Responsible Tourism in KwaZulu-Natal

“There is a word in South Africa – Ubuntu – a word that captures Mandela’s greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us.” – Barack Obama, speaking at a memorial to Nelson Mandela in 2018

You’d be wise to travel in KwaZulu-Natal with the Zulu philosophy of Ubuntu in mind. As is the case across South Africa, this is a province that is looking to tourism, among other industries, to drive a prosperous future inspired by - not in spite of - its diversity. Since 1994, when the semi-autonomous Zulu Kingdom was re-integrated once more into the province of Natal, KwaZulu-Natal became the only South African province with a name that reflects its dominant ethnic heritage. Zulu culture is the ubiquitous lifeblood behind everything here and you won’t be able to avoid it. Not that you’d want to. Tread lightly and respectfully and the Zulu communities you visit will open their culture to you. The Ubuntu philosophy is as equally applicable to KwaZulu-Natal’s natural wealth as it is its people. We are inescapably interlinked with the natural world around us; so choose a game reserve which empowers local people to protect their wild neighbours, or a beach lodge which champions community-led conservation.

Wildlife & environment

Galen Schultz from our leading wildlife conservation volunteering specialist, Wildlife ACT says:
“The Zululand ecosystem is one of the most bio-diverse wild lands in Africa, with much of it declared a World Heritage Site. It is a rare place with age-old cultures and traditions. Yet amid its gallery of wildlife, conservation efforts face tremendous challenges. Africa has over 400 known endangered animal species, and Zululand is considered by many as the heartbeat of Africa and the birthplace of wildlife conservation in Africa. It can also be considered as one of the last strongholds for species such as the rhino. It is therefore a critically important area to conserve.”

A bastion of conservation KwaZulu-Natal may be, but its wildlife faces almost overwhelming odds to survive. Loss of habitat, lack of space to increase species’ range and allow them to thrive, wildlife poaching and constrained genetic flow must all be overcome for conservation efforts to be successful. This is all compounded by a lack of government funding for the province’s reserves. Money itself is at the heart of matter - conservation will only work where local communities are empowered to see the value in keeping their wild neighbours alive.

The great hunting and conservation debate

It can be distressing to think that some of the beautiful variety of animals you see on safari could at some point find themselves staring down the barrel of a hunter’s gun. However, hunting plays a big role in South African society, and often – perhaps somewhat contradictorily - an intrinsic role in wildlife conservation strategies.
We don’t like the idea of hunting at Responsible Travel, and while we will never promote vacations that include hunting, we do understand that well-managed, strictly controlled hunting has its place. It can facilitate the protection of large swathes of wilderness and manage wildlife populations - while bringing in huge sums of money for conservation strategies. Local communities – often the landowners leasing lodges and reserves for hunting concessions – see the hundreds of thousands of dollars one single elephant, for example, can fetch and are encouraged to protect the land and the wildlife by allowing it.
Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife does allow strictly controlled hunting in a few, designated areas – which are not open to ordinary tourists. So you won’t be seeing animals on safari in Hhluhluwe-iMfolozi, for example, that are part of quotas destined to be shot.
For hunting strategies to be sustainable, quotas must be strictly monitored and adhered to – and set by independent experts. Quotas must be part of strategies to maintain viable animal populations and hunting revenues must be reinvested significantly into conservation programmes and local community projects.

Canned hunting

When it comes to canned hunting our thoughts are unequivocal. This is a barbaric practice offering no benefit to conservation, to local people or to the environment.

In short, canned hunting is the practice where animals are reared, often in a way that accustoms them to human presence, specifically to be sold as trophies to hunters. There are several reserves in South Africa offering canned hunts but the industry goes much wider than the final product. Many ‘reserves’ and ‘sanctuaries’ offering walking with lions and cheetah experiences, or projects where volunteers care for lion cubs are simply getting these animals habituated to humans before selling them to canned hunts.

What you can do:
Hunting will remain an important source of income for wildlife reserves in KwaZulu-Natal as long as there is demand for it. We do, of course, hope that responsible tourism will one day emerge as a far more sustainable – and ethical – alternative, proving that wildlife is worth far more alive than dead.

While hunting concessions in parks managed by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife are not open to safari tourists, some private game reserves do mix both leisure safaris and hunting safaris on their land. To make conservation work without hunting, responsible tourism needs to support communities to make a living from keeping their lands pristine, protected and poacher-free. If you feel strongly about this issue, then choose your safari experience carefully and put your money where your mouth is – into reserves which operate without hunting to back up their budgets.

Galen Schultz, from our leading wildlife conservation volunteering specialists in KwaZulu-Natal, WildlifeACT, explains the importance of supporting local communities when it comes to conservation: “First-time travelers to Zululand should be aware that the majority of our wildlife protected areas are surrounded by rural, often very impoverished communities. This is a poorly-understood reason as to why wildlife poaching is such a huge issue in South Africa. One of our areas of focus is educating both these communities and the public about the importance of empowering those who live alongside wild areas.”

Interactive experiences such as walking with lions and cheetahs are less prevalent in KwaZulu-Natal than in other regions of South Africa – but be vigilant and don’t support any sanctuary or reserve offering these practises.

