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One Morning in the Mara
Sverker - Jun 27 2012 09:08 AM
Add your comments to this interview by clicking here.
Add your comments to this interview by clicking here.
Add your comments to this interview by clicking here.
Les Carlisle: Group Conservation Manager
With an endless string of accreditations to his name, as well as an impressive list of conservation firsts, many of which we are proud to say have been accomplished during his time at andBeyond, the preservation of wildlife has been a lifelong focus for Les. Pioneering the chemical immobilisation of giraffe and the capture of Cape buffalo, he has translocated countless hundreds of heads of game, some from as far apart as Texas, USA, back to South Africa.
Les’s history with andBeyond dates back to 1991 and includes everything from the project management of the construction of their first lodges to erecting more than 120 km of fencing and reintroducing more than 1 000 animals at andBeyond Phinda Private Game Reserve alone. His buffalo quarantine programme at Phinda led to new national protocol for buffalo on private land. He and andBeyond were the first to use sedation to socialise lions from different prides in acclimatisation pens prior to release, as well as the first to transport immobilised lions by air. The predator reintroduction programme he led at Phinda has been hailed as a shining example for all other efforts and his pioneering elephant reintroductions revolutionised international capture methodologies.
Les Carlisle and Larien Spies of andBeyond, www.andbeyond.com, invited Safaritalk members to submit their questions regarding the recent rhino translocation from Phinda in South Africa to Botswana, the original topic which can be found here. Further to this, the andBeyond press release documenting the translocation can be found here.
Is there any concern about mobile poachers wandering in from Zimbabwe or Mozambique?
Probably not in the Okavango Delta. The one advantage of the Delta is that it is a wetland and that makes it really difficult to get around. You really have to know the area not to get lost.
Is there realistic security in place to control any problems with poaching?
Absolutely. We have increased our private anti-poaching unit and committed one team dedicated to tracking rhino full time. The Botswana Department of Wildlife has also allocated a full anti-poaching unit for these rhino, plus we have a full-time researcher tracking them daily.
Have rhinos been in the area before, how well have they done?
Historically, the Delta has supported a healthy rhino population. In recent times, however, we have only had a cow/calf combination pass through the area. The pair didn’t stay for long – they typically move until they find other rhino or a physical barrier.
Given the recent disturbing trend of a tiny minority of visitors being the research part of poaching gangs and using mobile/cell phones to locate rhinos with GPS positions, is it intended to ban the use of cell phones on game drives?
These rhino were released in an area where there is no cell phone coverage so that isn’t an issue.
So the district names of where the rhinos are don't become known are the rangers going to talk on their radios using earpieces?
All andBeyond rangers in our South African reserves stopped calling in rhino two years ago.
In the same light anti-poaching, what is the access to the place, by plane only? If not under the guise of extra service are self-drive guest being meet in the car park to being helped with their luggage and checked that they don't have guns?
All of our lodges in the Delta are accessible by air only and guests have to clear security at Maun Airport before flying.
Understandably, for security reasons, previous rhino relocation and reintroduction projects in Botswana have been restricted to Chief's Island and the Mombo Concession of the Moremi Game Reserve - are there plans to reintroduce rhino to other parts of the Okavango Delta or other areas such as Linyanti and Kwando?
We have no such plans right now. This translocation will educate and guide us for future translocations.
What features or characteristics do you look at for a location before giving it a nod for translocation?
Most importantly in this instance, we asked the question, did the animals occur in the area before?
Is it important that the location is in the heart of protected zone with adequate buffer zones around it?
No, because the animals don’t follow an instruction to stay where it’s safe or where they were released. Upon release, they will move until they are comfortable or they hit a physical barrier such as a river or fence.
Do you think the poaching crisis has actually made translocations more difficult and challenging? i.e. if the crisis were not so bad in the last 3 years, we would have seen more translocation measures?
No, not necessarily, but what has happened is that the land owners who might have bought rhino in the past are not risking it now because it makes their property a target.
Do you work with other safari operators for such translocation?
Yes, we had great support from OWS for this translocation and they advised us while we were getting the project off the ground.
