SAFARI WITH A SOCIAL CONSCIENCE
As environmental consciousness rises around the world, more travellers are actively looking to support businesses who are doing their part to conserve the environment and uplift communities; and with poaching now at epidemic proportions, they want assurances that a percentage of what they pay for a safari is being put back into conservation.
Charles Nkhoma blows across the rim of his tin mug to cool the bush tea, a small wisp of steam caught in the dawn beam of sunlight. He puckers his lips when he sips, like a bushbuck from the water.
We stand beside his 4×4 safari vehicle, having an early morning brew. Before us is a hippo infested oxbow lagoon, which sources life from the Luangwa, one of southern Africa’s major rivers. Mopane tree forests surround us, many bent over to examine their reflections in the mirror still water. In the grasslands beyond lions roar their welcome to the day.
Charles speaks of his youth and what brought him to become a guide at the Bushcamp Company. At school in Mfuwe, the nearest village to the main gate of the South Luangwa National Park, he was a member of the school’s Wildlife Club. With biology and geography being his favourite subjects, his future was all but sealed and in 2005 he joined the wildlife industry.
“My conscience would not allow me to work for any other safari company,” says Charles. “They do such good work with the community; it would be wrong for me to even consider such a thing. How could I do this?” He looks into his mug, as if he would find the answer there.
Charles gives me the backstory to The Bushcamp Company, who have long believed in providing schools and assisting community development and affording job opportunities creating lasting and sustainable income.
The Bushcamp Company saw the community’s immediate needs and stepped in. They built new classrooms, refurbished old school buildings, constructed and filled libraries. They pay teachers’ salaries in community schools, send promising students to college and university and supply e-learning tablets. All of this is undertaken by the Luangwa Conservation Community Fund, a charity created by The Bushcamp Company.
“None of this would be possible without tourism,” Charles explains. “One of the most important aspects of wildlife conservation is to have the support of the local communities by way of employment and community projects. When communities feel they’re benefiting from wildlife tourism, they’ll not be tempted by the quick buck offered by the crime syndicates that control much of the poaching.”
“I’ve lost count as to how many boreholes Bushcamp’s have drilled for the villages,” he smiles broadly. “They pay school fees for students and offer jobs to school graduates. The children are taught about gardening in Home Economics, and in Nature Studies they learn about conservation.”
The Bushcamp Company also engage in green practices which includes vermiculture, recycling, and solar energy. They collaborate with the Zambian Carnivore Project which is supported by National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative; and to help Conservation South Luangwa in their anti-poaching and wildlife monitoring efforts, they gifted them a light aircraft.
There is not a school or a village in the region that hasn’t benefited in some way from their annual US$400,000+ conservation and community work contribution. They’re not vocal about it either, preferring it to be done in the spirit of collaboration between the Bushcamps, local authorities, government departments and traditional leaders.
Evans Graph, the deputy head at Chiwawatala Primary School, one of the oldest schools in the Mfuwe region, points at a chart on his office wall. It outlines the subjects taught and the number of pupils attending.
“Many of our pupils have progressed to becoming rangers for the National Parks Board, some even are guides for the private game lodges,” he smiles broadly, proud to be delivering this good news.
There’s a large school ‘home economics’ garden too and where the pupils grow vegetables. It’s similar to that of Mfuwe Day Secondary School, where senior staff member, Lesley Kalonga, shows me around. This secondary school is near equal in pupil numbers to the primary school with around 1200 students – 350 of which are boarders.
We walk past a couple of men stirring a large cauldron of maize. “This is the Meal-A-Day Programme in action,” says Lesley. “Our lodges make it possible for us to feed 2,500 students every day – across three local schools. Not so long ago many of our children would walk more than six miles to class every day, do a whole day of lessons, then walk back home again – with no food. Now their tummies are full.”
She waves at the men cooking lunch and shares a joke. “And these men are paying for school fees in kind. If they are financially embarrassed and cannot pay for schooling, we ask that they can pay in kind – a bag of grain, or to cook the food.”
We take a quick look into the IT department with its haphazard collection of 15 computers, some of which work, then the art studio, and the science lab.
We continue onto the large vegetable garden which, at one time, used to be regularly visited by the very same grain thieves she spoke of. “Now we use a deterrent in the form of dried chillies and grease which is rubbed onto the fencing. The elephants don’t like the smell of chillies and stay far away. So now our vegetable garden is safe.”
The Bushcamp Company’s community work is endless. Other than what I’ve seen first-hand, they’ve also created a preschool, an annual calendar project, and have an ongoing tree planting scheme to help curb deforestation. They work with artisan jewellers who create jewellery using recycled snare wires and sponsor veterinarians who work in wildlife rescues and de-snaring.
On the way back to Kapamba Bushcamp, I ask to stop at the Baobab Ladies Craft Shop in Mfuwe, where I meet Leah Zulu and Elizabeth Mvula who handmake tribal cushion covers. After concluding our transaction, Leah tucks the bank notes I handed her into the left cup of her bodice. “Modern business methods are all very well,” she states, “but when it came to the safeguarding of money there are some places which are yet to be bettered.”
A little further along Charles introduce me to Mfuwe’s community gardeners: a group of men industriously tiling the soil growing fruit, vegetables, and herbs for Bushcamps, who sponsor them with worm-farm compost, seeds, and the necessary hand tools. What the gardeners produce is sold back to the lodge. This demonstrates that the communities rely on the lodges as much as the lodges rely on the community – the one could not operate without the other. People before profit.
Now, deep in the National Park, Charles tells me how immensely proud he is to work in the industry. “But this is not the end for me,” he announces. “I’m an ambitious man and want to study further, expanding my knowledge in wildlife management. Maybe one day I’ll be the head ranger.”
He stops the vehicle abruptly and climbs out. He studies the sand and the reads the landscape. “This is a leopard – and he’s running very fast.” With that he jumps back into the 4×4 and we speed off in pursuit of a leopard on the hunt.
First published at Travel Industry Today