Responsible tourism in Southern Africa

Traveling overland in Southern Africa is a wonderful way to join the dots between some of its greatest spectacles – the mighty Victoria Falls, the vast lifeline of the Okavango Delta, the rust-red dunes of the Namib Desert and the dramatic setting of the Mother City. But passengers will also be taken on a ride through the headlines – from the shooting of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe, through to the expulsion of the San from their ancestral lands in the Kalahari, via Botswana’s hunting ban, and into Namibia and South Africa, where apartheid was abolished over two decades ago, yet racial inequality is still a reality for millions.

On some of these issues, tourists can vote with their feet: don’t hunt, don’t cuddle lions, and don’t support tourism which shuts out local communities. On others, wise choices must be made: opting for local guides, researching township tours, and finding out if cultural tours really do benefit their indigenous protagonists.

The crucial thing is to educate yourself. Southern Africa is a complex region, with many cultural and natural riches, yet it is struggling to overcome environmental and wildlife troubles and centuries-old segregation. Reading up on these subjects before you travel, asking questions of your guides during time spent on the road and behaving sensitively towards the environment and the people will support those who need it most, and ensure that your money is being spent in the best possible way.

People & Culture

The San

The San, also known as the Bushmen, are believed to be southern Africa's original inhabitants - and around a third of the 90,000 remaining San live in Namibia. Much has been made of Namibia's impressive conservation record and the development of vast national parks and reserves. Over in Botswana, in 1961, the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) was created as a protected area for around 5,000 San, where they could continue to hunt, forage and live in the traditional way, without intrusion.
However, these successes are only one side of the story. Since the 1990s, a series of government clearances have removed virtually all the San from the CKGR, and placed them in government camps. In 2006, the San won a court case for their right to return to the reserve, but the government sealed a water borehole and arrested and beat those found hunting to feed their families, effectively making it impossible for them to survive on their ancestral lands. Additionally, in many cases across Namibia, the gazetting of protected areas means that local communities are being evicted - and many San now find themselves landless. The loss of access to their traditional hunting grounds means that many are malnourished and dependent on food aid - as well as at risk of losing the traditions, skills and knowledge of the landscape that have been acquired over thousands of years.

What you can do
Survival International campaigns for tribal rights across the globe. Their San campaign representative spoke to Responsible Travel about San tourism in Botswana: "Ironically, on its official tourism website, the government uses images of Bushmen wearing animal skins and hunting, and at the same time it’s not allowing them to do that. The only Bushmen that tourists can visit are the ones outside the CKGR, who are of course not living day to day in the way they’re showing tourists that they are because the government doesn’t allow it. None of the Bushmen that actually live in the CKGR are involved in tourism because they’ve been excluded by the government from anything that will allow them to have their own economy in any way. It’s important that tourists are aware of this, and to know that any tour operator claiming that a San bushwalk shows how they live today and how well they’ve adapted is completely false.”

If you choose to go on a San tour, ensure your tour operator has experienced what they are selling – it’s the only way they will know how ethical the tour is. Ask them if the tour is genuine, is it sensitive to the San culture, and how do the San benefit from the tourists? There has to be a benefit for the tourists and the people involved, otherwise it’s exploitation.

Many San complain about the way they are treated by tourists and guides – they walk into San villages and homes uninvited, don’t greet them, and take photographs without permission. Be sure to treat them as respectfully as you would any other host, and refuse to participate in any tour where the San are visibly uncomfortable with your presence.

Conservancies & communities

Despite the serious issues with the San, the Botswana Tourism Organisation generally has a good relationship with community-based organisations and tribal authorities. Most land used for tourism in Botswana is leased – either in a national park or reserve, or from local communities. Safari companies bid for the lease – known as a concession – and must demonstrate the financial and environmental benefits they will provide during their lease.

This results in annual royalties for the communities, which are generally reinvested into community and conservation initiatives, as well as empowering local people by giving them a say in the management and use of their land. Laws also ensure that only Batswana staff can be hired by these companies, keeping as much tourism revenue as possible within the country, and boosting employment opportunities for local people.

A thriving community-focused model being rolled out across parts of Africa, conservancies are areas of land over which the local communities take full responsibility for the conservation and general management of both their land and of the wildlife that live on it in order to generate an income independently from sustainable farming and tourism. Namibia flies the African flag for the initial creation of conservancies, something you can read more about here, and the model is also now being used for community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) policies, which have been developed and implemented across southern Africa in countries including Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique and South Africa.

Emma Gregg, travel writer, says: "Visit a community-owned tourism project in a conservancy. Namibia has a small but growing number of brilliant lodges, campsites, safari experiences and cultural encounters which are wholly owned by rural communities.”

What can you do
There are an increasing number of tourism projects across Africa that support conservancies and their indigenous tribes and communities who participate in tourism have benefited over the years as they are able to maintain their lands, support themselves and avoid encroachment from farmland.

Badly managed tourism is even more damaging than no tourism, however, so before booking a tour, ask some questions of your operator: How much involvement does the community have in the tours? How are they compensated? Does your guide speak the local language? Does tourism support community projects?

Above all, ensure that your visit is not a one-way experience. Ask your hosts questions - and invite them to ask you questions back. Interact, rather than just standing behind your camera. This is not only respectful to the community; it's also guaranteed to give you a much more memorable trip.
Jayne Harley, from our supplier, Sunway Safaris, shares her opinion on involving the local community with tourism: “We are very much a responsible tourism company: our camping tours have less impact on the environment than the accommodated tours, but we work with local communities wherever possible; in the Okavango Delta for example, the community benefits directly from us using their campsites, which are wild campsites, and in Brandberg, we recommend a guided walk to the White Lady rock painting which is conducted by local guides. We personally employ local guides from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and across Southern Africa, and we use national parks as far as possible to ensure that the funds that our clients are paying for their tour are going back into conservation. In addition, many of the properties that we use are locally-owned, and tend to hire people from the local community, so wherever you’re staying, you know that locals are being employed and it’s benefitting the area. In turn, local people are seeing the benefit of tourism and understanding further how it can work mutually. It’s a big focus for us.”