Are current efforts focussed in Southern Africa in general, focussed in Botswana or are there plans for East Africa?
Southern Africa holds 90% of the world’s rhino population, so it is expected to have the lion’s share of the activity. We are a private sector, conservation-driven operator with limited resources so can’t work everywhere. I am not aware of any big project in East Africa at the moment.
What are the economics of one such translocation if you could run us through the numbers?
Sure, using broad strokes, the value of the rhino (this varies but let’s use the 2013KZN Wildlife prices) is R250 000 per rhino x 6 = R1.5 million. The meetings, approval and permit process, capture, quarantine, transport and satellite/VHF telemetry and immobilisation costs are approximately R250k per rhino (approximately R1.5 million). Therefore the total project cost for six rhino would cost approximately R3 million.
Is there any kind of post-translocation monitoring and observation that you do that you could describe?
The rhino have been fitted with both satellite and VHF transmitters. We have a full-time researcher doing her PhD on the translocation, as well as a full-time tracking team from our anti-poaching unit. The Botswana Department of Wildlife’s anti-poaching unit has allocated a full-time team to the project.
For how long?
The satellite monitoring is for one year and we expect the VHF transmitters to last 18-24 months. The two tracking teams are employed permanently.
Before you would agree to translocation do you look into the buy-in, acceptance, support of the other operators, government, army, anything else?
Yes, everyone was included and this was coordinated through the Botswana Rhino Management Committee, a national board comprising the private sector and government.
What are your views on legalising rhino horn trade?
We have to legalize the trade in order to save the species. Rhino have to become more valuable alive than they are dead. This is not an attempt to reduce poaching, it is a species survival strategy.
Why do you feel Botswana is a safer location for the rhino, (assuming that you do) and are you sure it is going to stay that way?
Currently Botswana is a safer environment with support from the President down through all of the government and security departments. The national support and safety measures certainly motivated us.
Wouldn't there be populations much more at risk that those in Phinda, (again i am assuming it is well protected), and did you consider relocating those instead? (This question could be "Why those particular rhinos?" if you prefer.)
It is a matter of budget, as you would have to buy the other rhino and andBeyond Phinda donated these six.
What do people use the Rhino horn for? Is it just medicinal or do they serve cosmetic purposes like the elephant tusks.
There are many uses for rhino horn, including traditional medicine, status symbols, ornamental dagger handles, etc. The use of traditional medicine has been going on for more than 2 000 years, so we won’t change that easily or quickly.
What is poaching so prevalent is South Africa?
South Africa has the highest rhino population and therefore the highest poaching statistics. Wildlife poaching is on the rise overall, with Tanzania losing up to 10,000 elephants per year so we are not the only target.
How many rhinos are left in the wild?
Approximately 20 000 white rhino and 5 000 black rhino.
Is Rhino without borders a recognized charity to which we can make donation? Or is it only the name of the translocation operation?
Rhinos without borders is just the brand name behind the project. Africa Foundation is the charity organisation associated with the project. Anyone wishing to make a donation towards any of the conservation or community initiatives associated with andBeyond are welcome to contact the Africa Foundation at:
Johannesburg, South Africa:
Tel: +27 (0) 11 809 4429
Fax: +27 (0) 11 809 4345
E–mail enquiries: leavealegacy@AfricaFoundation.org.za
Block F, Pinmill Farm, 164 Katherine Street, Sandown, Gauteng, South Africa
PO Box 784826, Sandton 2146, South Africa
Maybe a stupid question, but rhinos cannot swim if I am correct.
I also believed this but these Rhino crossed from island to island without hesitation.
Don't you fear that some rhinos could drown in the Okavango delta.
No the water rises slowly so there is very little chance of them getting caught.
If they are on chief island, it s much dryer and safer for them than other places. (I saw once a rhino drowned after being pushed into a small river by another bull after a fight).
Yes it happens, very rarely but it does.
It's related to the previous question. How was the rhinos population in the delta and in Botswana in general 50-60 years ago? I guess there were lots of rhinos.
Yes apparently so!
