With a 2016 report by the World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London suggesting that the world is set to lose two thirds of its wildlife by early next decade, the fight to conserve and protect our wild spaces and animals has never been more pressing.
Operating in some of the most remote parts of Africa and working closely with local communities and government bodies, for luxury travel company Sanctuary Retreats a commitment to conservation and responsible tourism has long been an integral part of its daily operations ever since opening its first camp in Kenya’s Masai Mara in 1999.
Says Michael MCall, Sanctuary Retreats’ Director of Sales Australia, NZ & Asia, “Our philanthropic arm, Sanctuary Retreats Philanthropy, supports a wide variety of conservation initiatives. Our goal is to identify and sponsor long-term, viable and self-sustaining projects which have the support of our staff, visitors and the local communities in which we operate, but more importantly, ones which we hope will actually have a positive impact on conservation efforts in Africa.”
In this he is reassured by an unprecedented level of interest in responsible travel, coinciding with people’s desire to get away from run of the mill holidays in favour of travel experiences that are unique, authentic and meaningful. “The rise of philanthropic programs and ‘volun-tourism’ is driven in large measure by people actively seeking to give back to the communities they visit. These twin desires for unique and ethical experiences have placed real pressure on tourism suppliers to improve their social and environmental responsibility, and we haven’t hesitated to harness this momentum to support Sanctuary Retreats Philanthropy projects”.
Sanctuary Retreats Philanthropy focuses primarily on supporting wildlife projects, changing community attitudes and providing community education. Here Michael talks about some of the company’s successful initiatives in each of these areas.
Over the past 30 years, black rhino populations have decreased by 98%, and the situation isn’t much better for white rhino. The rise of wealth across Asia in recent years has increased demand in rhino horn, stunting population growth and making some parts of Africa hotspots for poaching.
Says McCall, “Working with Rhino Conservation Botswana, the Botswana Defence Forces and other partners, Sanctuary Retreats has been involved in relocating rhino from these danger zones to the relative safety of Botswana’s Okavango Delta. Following on from this, the company is contributing to the ongoing study into the growing rhino population so that we can learn about their territories, foraging and breeding habits, and answer the question “was this a success and can it be replicated or expanded?””
In Tanzania, the company’s Sanctuary Kusini Camp has partnered with the Serengeti Cheetah Project to monitor the region’s cheetah. Using guest photographs taken during game drives, the project records population numbers and follow the lives of individuals. According to Michael, “One of our guests even discovered a cheetah who had been missing for three years, leading to it being named Kusini”.
At all of Sanctuary Retreats’ properties staff also monitor wildlife to ensure any injured animals are cared for and any dangerous or illegal activities are reported. “Unfortunately, at Zambia’s Sanctuary Sussi & Chuma, we often deal with animals who have been caught in snares,” says Michael. “This primitive and ruthless poaching method often ends up with elephants or buffalo wondering into camp with serious injuries needing immediate attention. Some of the injuries can be treated quickly, while others can lead to dramatic and traumatic rescues. But generally, we work with resident organisations to ensure that every animal that can be saved, is saved.”
It’s no secret that one of the biggest threats to the world’s wild animals is human-wildlife conflict within the local communities living alongside Africa’s national parks and game reserves, and Michael is proud of Sanctuary Retreats’ determination to work closely with the leaders of these communities to change attitudes towards wildlife and help prevent further conflict. He cites a number of examples.
“In Tanzania’s Tarangire National Park, we’ve given villagers the knowledge and tools to prevent the park’s huge population of elephants from raiding crops and destroying homes in their search for food and water, while in Zambia we run business courses that often touch on conservation awareness and environmental best practice. By empowering people and giving them the ability to prevent human-wildlife conflict themselves, we hope to give them the desire to conserve and protect wildlife.”
While understanding the ‘how’ in conservation is important, for Michael, and indeed Sanctuary Retreats, “the biggest change comes when we understand the ‘why’ too. For many, this comes from seeing animals in a different light. Working with the Living with Elephants Foundation in Botswana, we’ve introduced school groups to our two semi-habituated elephants, allowing the children to interact closely with elephants and explore the complex interactions between people and elephants, with the aim of inspiring more positive relationships in the future. In Kenya’s Masai Mara, we take children on game drives and introduce the animals to the students in the same way a Sanctuary Retreats guest would experience them. In teaching about the animals and their importance to the ecosystem and the tourism industry, we are building up a new generation of wildlife and conservation advocates.”
For Michael inspiring the next generation of conservationists doesn’t just happen on a game drive; it also takes place in the classroom. “We strongly believe that in order to make a difference, the communities who coexist with wildlife must have access to a good education, and thanks to the generosity of our guests, we have been able deliver on this in many of the destinations we operate.”
In partnership with communities close to its properties, Sanctuary Retreats supports various schools in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Zambia. From building classrooms to funding lunch programs, the company works with each community to ensure their particular needs are filled. “In Tanzania, this means supporting a primary and secondary school for deaf and disabled children, “ says Michael, “while in Uganda we fund a nursing school. But no matter what the project, it’s important to incorporate environmental education into the syllabus to inform the students of the need for conservation.”
In Zambia Sanctuary Retreats supports Nakatindi Village close to Sanctuary Sussi & Chuma, which includes significant funding for Nakatindi Primary School. As well as refurbishing classrooms and building a kitchen for the students, Michael says that guides regularly host conservation-themed lectures focusing on topics such as waste management, poaching and learning about specific species. “These are usually followed by a game drive where the children have the chance to spot elephant, rhino and other wildlife. It is the reaction of these kids, as their fear transforms into awe and appreciation, which gives us the most hope for the future of wildlife conservation.”