Wildlife & environment

The hunting dilemma

Although it is heartbreaking to contemplate that Africa’s magnificent wildlife is still being killed – legally – by humans, hunting is a big way of life in Southern Africa, and well-managed hunting often plays an important part in conservation strategies. However, opinions and strategies vary from year to year. Botswana introduced a trophy hunting ban in 2014, but in May 2019 the ban on hunting elephants was lifted, with growing conflict between humans and elephants cited as the justification. In Zimbabwe, hunting revenue has plummeted following the much-publicised killing of Cecil the lion in 2015, and in an ironic twist, its Bubye Valley Conservancy has now claimed that it needs to cull up to 200 lions to reduce overpopulation. The conservancy used funds generated from hunting to set up a black rhino conservation project; it shelters Africa’s third largest population of these highly endangered creatures.
‘Canned hunting’ is another story entirely. This nasty practice is a growing issue in South Africa, where organisers take lions and tigers and breed them in captivity. In a number of cases, these breeders then advertise for volunteers in to look after the cubs – bottle feeding them, hugging them, walking them and playing with them as if they were kittens – so they become habituated. The volunteer thinks they are doing a worthy job, but actually those big cats will be sold on to a canned hunting farm – a tourist facility where rich westerners can come in, shoot themselves a lion, and keep the pelt and a distasteful picture as a souvenir of their abject bravery. Because the lions have been habituated by unsuspecting volunteers, they don’t have the inherent fear that a wild lion would have of humans, so they’re easy pickings. It’s an expensive, distasteful and disgusting way to guarantee a dead lion. Read more on our stance on this issue here.

What you can do
Any responsible tourist won’t be heading to a canned hunting facility – but there are a number of ways in which they could involuntarily be supporting this industry.

Jeremy Smith, co-author of Clean Breaks by Rough Guides and founder of the Fair Game tourism initiative – explains how to ensure you are not getting involved: “Real walking safaris in the bush with an armed guide to protect you in the wilds are an incredible experience. But stay clear of any trips that offer the opportunity to walk with and pet animals in small private locations where there are semi domesticated lions or other animals wandering around. You can even walk with a tiger, which isn't native to South Africa! Some of these organisations say they are aiding conservation through research, but their claims are mostly dubious. Most of all though, it promotes the wrong relationship between us and wild animals.”
Dereck and Beverly Joubert are National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence. Originally from Botswana, they have spent over 30 years making films about African wildlife, and have established the Big Cats Initiative as an emergency response to the rapid decline of big cat species. They share their views on the future of tourism and conservation in Botswana following the hunting ban:

"At this time, we need tourism more than ever before. There’s a real danger that if sustainable tourism doesn’t support Botswana, then the hunting ban will be lifted. So it’s up to everyone who is interested to vote with their feet. If the ban doesn’t work, if the concessions don’t bring in enough money to support themselves, then people will want to reinstate hunting. We need to look at the bigger picture and see how we are benefitting local communities. In the conversion from hunting to photographic safaris, we’re increasing the wealth and health of communities nearby, which in turn alleviates poaching pressure, as only those on the breadline need to resort to poaching.

As the conversion continues, I would predict that all these areas will see a resurgence – of wildlife increasing, of more skills being transferred, of more staff being employed – and far less poaching as a result."

Desertification & drought

Almost three-quarters of Botswana and Namibia is covered in desert, so water is understandably scarce. In recent years, a growing population combined with increased agriculture and grazing have put extra pressure on Botswana’s limited water supplies, while at the same time climate change has resulted in ever-more erratic weather patterns – with the annual rains becoming less predictable. As reservoirs dry up in the more densely populated south, people are turning to the north for their water, which is putting Botswana’s greatest natural resource – the Okavango Delta – at risk, along with the wildlife that depends upon it.
What you can do
Be very aware of your water use. Short showers, flushing only when necessary and reporting any leaky taps all help. Water conservation in these desert nations needs to be a way of life. Some smart lodges even provide buckets to put in your shower to catch unused water, especially while you are waiting for it to heat up; this can then be reused for cleaning or watering plants.

Responsible tourism tips

Pack biodegradable toiletries and laundry detergents, especially when camping – limited water supplies will quickly become contaminated. It’s natural to want to get closer to wildlife – but this will distress them. Never ask your guide to leave the trails or drive after wildlife, and be sure to obey all rules in the reserves. Report any guides who do not obey park rules regarding offroading or crowding wildlife. Fires start fast and burn hard in the desert; never drop cigarette butts or matches on the ground, be extremely careful when building fires, and keep water to hand to extinguish sparks and embers. It is illegal to take elephant ivory, leather and tusk products, rhino horn products and cat furs into the UK and many other countries. They will be confiscated at your place of exit or entry and you could face legal proceedings. Think before you take pictures. It’s easy to get snap-happy in Southern Africa, but always introduce yourself and ask permission before photographing people – including children. Whenever possible, it is good idea to ask for a postal address (or that of your guide if visiting remote communities) and follow up by sending photographs back. Never use flash photography with wildlife.
Written by Polly Humphris
Photo credits: [Page banner: wolfso] [The San: dconvertini] [The hunting dilemma: FieldsportsChannel TV] [Desertification & drought: Sam Power]