With the trade in wildlife being such big business in South Africa, would you agree that this Trade is, in some way, fueling the extremely high levels of Poaching currently seen there?
The legal and live trade in wildlife is the reason that South Africa has wildlife in the first place. The live and legal trade has been going on for 35 years in South Africa the Rhino poaching levels only started worsening in 2009. I do not believe there is a connection between the current legal trade in wildlife and poaching. In Tanzania they have no live wildlife trade and they could potentially loose as many as 10 000 elephants this year alone.
What is the origin of these particular Rhinos? Were they purchased originally for your South Africa operations or particularly for Botswana?
These Rhino were donated to the people of Botswana by andBeyond.
Presumably the idea, in part, is to have these animals in your concession to attract more clients to your camps, what will you do when they, inevitably, wander off?
The idea was and is to establish a second viable breeding population in the delta. If this happens to be on another concession and not our concessions then all is still good and well.
As the Rhinos in Botswana were made extinct by Humans, what makes you think it is safer than South Africa as there are considerably fewer people per square kilometre in Botswana?
Yes they have been made extinct in the wild in Botswana twice. The difference this time around is the fact that Botswana now have a very conservation orientated President, and this is the best security you can have anywhere!
How will you gauge the success of your rhino translocation program?
The first phase has been an unequivocal success, all the rhino survived and are happily settles and ranging free in their new home. The second phase and project success will only be achieved once the population start breeding and growing and we look forward to this in the near future.
What are the qualifications for you Phinda rhino guards?
All the guards receive intensive specialist training…and training and more training. Their training has had to become much more military in order to deal with the nature of the threat the rhinos face.
On a side note, can you describe your Phinda rhino darting safari, where guests accompany rangers working in the field? Is it by vehicle or helicopter or both?
The guests who fund our rhino notching program follow the action from a vehicle alongside the ground crew vehicle whilst the darting is done by the veterinarian from a helicopter. We need both on site but as the darting requires the helicopter to be as light as possible to keep it safe we only have the pilot and vet in the helicopter. It is an absolutely incredible experience and those who have been fortunate enough to participate in conservation initiatives with andBeyond in the past have described them as life changing.
With 353 rhinos killed this year, (at the time this question was written), in South Africa alone, is translocation to a more secure country one of the more realistic options left to conservationists? If so, why?
With a devastating 428 rhino poached this year alone, we have to try every possible solution and translocation has successfully restored the species in the past.
What guarantees are there that these 6 rhino will not be poached, when other similar operations have failed previously?
We have absolute confidence in Botswana’s ability to protect its rhino as they have government support that is driven by the President himself, an avid conservationist at heart. We have no guarantees but what we do know is that we have given these rhino a fighting chance.
What happens if all are poached in the first year? How would that affect your input on further such projects?
In the extremely tragic event that this did happen we would have to review our plans for the next translocation.
What increase do you expect in visitor numbers once the rhinos have settled in to their new surroundings? How will they be used to increase tourism in Bots? How will these 6 rhino be marketed to tourists? When for instance there are plenty of other locations where sightings are "more or less" guaranteed?
This was a conservation initiative so we will only be measuring its success in conservation terms, any potential tourism benefits are great but not the focus of the project.
What interaction will there be for visitors? Eg the possibility of tracking on foot with the guards, possible conservation tourism where one can assist on the ground?
All these things may or may not be possible depending on where the rhino are at a given time and what the water levels are in the delta.
Can you foresee that in future, Botswana for instance will look to buy surplus rhino in game auctions and translocate without the assistance of a large operator, or are they keen to work in close co-operation with other entities such as yourselves?
There is a recent history of Rhino translocations into Botswana and we hope that all Botswana’s resources are focused on protecting the rhino that are there now. This will allow more industry leaders like andBeyond to focus on raising funds to further increase conservation efforts in all regions. This is a true partnership.
How have you marketed this internationally? (Aside from usual English language channels?) What is andBeyond's market share in Asian countries for instance? How can you use this as educational propaganda, instead of the anti Chinese/Vietnamese rhetoric that is so prevalent in some social media circles? Have you invited any news channels or outlets from China and Vietnam to report on the story for instance?
