A comment in spearswms.com sums up very well the new conservation culture here in the Grumeti Wildlife Reserve of Tanzania, and indeed in many other places in the more travelled zones of Africa. In an article entitled Land of Opportunity, writer Caroline Phillips remarked that: ‘The new luxury in Africa is less about sublime lodges (although there are plenty) than about who boasts the most iconic, biggest and best game reserves and concession areas.’1
The future of eco travel in Africa?
Certainly the big lifestyle investors are moving into Africa’s beauty spots in a major way. Richard Branson boasts the Ulusaba Private Reserve in South Africa, rather ostentatiously described on the company website as Sir Richard Branson’s Private Game Reserve, and situated on the north eastern border of Kruger National Park. American tech mogul Geg Carr has thrown his lot into a notably philanthropic effort to restore the beautiful Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, which was ravaged during the long civil war that blighted that country from the early 1960s until the late 1990s. Another is hedge fund magnate Paul Tudor Jones whose signature investment has been the 2002 lease of 340 000 acres of the western Serengeti, north of the park and overlapping the Grumeti and Ikorongo Game Reserves as well as the Fort Ikoma Open Area. Since then three signature wilderness hospitality establishments have emerged, managed by the South African Singita management company, and following the purchase of a minority holding in Singita by Tudor Jones himself.
>>The Singita group, incidentally, operates luxury wilderness camps in South Africa, Zimbabwe as well as Tanzania, and occupies a market niche somewhere close to the top end.
The obvious objective of all this, meanwhile, is conservation, and more specifically the development of eco tourism as a conservation tool.
What is Eco Tourism?
Here is the Wikipedia definition of eco tourism: ‘Ecotourism’ (also known as ecological tourism) is responsible travel to fragile, pristine, and usually protected areas that strives to be low impact and (often) small scale. It purports to educate the traveller; provide funds for conservation; directly benefit the economic development and political empowerment of local communities; and foster respect for different cultures and for human rights.’
In Africa the concept of eco tourism has been mainly formed around the necessity to accept the increasingly strident pressure of human population against the traditional boundaries of wildlife conservation. Nowhere is this fact being more acutely felt that against the priceless but fragile Serengeti/Mara Eco-System of East Africa. Since the pioneering work of the father and son team of German naturalists Berhard and Michael Grzimek, much real-politik has by necessity been applied to this problem.
Grumeti Game Reserve is appended to the northern reaches of the Serengeti National Park and is a prime example of how this pragmatic accommodation is playing out in real terms. The Serengeti/Mara ecosystem is one of the most important remaining natural migration zones left intact on the globe. The core protected area of the Serengeti National Park itself forms a vital brick, but is by no means the whole structure. In order that the key migration routes remain open certain areas of mixed use were appended that could act as buffer zones between the growing pressure of human population and the needs of wildlife, in particular the wildebeest migration, within the wider Serengeti/Mara Ecosystem. These include the iconic Ngorongoro Crater Reserve – an area open to usage by the determinedly pastoral Masai – and the Maswa, Grumeti and Ikorongo Game Reserves, known also as Game Management Areas, and effectively open to the movement of people and wildlife, and managed more on a community level than the centrally governed national parks.
I personally have a few problems with the Tudor-Jones approach
As already mentioned, within the area controlled by the Grumeti Reserves Pvt Ltd three superbly luxurious lodges and tented camps have been constructed. These are priced at the absolute top end of what is an already heavily priced tourism region. This by necessity imposes a low impact/high return philosophy on the operations of the Grumeti Reserves Pvt Ltd, creating an environment of exclusivity that is at variance with the wider eco travel philosophy of exposing priceless global ecological treasures to an interested public in exchange for revenue and a general realisation that what exists within the reserve is of vital importance to future generations of humanity as a whole. Tese areas should never be available to just future generations of humanity that can afford it. Paul Tudor Jones might be a billionaire, but I am not…
The strong arm of Grumeti Reserves Pvt Ltd
And how those of us who are not billionaires are treated by Grumeti Reserves Pvt Ltd for me came as a short and sharp lesson in the descent of a well meaning project into a little bit of ecological thuggery.
The manager of another local hospitality establishment – the Grumeti Luxury Tented Camp – and I set off one morning on a strictly private game drive without guides or local assistance. We took a wrong turn, and while navigating a little hesitantly by local landmarks, apparently veered into territory administered by Grumeti Reserve Pvt Ltd.
We were very quickly located by a jeep containing half a dozen men in green uniforms and informed that we were trespassing. There was no lean or accommodation to be made on the matter. We had erred by entering the Grumeti Reserve and we could now expect to feel the full weight and consequence of our actions. One among the men was one carrying an assault rifle which was introduced very quickly to the fore of the conversation. What followed thereafter was a threatening, deeply intimidating and profoundly unpleasant exchange that continued for about half an hour.
Without going into too much detail, I was absolutely amazed that such crude handling could have been applied to the management of a competing local camp by representatives of an organisation so august in its origins. It is a terrible shame that Grumeti Reserves Pvt Ltd should allow its employees or representatives to behave in this way. The correct approach would have been to enquire as to our intentions, and upon discovering our situation, and offer to lead us out and set us on the correct road should have been made.
We eventually simply started our vehicle and left. Neither of us had any intention of being arrested by a representative of an ostensibly private concern. We were then followed at close range for a short distance before the vehicle sped off in a trail of dust, somewhat like the bad-guys in a Mad Max movie. Very unpleasant indeed.
Anyway, despite this, I am personally a disciple of the eco tourism concept and a sustainable travel zealot. I truly hope that the whole movement in Africa does not devolve into a rich-man’s playground, and that those of us trying to get a peek in at the edges are not seen off by a bunch of armed thugs, while the rich and famous enjoy the sights and sounds of the champagne African wilderness.
Eco travel is a universal concept, and in my option thank God for men like Paul Tudor Jones who are prepared to apply some part of their wealth in projects as commendable as the Grumeti Reserve, but thank God in equal measure for the Robanda Safari Camp, Grumeti Luxury Tented Camp and the Ikoma Tented Camp among others that fight for a small share of the bounty of the Grumeti Wildlife Reserve and are not intimidated by some very rough handling and some rather Zimbabwe-like policing of a wondering zone of natural importance.
1 Caroline Phillips – Spears Wealth Management Survey