If you want to volunteer to support conservation in KwaZulu-Natal then choose a project which focuses on habitat management and the ongoing monitoring and tracking of, and research into, wild species. While these may lack the Instagram-ability of a project cuddling lion cubs or walking with cheetahs you won’t be unwittingly playing your part in preparing these animals for a canned hunt. And in reserves where a lack of government funding makes effective conservation strategies difficult, supporting the work of permanent research teams (which also engage local communities to increase income and empowerment) will be making a real difference to vital conservation work.

People & culture

Zulu cultural villages

An insight into traditional Zulu life or a voyeuristic behind-the-camera-lens experience exploiting the intricacies of a unique culture? KwaZulu-Natal is home to a number of Zulu homesteads which open their doors to visitors, who in turn watch performances of traditional dances, take pictures of warriors dressed up in traditional garb and engage very little, in any meaningful way, with the people living and working there. Additionally many lodges will showcase Zulu dancing from their local community, and try to educate guests about Zulu culture – but many of these entertainments feel staged and inauthentic. Zulu culture has become a big commodity in KwaZulu-Natal – but it isn’t always Zulu communities who are benefiting from the sale.
What you can do:
Some homesteads or cultural villages, run and managed by the Zulu community living there, offer an authentic insight into the Zulu way of life and a genuine cultural exchange. You learn about Zulu traditions, customs and history from local residents, and in turn the money you pay for the experience – and the handicrafts you purchase - goes directly into developing community infrastructure and supporting small, grassroots businesses.
Alternatively, Simon Mills, from one of our leading KwaZulu-Natal vacation experts, Native Escapes, recommends staying in lodges that are community-owned (or invest heavily in local communities) for a more genuine insight into Zulu life. He says: “This way you can do things like going into villages with guides, see how people live - but at the same time, your spending (just by staying at the lodge) is contributing to the good of the community.”

Fair Trade Tourism

South Africa has become the first country in the world to embrace the principles of fair trade into its tourism industry, with a Fair Trade Tourism certification that recognises the community-driven work of luxury lodges, game reserves and hotels across KwaZulu-Natal (and the rest of South Africa). Much like its foodie counterpart, the Fair Trade Tourism certification ensures fair pay, fair treatment of local staff, ethical business practices, and a fair deal for local communities – ensuring that your South African hosts, and not just multinational hospitality companies, benefit from your visit.

While the Fair Trade Tourism scheme may not be the most environmentally stringent, it does empower local communities to take ownership of fragile habitats and wildlife, ensuring local people are invested in their survival.

South Africa is also the only country in the world with a National Minimum Standard for Responsible Tourism – to which all tourism practises must adhere - which includes guidelines like this gem: "Tourism can and should deliver income to poor households, particularly those situated in rural parts of our country". This is tourism as it should be. And all wrapped up in the wonderful, South African spirit of Ubuntu.

Responsible tourism tips

Apartheid may be over, but don’t be fooled into thinking South Africa is now one happy, rainbow-coloured, family. Inequality and poverty is still rife – particularly among KwaZulu-Natal’s black and coloured communities – but so are hope, entrepreneurship and inspirational enterprise. Any responsible tourist will need to take time to understand South Africa’s recent past, in order to understand its present – and people will chat, even if they have differing opinions. Of course, at times you will still meet with bitterness and closed thinking - like everywhere in the world - but generally there is a great sense of moving forward. Tours of Durban’s Umlazi township can offer a humbling, enlightening insight into the legacies of Apartheid, but only if done well. Choose a tour with a local resident as your guide – put your camera away and explore on foot to ensure your visit is respectful and supports the local people and businesses that need it most. While most people in KwaZulu-Natal speak English, the dominant language – and culture – here is Zulu. Take the time to learn a few words of greeting and thanks in isiZulu and you’ll be rewarded with smiles and respect. Local Zulu guides will be more than happy to offer a few on-the-go language lessons. Use water sparingly in iSimangaliso Wetland Park – water may seem abundant here but the fragile estuarine ecosystems have historically been ravaged by frequent natural cycles of drought – exacerbated by human consumption. When droughts happen, low water levels increase salinity with devastating consequences for the park’s hippos, crocodiles and coastal flora. Be aware that endangered loggerhead and giant leatherback turtles use beaches along the Elephant Coast as nesting grounds between November and March – which coincides with the region’s busy summer season. If you do want to watch the turtles nesting – tours are available in Kosi Bay, among other places – then make sure you ask questions to ensure guides act responsibly. Use a red light or switch off your torch altogether, wear dark clothing, and keep several metres away from any mothers you see coming ashore. UV protection is paramount, but if you’re planning to snorkel or dive be aware of the effects your sun cream can have on corals when it washes off into the sea. Avoid the bog-standard creams which include harmful oxybenzone and octinoxate – there are lots of sea-friendly sun creams available instead. Recent storms washed tonnes of plastic up onto beaches around Durban – highlighting the extent of plastic pollution in KwaZulu-Natal. Reduce your plastic use on vacation to help protect one of the world’s most biodiverse coastlines – especially if you’re planning to enjoy the underwater wildlife it supports. Refillable water bottles and cloth bags are a good place to start. If volunteering you’ll want to make sure the company organising your project adheres to strict guidelines to ensure your work is sustainable, needed and that the needs and expectations of your host community are being met. Our '10 questions to ask your volunteering company’ will set you in the right direction.
Written by Sarah Faith
Photo credits: [Page banner: meunierd] [Trophy hunter: Lord Mountbatten] [Zulu cultural village: Richard Madden]