Good suggestion, however this was a conservation initiative. Changing 2000 years of tradition and beliefs is the role of the UN and Government not small private sector conservation led lodge operators. That said we documented this incredibly important initiative and have been releasing YouTube video’s as the project progressed. These video’s along with other vital project updates have been distributed to the international press and to the global public via social media channels. Key opinion leaders from select markets were also invited to attend certain legs of the translocation and we hope that collectively these efforts will drive small changes to make a big difference.
Would these 6 rhino stand a better chance of survival if they remained at Phinda? If so, why move them?
Phinda has been removing Rhino from the population to keep it breeding at a maximum rate for many years and these Rhino were earmarked for removal by the reserve management. I was delighted when they were offered to the Botswana project as a donation. The concept of translocation is the very reason why we have a healthy rhino population today and it helps to spread the risk. Healthy growing populations are the best sources of new founder population.
This translocation wouldn’t have been possible through the help of our generous sponsors.
Africa Foundation - www.africafoundation.org.za
RHINO FORCE - www.rhinoforce.co.za
Motorite Administrators - www.motorite.co.za
Chipembere Rhino Foundation - www.chipembere.org
Thanks everyone for your questions, Les Carlisle.
The images used to illustrate this interview are courtesy and copyright of Roger de la Harpe.
The views expressed therein are solely those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of Safaritalk.
Brett Thomson is the founder of Sun Safaris based in South Africa incorporating Sun Destinations and a number of safari camps, (Africa On Foot, nThambo and Umkumbe). Sun Destinations handles the marketing and reservations for all the camps. As such, it fits perfectly in Brett's vision; a travel agency with a focus on quality of the safari experience, that is based in Africa as close to the camps as one can get, that provides customers with the best safari advice, and with formulas that keep prices in check. Sun Safaris and the Sun Destination camps work tightly together, to create a safari product that's increasingly better and that's perfectly fit for customers from the other hemisphere.
To find out more, visit his website here - www.sunsafaris.com
Brett, you told me there are more camps that will join Sun Destinations soon. But until now you wouldn't give me more details. Can you please provide further info on these camps? Which ones are they? When are they joining? Where are they located? What do they offer?
The two new camps are Haina Kalahari Lodge (www.haina.co.za) and then Ngwesi Houseboat (www.ngwesi.co.za). Haina is located on a private reserve just north of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and then Ngwesi is moored at Shakawe near the top of the Delta. Haina offers a unique safari experience in that guests are exposed to animals like bat eared fox, gemsbok, eland etc – animals that one does not see in the more famous reserves. It has an awesome little waterhole in front of the lodge as well. I could sit there all day just watching a procession of animals coming to drink. Of course there is the Bushmen Experience as well – a lot of guests are looking for cultural experiences these days. Ngwesi is obviously a birders paradise and most of the guests are also looking to fish for Tiger Fish.
How do you see the future for Klaserie and Timbavati, in terms of eco-tourism? Will they become as well known as Sabi Sands?
In my experience, agents that know their business, to them, the Timbavati is just as famous as the Sabi Sand. The Klaserie less so, but it is building and building. When I first got involved in Africa on Foot and subsequently nThambo Tree Camp, the Klaserie was not that well known. But Courteney and Cecilia and I worked hard at letting people know that the Klaserie is just as incredible as its better known cousins. You know Courteney and the Rangers have done an awesome job at habituating the animals on our traverse. It doesn’t just happen overnight and since 2007 the game viewing has just become better and better because of the principled approach of Courteney and the team. Plus the quality of trackers and rangers in the 3 camps in the Klaserie has also helped put Klaserie on the map.
Of course the Sabi Sand has 30 to 50 years of marketing behind it, so I doubt the Klaserie will ever be as famous, but truth be told that’s fine by us – we like the less commercialness!
What about the Mozambique side of Kruger? Will more eco-tourism projects be developed there as well?
I don’t really know, but from what I can see, there is the will to create more eco-tourism there, but in my opinion it is just not accessible enough at this stage.
