Dereck Joubert, founder and CEO of Great Plains Conservation, in this interview reflects on the opportunities and challenges which come with linking conservation and tourism in Africa. He tells us why protecting rhinos, elephants and lions is crucial and how his organization is doing it, together with National Geographic. If you have a passion for wildlife, Africa or both, read this story of a true changemaker, “doer” and responsible tourism champion.
Dereck and his wife Beverly are award-winning filmmakers, National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence and wildlife conservationists, who have been filming, researching and exploring in Africa for over 30 years.
Dereck, do you remember the first time you heard about conservation in connection with tourism? What got you interested in the topic?
In 2000 I met with a group of people and pitched a change in ‘name’ from ecotourism to conservation tourism to them suggesting that we overlap the two concepts, largely because the label ecotourism never made sense to me. I just didn’t understand it. But I wanted to use tourism as a way to fund conservation.
Before that I was not invested in tourism, but shortly after that decided to create a business model based on a “conservation first” tourism effort. It is for us, at Great Plains, a way to save land, fund the reintroduction of critical species, and communities.
How has your view on tourism and conservation changed over time?
Tourism itself is evolving rapidly and I think we, and others, have been leading that by placing conservation and environment first.
Fifty years ago, a safari was about killing animals. Twenty years ago, it was about photographing them. Now it’s about traveling for a cause and more and more that feeds into our community relationships. It’s evolved from protecting to involvement of stakeholders in a real way.
You have for many years been active in developing tourism experiences as a way to support wildlife conservation in Africa.
Well I started in tourism in 1980 but moved to researching lions and conservation, filming for National Geographic and writing books. On that journey, I more and more realized that the answer was in protecting iconic species like lions, elephants and rhinos, AND in connecting corridors.
That led to me re-entering the tourism business and trying to develop that ideal model that is inclusive but not at the cost of the environment.
I think that this is a partnership between the environment, communities and investors, with government or global oversight, so it doesn’t spin out of kilter. Each needs to play a role and not side with the other in a way that can harm the core product: the environment.
To your mind, is tourism a strong enough tool; can the conservation battle still be won?
Oh. It’s a huge tool! It generates over 50 billion tourism dollars a year into Africa, and that supports communities. That support creates better lives, more people who understand and support wildlife conservation and actually more young people who want to get into conservation.
The Botswana tourism sector hires more than 40% of the workforce in the northern wildlife area, 90,000 people, in a small country. It is much more in Zimbabwe and Kenya.
Without tourism we would be in a terrible place. I doubt there would be an animal left in Africa, without tourism.
Certainly, I am hopeful and want to push tourism for conservation reasons but also because tourism reduces xenophobia and increases harmony in the world.
We cannot underestimate the hidden values of tourism in Africa. Our guests match our own donations to communities and conservation, allowing us to give away over $2.3M last year. But is it strong enough a tool? Maybe not yet. Because wildlife-based tourism is only responsible for 3% of world travel – but in that alone is the opportunity. We could easily quadruple that income stream and more, but we need to be careful that it is not in the form of mass tourism that does harm to the very place and wildlife it thrives on.
Three of the species most sought-after – both by tourists and poachers – are lions, rhinos and elephants. They are also among the most endangered. How do you support their conservation through your organization?
I really focus on those three species because I think that the Battle for Africa will be fought around those. So our conservation efforts are focused on these three, plus on communities and finding ways to integrate our deep appreciation of what these three driver species do with what has now become a fourth major species, “us.”
I dislike the philosophy that has seeped into our culture that “if it pays it stays,” or “show me the money.” That erodes every aspect of the fundamentals of being resident on a planet or in a house, shared with others. We cannot insist that every acre of land pays for itself or we will gobble up everything and discard vitally important parts of the world that don’t look productive today.
So, we started the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative that has now supported over 120 projects across 27 countries and is going strong. For example, one set of data analytics places BCI as having actively and directly saved over 4,500 lions alone.
At Great Plains we have a Land for Lions program that buys up land that would otherwise not be viable for tourism but is vital for lions. Our films and outreach help elephants, and a recent film – Soul of the Elephant – went into 250 million homes. And of course we were the first to raise the red flag on the proposal by some groups to cull and hunt elephants in Botswana.
For rhinos we started Rhinos without Borders with a goal to move 100 rhinos from high poaching zones into safety and have moved 87 of those so far and from them have seen 29 additional calves born. It’s a huge success.
Community buy-in to all this is important as well, so it’s hard to divorce the efforts to save those top three species from the community efforts supporting protection of them.
We have a Living with Nature documentary coming out that supports community efforts, educates people on how to live in habitats with large biomass like elephants, and to do it in harmony.
But you are right, it will all be about those three species. Lose them…oh boy, and we will lose everything else, as tourism dries up, revenues flow elsewhere, communities fail, poaching increases across the board and unexpected ripples will influence the way we engage with each other.
I feel that tourism erodes xenophobia in a significant way. It erodes racism and breaks down barriers. If that stops, we all go back into insular thinking, nationalism and a world of hatred.
As CEO and founder of Great Plains Conservation and chairman of the Great Plains Foundation – what distinguishes your organization from other wildlife tour operators and land developers in Africa? What makes your approach unique?
There are many people in the tourism industry doing amazing work, and I often come across projects and companies I had not previously even been aware of, that inspire me. Tourism in general is going well beyond the call of duty in contributing to conservation and communities in many places.
The full burden of world poverty cannot be placed on the shoulders of one sector, no matter what that is. So when I see tourist camps erecting schools and clinics, paying for bursaries and clean water, as well as food stations for the poor, I am so impressed.
