
An elephant photographed during Selinda Camp Safari. Photo: Andrew Howard I Great Plains Conservation

JB: Your organisation not only offers safaris and camps for tourists but focuses on protecting the African wildlife and working with local communities as well. How do you manage the different interests of these parties?

HW: Simple – through open and honest continued dialogue and delivery upon promises made from sustainable business practices and agreements with those communities.

JB: What should people keep in mind when they go on a Great Plains safari?

HW: That they are making a tangible difference to the environment they are visiting and the local communities who own that land. Great Plains does not declare profits at year-end that are then sent to shareholders. The profits are plowed back directly into our Great Plains Foundation initiates whether that is saving rhino or sending ladies to India to learn how to make solar panels in their villages back home. Eco-tourism can sometimes sound bland to guests. A bit of a constant “we need your help or donate here” type of business. We don’t do that. We deliver life-changing experiences for our guests when they stay with us. Complimenting the wildlife experiences with beautifully and tastefully appointed rooms, healthy cuisine, delicious wines, stunning locations and using the revenues generated to ensure we expand and enhance natural habitats in partnership with communities.

JB: Where does your approach of conservation tourism start and where does it end? For example, how sustainable are your campsites and how do you recycle waste?

HW: Conservation tourism is not just about how we soften our footprint at the camps or minimise our waste for example. It also has a lot to do with how we responsibly work with and support our local communities. To directly reply to the above though – Our camps are built with the lightest footprint possible. Designed in such a way that should they need to be removed within a relatively short period of time the footprint of us even having been there disappears with no scarring or pollution left. All wastewater is treated in such a way that once released it is as close to pure water as possible. All waste is either recycled organically or removed to the nearest town or recycling depot. In Maun, Botswana for example, we have a glass recycling plant that takes all glass we cannot use again and after crushing the recycled glass it creates a “sand” which in turn is used for the making of bricks. Having camps run on solar panels ensures that we are not only removing toxic fumes from the atmosphere, and have no noise pollution, but have also removed the carbon footprint of getting the fuel to the camps as well as ensuring that no dangerous chemicals are stored on-site which could pose a risk to our environment. We were the first safari operator in Africa to remove all plastic water bottles from our camps giving guests purified water in bespoke canisters. Today we have removed all single-use plastics in our camps (usually in the kitchens) and are about 98 per cent there! The challenge to have a light footprint NEVER ends. There is always something to do. Solar panels for energy generation, developing more sustainable sourcing methods for ingredients in our menus. And even looking at our game drive vehicles and working out how we get rid of Diesel engines there in the middle of the bush – Elon, wanna chat? ; )

Safari in Mara Plains Camp.
Mara Plains Camp. Photo: Great Plains Conservation
Selinda Camp sign.
Selinda Camp sign. Photo: Andrew Howard I Great Plains Conservation

JB: What motivates you in your job?

HW: How much space do we have? This is really a four-part answer: A) It is knowing that every day I can make a tangible difference to someone who is living remotely in Africa and their life, whether that is by improving educational opportunities or bringing the gift of light into their homes for example. Knowing that because we meaningfully support communities, they do not need to consider selling off their natural heritage to corporations wanting to exploit their resources or that their children need to migrate to cities to earn meaningful incomes. B) Celebrating those moments when we look at areas we have under our custodianship that were previously what would have been considered marginal economic return areas and seeing animal numbers increase. Areas like that around ol Donyo Lodge where a few years back we were losing up to 42 lion a year due to human/wildlife conflict and today have no losses due to the relationship developed with our Maasai partners. Or Sapi area where a handful of years back there were no lion or wild dog and today receive reports that pride numbers are growing, and bigger packs are roaming the area. Or being actively involved in an initiative like Rhinos Without Borders – which, when we started seemed like an impossible dream, saving 100 rhinos, and today we have over that number with calves being born throughout the year to mothers we saved and relocated. C) As a leader within the company serving my colleagues and creating opportunities for growth, development, and support. Making sure that each person I work with has the tools and support to deliver upon our mandate for our guests, wildlife, and communities. Going to bed at night knowing that we have happy, motivated folks striving and leaning forward ensures a peaceful night’s rest, and when it’s not resonating 100 per cent for whatever reason, to ensure we button down and get that resonance back for our colleagues. D) Finally, it is that note I get daily from a guest who has just stayed with us, exclaiming how their lives were changed for the better, or that memories we helped in being created ensured a lifetime bond to Africa. Even better is when I get to meet those guests in our camps and watch their eyes twinkle or listen to the bubbling excitement in their voices as they recall the day’s experience. When that happens. When that moment occurs being with the guest – then it confirms that everything we do. Every decision we make. Every action we take. Everything is all worth it and is right, true, authentic, and genuine. And this is all possible when a guest comes and stays. Thus, a guest is so much more for us than just a guest who is paying for a safari. A guest is valued as one that leaves a legacy and allows us to strive to make the world just that little bit better than what it was yesterday.

This interview had been edited and condensed for clarity.

Great Plains Foundation supports local communities and wildlife with projects like Solar Lanterns and the Solar Mamas Initiative, the funding of over 156 rangers in six countries who are on the frontline of conservation and preventing poaching with Project Ranger, Kids Conservation Camp and Rhinos Without Boarders. Check out their amazing work and conservation tourism safaris and lodges on their website.

Our interviews focus on eco-friendly organisations and social entrepreneurs. The scope of the interview will revolve around the company’s vision, mission and initiatives. Climate change solutions and sustainable development are two of the key points we explore here.

Eco-Spotlight is a digital publication that focuses on different aspects of climate change solutions: projects and ideas focused on sustainable development, social entrepreneurship, environmental businesses, eco-friendly practices, and similar green initiatives. Through our solution-focused interviews and articles, we want to bring good news to the forefront and remind the world – without hope, there is no future. We also syndicate our content with White Print, India’s first English lifestyle magazine in Braille.

Hello there! I'm Julia, co-founder of Eco-Spotlight and a freelance journalist. With Eco-Spotlight, I want to focus on sharing stories of inspirational people and positive impact, as well as learn more about the environment, and sustainability.

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