How do you see the future for Botswana's eco-tourism following the recent decision to ban hunting from 2014?
From the figures I have seen, the benefits of Photographic Tourism far outweigh that of hunting. So it seems that when the leases of the hunting concessions are coming to an end, they are being handed over to Photographic operators. However maybe for disingenuous reasons? Anyway, I think this is going to help more people visit Botswana. At the moment, apart from a few, most of the Botswana camps are too expensive for most people (this is not to say they are not full – as there are a lot of wealthy people out there!). But as more camps come on board I am sure the prices will drop with more competition. I am not sure how this will affect Botswana’s mantra of low volume and high quality however. It will be interesting as I am sure the Concessions will not be inexpensive and running a remote safari camp is not cheap!
nThambo camp - central building & room
Why do you think Sun Safaris became so successful so quickly? To what specific things do you attribute this success, i.e. with so many companies out there, what made you stand out from the crowd?
Well Sun Safaris certainly “did not make it” for a long time. I started the business part time, so for 3 years from 2002 to 2005 I was running it while I had a full time job. It was only in 2005 that things started happening. Being “first to market” was a definite help in terms of SEO – www.sunsafaris.com is a very old domain name, so Google ranks this highly (or at least used to!) so I started getting a lot of organic queries. That certainly helped. But things have changed now, and it is hard work (and expensive work!) generating enquiries. I also think that offering good, honest advice, and genuinely wanting a person to enjoy their safari, visit the right camps at the right time, also helped. It was only me initially I and used to meet the guests at the airports, help them on their way etc, so I think that worked. To this day all the Sun Safaris Consultants are instructed to send guests to the right camps based on their budget, season etc. We don’t try and “upsell”. So at this stage and to address your last question, I think what makes us stand out right now is the quality and experience of our Consultants. In addition, I sold shares to Lance Harcourt in 2007/8 and Lance has complimentary skills to what I have and I think we balance each other out in making decisions.
What 3 tips or advice would you give to anyone thinking of entering the field? In other words, what are the absolute must-haves for this profession?
You have to get enquiries You have to have seen the camps/areas first hand, and you have to be able to communicate with all sorts of different people and nationalities. But quite simply – you need enquiries, ie people walking through your shopfront!
In the saturated Safari market that is South Africa, with so many different options at various price alternatives, what are you offering with your camps that is different?
Africa on Foot was VERY different to anything in the Kruger when it first opened. In my opinion it actually took a while before people started appreciating it for what it is. I think the Kruger safari options became too “lodge” like and “hotel” like, whereas Africa on Foot has always been a camp – as well as nThambo. I feel that there is a difference, and I believe that in conjunction with Umkumbe Safari Lodge we have catered to guests that are coming more for the wildlife, camp fires, drinks by the bar, chats to the rangers and trackers; a more relaxed environment. Remember also that at all the camps, the owners are around all the time, and this also creates a nice atmosphere. In addition at all 3 camps, we have always had excellent rangers and trackers – this always makes a huge difference. Oh yes – and value – I believe the camps offer value.
Africa on Foot: bush walk.
Africa on Foot: what was the inspiration behind this and what has guest feedback been thus far?
Africa on Foot was Courteney & Cecilia Blunden’s brainchild. Cecilia’s family has always owned the farm (Ross) on which Africa on Foot is built (within the Klaserie) and it used to be a place where the family would go for weekends and holidays. Courteney was a ranger and Cecilia was in the lodge business and they decided to open a camp on Ross that would focus on walking safaris. Courteney came up with the fantastic name!
Guest feedback has been superb. Its not everyone’s idea of a safari (and thank heavens we are all different) but over the years it has attracted people that yearn for a comfortable camp, where they can walk in the bush, go on game drives, learn from the rangers and trackers, sit by a campfire under the stars, eat good old hearty meals and help themselves to a beer and glass of wine. Plus there is the Treehouse option, which guests enjoy a lot.
Ngwesi houseboat - dinner time
How important is social media for smaller concerns such as yourself, fairly new and lacking the reputation of the more established players?