Our company has an associated foundation, but in many ways Great Plains operates like an NGO – but one with a business model. We have decided to never take a dividend, so the profits of the company get divided internally into three basic silos that we distribute evenly into conservation, community development and into growing the land footprint.
As such, what we do is set a budget for running the landscapes and we then charge our guests proportionate rates. It’s sort of upside down, but it’s a model that is conservation driven.
Which parts of your work would you consider the most difficult? Which are the main hurdles in day to day conservation business?
There are a few moving parts. In tourism, government legislation and changes in that are obstacles to serious investment into this sector, and often erode investor confidence. I am African so I am comfortable working in a world where permits and leases are moving targets, but if we want to stimulate the tourism business we need rock solid tenure that we can take to the bank.
We invested in Rwanda early on and they had set up an Investor Division that was a “One Stop” for investors. They were serious about attracting business and it has worked.
In Uganda recently I tested the system by asking how long it would take to set up a company. In twenty minutes I was presented with one of my three choices for a company name approved, a bank account in 4 days.
In Zimbabwe it took us 19 months to get a bank account approved. Each country has its own variation on this, but today if we are investing $20-$35M in a camp, security of tenure is now a serious consideration, as is stability and a good, uncorrupt operating environment.
In conservation itself, we have three major issues, Ignorance, Greed and Necessity. Each raises its head daily.
Ignorance: I constantly come up against major misconceptions about wildlife: “Elephants have left their historic range…” Which history? “What will we do when lions eat all the prey and come into our cities?” Real questions, from places of basic misunderstanding of nature.
So we produce films with National Geographic, primarily to erode ignorance and enhance knowledge. If you KNOW it’s wrong to kill a rhino for its horn, then you can’t “unknow” it.
Necessity is another challenge for conservation. If you don’t know where your evening meal will come from, you will find it and if it’s necessary to kill wildlife to do that, you would be insane to die instead. No one would. Western sentiments often ignore this root cause of poaching in some cases. So our collective job is to raise as many people as possible up from needing to live off the wildlands and remove that abject poverty-driven necessity.
Greed is another beast altogether. If you don’t need to kill a rhino, and you know it’s wrong to kill a rhino and you do it for more and more money, you are just plain ‘evil’ and greedy. It’s an action that in fact goes further, where you ‘steal’ from others and their ability to gain revenue from a live rhino that keeps them out of the Necessity category.
It’s a game of perceptions. I don’t even like the name “conservation” because one of the pitfalls is that it increasingly has negative connotations. I’ve always felt this. So I am working on going back to the start and with industry leaders define a new Earth Ethic about how we should interact or engage with each other, with the other species we share the planet with and the Earth itself.
I think that conservation and components of it, like Climate Change, have become too political and we need to step back a minute and get back to some basic rules of engagement.
So I think it’s the perception of who owns Conservation, who owns Climate Change and who carries the responsibility and who is excluded, that are the major obstacles that worry me.
Which achievements are you most proud of, at Great Plains Conservation? Which have been your main milestones so far?
The rhino move is probably one of the great achievements. Beverly and I were driving in an area recently and came across a half a dozen rhinos grazing peacefully, and I said: “Without our small efforts, there would be no rhinos here. In time to come everyone will have forgotten how they got here but take it for granted that they have always been here.”
If we get it right, the achievement is in this semi silent and unacknowledged work.
Our work doesn’t need logos. Many of the community achievements go unnoticed. We developed a solar lantern project for learners at school, largely to prevent house fires from candles. The result was a massive jump in pupil grades because the kids could suddenly do homework at night. So the principal’s letter stating this to us is like receiving an Emmy Award!
We are leading the way in championing the eradication of single use plastics at Great Plains and hoping that others in the industry will follow.
Which are the keys to a successful responsible and sustainable safari business? What does it take?
There is a sliding scale in tourism from mass market low-cost to, on the other end, a position where someone pays millions to NOT visit.
In many ways our films that are virtual safaris are the most environmentally sustainable ones. But, sustainability also depends on employment of people, so there is a sweet spot on the scale where one can operate with a very small subset of guests each day, but with maximum employment for the environmental impact that operation will create.
The only way to do that is via what we call the Botswana model, where we have high value, but low impact tourism. So in Great Plains, for example we employ 660 people to look after about 150 guests, across 1.5 million acres of land. The low impact allows us to charge a premium for exclusivity, and employ more people per guest, and invest in sustainability operations more.
We were the first to go 100% solar in camps, we recycle, generate biogas, crush glass and turn it into sand and are looking into high tech growing of vegetables in containers, a new technique from MIT, so we don’t have to incur environmentally damaging transport costs, or risk birds seeding the wild with domestic plants.
We do an annual environmental audit, done by PhD environmentalists on staff, and improve each year against a target of carbon and other environmental factors. So what it takes is a constant diligence.
Where do you see opportunities to be seized in Africa right now, in terms of making its tourism offerings more sustainable and encouraging responsible travel?
It’s in partnerships with local communities, not where we just pay leases or create jobs but where we twin with local IDEAS for tourism and add them into our offering. Through this we don’t set these breakaway efforts to fail but embrace them and through a direct training process – or just osmosis – infuse them with solid business practices, that will endure.
I think that the fundamentals like wildlife viewing tourism matched with other ideas, from communities would work.
A safari is much more about a creative, spiritual and cultural pilgrimage today than it has been in the past. Getting that right as a combination is tricky but very rewarding as an experience.
If you could turn back time, is there anything you’d do differently – lessons learned?
No. There is no going back. We are the result of our journey and the decisions we make, good and bad, and the lumps and scars are who we are. I would not change a moment, nor want to revisit any. I am living at the best moment of my life each day and looking forward to the next (mistakes).
Thank you, Dereck.
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