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Keeping the wild wild:
The human stories behind sustainable safaris

Words: Robert Langkjær-Bain

Photos courtesy of Nomad

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Safaris bring us face-to-face with nature, and remind us of the need to protect it. But behind these wild experiences lie the human stories of those who live and work alongside wildlife. And safari operators are increasingly making sure those stories get told.

Look out across the Serengeti from the back of a safari jeep, and it seems to go on forever. That’s what the name Serengeti means: endless plains. 

Yet even here, human footprints are never far away. 

Tanzania’s incredible wildlife makes it one of Africa’s top safari destinations, with lions, giraffes, elephants and zebras roaming its vast national parks. And yet the country has more species at risk of extinction than any other in the continent – and the reasons all have to do with human activity: habitat loss, pressure on resources, hunting and human-animal conflict.

Safari guests watch a cheetah in Ndutu, Southern Serengeti. The survival of wildlife like this depends on local people.

It’s not easy for the people here either. In the remote areas where safari guests go to witness the wild, incomes can be low and opportunities limited. Concerns about conservation must seem a long way off if a lion kills your goats or elephants trample your crops.

But humans and animals don’t have to be at odds with each other. Pius Masubo grew up on the edge of Serengeti in Tanzania and, without much education, started poaching for bush meat to sell. Now he works as a scout with a safari company called Nomad, and is training to become a guide. He hopes to be “a real example to other young men”.

For safari operators, and other businesses that rely on nature, the pandemic provided a reminder that conserving wildlife means coexisting with it. When tourism ground to a halt in 2020, nature didn’t simply “heal” in the absence of people. Conservation efforts funded by tourism were put on hold, lockdowns prevented conservation work going ahead, and illegal hunting became more tempting to people left without work. In this way, Covid made it impossible to ignore the role of people and tourism activity in keeping the wild wild.

An episode from Nomad’s video series The Conservation Conundrum.

Safaris done right

It’s a connection that has been recognised for a long time at Nomad, which was formed two decades ago from several smaller safari outfits. Director Alex Edwards says the founders were “adventurers” who built an outstanding safari business despite – or perhaps because of – being “extremely uncommercial”. “Always it was about looking after people,” Edwards said. “It was instinctive.” And the more remote the locations, the more important those relationships with local people became. 

The company now has 12 camps all over Tanzania, and nearly 280 employees. The heart of its business is, of course, running awesome safaris. But the revenues from these safaris also enable an extensive range of social programmes. Plus, Nomad benefits from an enviable logistical network of transport links, accommodation and local experts, and a golden opportunity for charitable fundraising, with guests donating anything from a few dollars to a few thousand.

As a result, more than 100 preschool kids on the edge of Mahale national park get daily meals. Young people – including some escaping child marriage and FGM – have been supported with courses, scholarships and internships in areas like guiding, photography, English, beekeeping and organic farming. Hundreds of residents in far-flung villages benefit from screening for disabilities, dental health and eye conditions, and dozens of children have received treatment in Arusha for conditions identified through screening.

Pupils learning at a school in Ngorongoro supported by Nomad.

Nomad’s long-established social outreach activities increasingly form part of the picture it paints for safari guests, alongside the images of elephants, cheetahs and gazelles. “Not only do we think this is the right way to treat people, we think our clients do too,” says Alex Edwards.

Kennedy John Koskey, a camp manager who has been with Nomad for more than 20 years, is proud of the company’s outreach work. “I don’t know of any other company that does what Nomad does in Tanzania,” he says. “We try and go to the local villages and educate the kids about how good a thing it is to protect the antelopes or the African wildcats or any wildlife they see, rather than seeing them as food.”

In Ngorongoro crater in the north of the country, Nomad works with an NGO called KopeLion, which empowers people to live safely alongside lions. Six lions have been GPS tagged to give early warning when they are near, and lion guardians known as ilchokuti use their knowledge of the local area and language to get the word out about what areas to avoid. As well as keeping people safe, the ilchokuti also guard lions from retaliatory attacks by people. KopeLion has also helped repair hundreds of livestock enclosures, recovered thousands of lost animals, and treated hundreds more for wounds.

This system is “much better” than the old way of simply compensating people for livestock lost to lions, says Kisika Muyani, who is approaching 30 and has lived around lions all his life. A long time ago, people would kill them,” he says. “People looked at lions like they are enemies. We are not killing them anymore.” 

Muyani used to work as a shepherd and is now a walking guide with Nomad, so his livelihood is tied in with wildlife protection. But as well as the economic incentive, there has been a cultural change, he believes. He tells how one of his friends was once injured by a lion in an attempt to prove his courage and strength. This kind of thing is in the past, Muyani says.

Kisika Muyani (centre) walking the rim of the Ngorongoro crater with Maasai and Nomad guides.

Extraordinary experiences, extraordinary people

Community-based conservation is an approach endorsed by the Tanzanian government, which uses a portion of the budget for the country’s national parks to support communities that live around them. But much of the work relies on revenue from tourism. Nomad’s Lucy Cole says that the health services the company brings to remote locations are otherwise “extremely hard to access”. In western Tanzania, “people would have to go on a boat for about 24 hours to go and get the types of services that we’re providing”.

The closeness with which communities are woven in with safari operations may come as a surprise to some tourists. But that’s what safaris are all about, says Alex Edwards: the unexpected. “You’ll have preconceived notions about what you’re going to see, but when a snake eagle catches a cobra six feet in front of your car, or when a leaf mantis – an insect the size of your hand – appears on your balcony, you never expected that. Safaris are just full of completely extraordinary events and unique encounters.”

A yellow-billed oxpecker resting on the back of a giraffe in the Serengeti. Safaris are all about the unexpected.

And those encounters aren’t limited to wildlife, they’re also about experiencing the relationship  between local communities and the nature around them. Guests may not realise that’s what they came on safari to see, but if we want to conserve these wild places for the future, it needs to be a part of the memories they take home.

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Nomad and 5

5’s sister organisation Social Capital Foundation is an investor in Nomad. 5 is an impact media foundation that’s here to help people and organisations maximise their impact by telling their stories. In some cases we also provide financial or other support. We produce our content independently and we don’t take payment for coverage.

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