Social Media has definitely helped us. We are very active on Facebook and Twitter and the Blogs. It’s not new to us and we have installed wifi at the Klaserie Camps and Haina and guests are sharing their sightings with friends and family stuck at home! It’s great. Social Media is actually an opportunity to “steal a march” on some of the more established players as it is inexpensive to get involved and create the platforms for users to generate content.
How do you see the future of travel marketing, especially with regard to safari tourism? For example, can operators and owners continue to rely upon the tried and tested agent/commission model?
You need everything working for you. The web-based travel agents send a lot of business, the traditional travel world send a lot of business, direct guests come though. You need them all sending you business otherwise you are not going to fill the camps. I don’t think anyone is more important than the other. I think you need to structure your rates to appeal to everyone, and to be fair to everyone. We love agents. We love direct guests. We love them all because they help us stay open and we enjoy having guests visit the camps!
In the event that a client is not satisfied, how do you go about addressing the issue? What is your advice to someone who is not satisfied? When should they raise issues, whilst on safari or having returned, and with whom should they raise concerns? (Generally)
My advice is for guests to raise their issues right there and then at the camp. I think some people, lets say that their toilet seat is broken, seethe and fester that thought in their mind their entire stay, don’t tell anyone and then probably run over their horrendous Tripadvisor report over and over before they finally post their damning review upon their return! When all that it took was an “Excuse me my shower is not working, can you fix it” and everything would be OK! Go straight to the Camp Managers, that’s my advice. I don’t know of any camps that would purposefully not want guests to enjoy themselves/be happy with their stay.
Hmmm... it's quite a novelty to ask a travel agent questions. I am trying to think of some as I am sure there is quite a lot I would like to know. Not easy for me though as I haven't traveled in South Africa. I'm not going to make them up to be polite, but for me the following are actually a bit interesting.
Honestly, why did you agree to be interviewed here? Do you keep up with forums? Which ones? What can a travel agent gain through a presence on forums and do you have any thoughts on why some seem to work with them quite comfortably while others appear to be uncomfortable - even ham-fisted? How do African travel agents view forums do you think? (No need to be shy about the last one, we are all confident that we are the exception! ). I imagine that forums are pretty low on the list of priorities for marketing - is that an accurate perception?
I agreed to be interviewed because I think some Forum users could know that not all agents are the devil personified! When Tripadvisor first came out I used to offer my advice. I soon realized that agents are not viewed in a positive light and there are a lot of opinionated people out there. Especially when they are anonymous! So I lost interest pretty quickly and I don’t really follow the forums – well Tripadvisor and Fodors at least. I come onto SafariTalk to generally catch up and see what people are talking about.
Some agents definitely use the forums as a way of generating business, and why not, from the responses I see them responding with, they actually are offering fantastic advice! So what’s wrong with that? Some agents just can’t help but offer their advice sometimes!
Sun Safaris does not use the forums at all to generate enquiries. I do however think they are great for helping those guests who enjoy arranging everything themselves and direct.
Do you view Trip Advisor reviews as a real opportunity (because e.g. you have near-100% customer satisfaction so you will generally show up very well) or a bit of an unpredictable monster? Do you target it at all? (I don't mean manipulate - I mean the ethical stuff you could do as a marketer, rather than ignoring it.)
I love to hate Tripadvisor! I love it when the review is good and I have a sinking feeling in my stomach when we get the odd bad one! At this stage we are established enough, and learnt our lessons from the bad ones, to be confident that the reviews will generally all be positive. I think it is tougher for safari lodges on Tripadvisor as you cant control the main thing guests are coming for – game viewing! As good as your rangers and trackers can be, they simply cannot ensure that a guest will see a lion and leopard. It affects their experience and their feedback.
Umkumbe - Owner Herman driving his guests around
It's natural for me to see myself as a typical safari consumer, but it is becoming clearer and clearer that I am not. You've set out on a certain path and reading between the lines and seeing what you have done I think it is likely you used to have quite a lot in common with many of the members here in one way or another. My suspicion is that more and more people are coming to Africa for shorter periods as just another place on the bucket list rather than for real adventure and intense experience, but that is probably not really true. What are your thoughts on how the safari market is changing, (if at all,) and what that means for you as, (i), a travel agent and, (ii), a camp operator? (Please go as far outside your own personal experience as you feel comfortable.) Do other travel agents/ camp operators say the same sort of thing?
I don’t really think people are coming for shorter periods. People come on holiday to South Africa for example and they want to see Cape Town and the Kruger, perhaps the Garden Route and then if they have time Victoria Falls. People coming to Botswana want to see the Okavango and Chobe – because that’s what they know and hear about. It’s very difficult to convince them to go somewhere else. So I think that you need to create value. It all comes down to budget, matching their budget with the properties that are suited to their budget and also their comfort expectations.
Also – the safari bug bites some people – both the camps and Sun Safaris have plenty of repeat guests that after their first safari they come back again and again – so they are definitely experiencing something new or adventurous each time they come?
I am not sure if I have answered your questions above?
There seem to be fewer and fewer of the owner-operated camps, or even really independent camps nowadays. Some people say service is better and camps are nicer, and some people say camps are losing their character. Do you have any thoughts on that - either as a camp operator or, (presumably), as a visitor to other camps from time to time? What were your favorite camps 10 years ago and what are your favorite camps now, (excluding your own of course)?
There are still a good few owner operated camps out there – perhaps a lot of them lose that identity because they band together to form a marketing company in order to be more efficient & to get economies of scale in their marketing. But I know what you mean – there are some fantastic camps out there, that I have visited before (about 5-7 years ago) that when I went back, had lost that little something that they had. And you know what, its not necessarily the camps fault, it’s the guests fault! I think they have been threatened so many times with legal stuff that they have had to become politically/legally correct in how they do things. How the camp is built, how the safari is run etc. I hope you know what I mean?!
Anyway – my favourite camps – and this excludes the ones I am involved with(!) – are Tubu Tree in Botswana, Old Mondoro in the Lower Zambezi and Little Makalolo in Hwange. Both 10 years ago and today – they are amazing wildlife areas. I particularly love the Mana Pools and Lower Zambezi.
Do you find safaris themselves less alluring after a time in the business? Does it get old?
Going to the bush never gets old, but going on educationals gets old! But these days the Sun Safaris Consultants go on educationals (as they have to experience the camps/areas first hand) and they love it! Maybe because it gets them away from their desks! When I visit the camps its more the camps I am involved with so am lucky enough to my own thing and go out on drives with just the owners and myself – so the sundowner stop is a little longer than normal!
By going for your own business, rather than working for someone else I take it that you want to be independent and offer something new, such as a good booking service and camp facilities for those who don't have massive wallets and want something much closer to nature : what is this your long term vision?
Honestly, personally, I love working for myself and being my own boss. I was in the Corporate World for a long time and positively did not like the restrictions. So for Sun Safaris, my long term goal is to be able to have it run so efficiently by staff so that I can spend more time in the bush and maybe a bit more involved in wildlife conservation contribution. Plus I want to leave a business for my family/kids and for my retirement – so that I can play golf. Preferably at Fancourt.
Then for Sun Destinations, at this stage we would love to have more camps under the Portfolio, but first things first – get the current camps running at 70% plus occupancies and we will be happy!
Both Jan and Harvey, rangers from Nthambo have backgrounds working at Lion Sands, is this coincidence or by design? What qualities are you looking for when employing new staff?
Courteney used to guide at Lion Sands so he has friends there, and he has been responsible for bringing in all our superb guides and trackers. He doesn’t mess around, so you know they are quality! Also, guides at Africa on Foot generally want to lead trails, so they have to have slightly different qualifications.
In line with Pault's question above, I have no serious interest in travelling to anywhere outside Africa so what does Sun Safaris have to offer me ? Especially as I am not interested in luxury places but those which are more affordable and closer to nature?
There are a lot of superb options in Zimbabwe right now – I would look at places like Kavinga, Changa, Kanga, Vundu, Davissons and then Sango in the Khwai area, Oddballs in the Delta. Old Mondoro in the Lower Zambezi, Busanga Bush Camp in the Kafue, Lufupa in Kafue and Leopard Lodge in Kafue. There are plenty of options out there more interested in the real stuff as opposed to percale cotton sheets and heated towel rails and mini bars. BUT – there is also room for those fancy places – we are all different – each to their own in my opinion. I suppose that’s where a good agent comes in – they can point you in the right direction based on your budget and taste.
What can a Sun Consultant do for my trip planning over and above my own research online and advice from those members of Safaritalk?
Probably offer you a rate slightly under Rack! So less expensive than going direct. Plus some help on the ground should things go wrong. A few little extras because of our relationships, particularly where we send a lot of business. The experience to not book certain flights/routes because we know they never work, will always get delayed, or be cancelled. To check availability, make sure all connections work, ensure all transfers are in order. Take that stress away from you.
What percentage of your clients are repeat visitors?
I don’t have exact figures, but I reckon about 20-30% at this stage each month.
The food was very good at Africa on Foot and Nthambo in 2011 and considerably improved in 2012: are you finding that visitors to your camps are having higher expectations when it comes to cuisine than before?
We really like it when guests leave the camps Fat & Flourishing! Thanks for the nice comments. The food has always been hearty and tasty and local at Africa on Foot, and then when we changed nThambo to a fully inclusive camp we had to up our game somewhat in terms of presentation and maybe a few fancier touches here and there. At Umkumbe we have fantastic boerekos and a new chef, and at Haina I put on 2kg in 2 days – it was delicious and superb! But yes, people do have high expectations, so all the camps work hard at meeting peoples’ expectations on food. There has been a concerted effort from all the camps over the past year so I am glad to hear that you enjoyed it!
The views expressed therein are solely those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of Safaritalk.
In late November each year, I lead a 3-night birding trip to Pafuri Camp in the northern Kruger National Park. One of the days is spent seeing how many species we can record in a 24-hour period whilst the remainder of the trip is spent searching for some of the Pafuri ‘specials’. One of the target species on these trips is always a Three-banded Courser as it is a bird which reaches the southern end of its distribution at Pafuri (there have however been sightings of Three-banded Coursers further south in the Kruger Park over the last few years - about 10 minutes ago, I received news of one near Shimuwini in December 2012). As a result of its distribution, people often require it for their South Africa list.
On 16 November 2012, I set out on a morning game-drive from Pafuri Camp with 4 guests. We planned to spend some time in some of the mopane woodland habitats found at Pafuri in search of the Three-banded Courser. We had found a nesting Three-banded Courser on our trip to Pafuri in November 2011 so we were all rather hopeful.
Shortly after entering the first patch of mopane woodland, Allon yelled that we had just driven past a Three-banded Courser. I asked where and he informed me that it was right next to the road. I reversed the vehicle to where I could see the bird and I immediately realised that the bird was sitting on a nest.
I positioned the vehicle so that we could all see the bird, but parked some distance away as I did not want to frighten the bird as it was right next to the road. This was interesting to note as I have seen 2 other Three-banded Courser nests at Pafuri which were located right next to the road, one of these being the nest we had seen on our trip to Pafuri in November 2011. In his book “Nests & Eggs of Southern African Birds”, Warwick Tarboton makes mention of the fact that Three-banded Coursers often nest on road verges. There could be something in this or it could simply be due to the fact that it is a tricky bird to see and one typically tends to view it if only if it is close to the road. I captured the first image of the bird at 6:29 am.
We all trained are binoculars on the bird and after a while it briefly stood up. This allowed us to notice that the bird had a tiny chick beneath it. When the bird stood up a second time we all had a view of an egg on the ground. Here was a Three-banded Courser right next to the road with a recently hatched chick and an egg that was still to hatch. When the bird stood up for the third time, Johan, one of the guests on the vehicle said that he had seen that the chick inside the egg was busy hatching. Not wanting to miss this, we sat patiently and watched as events unfolded.
After a few minutes, the bird stood up again and this time we had our first views of the newly-hatched Three-banded Courser as it lay in the scrape of a nest.
We now had a view of both chicks together.
By this time, the non-incubating adult bird had appeared. The incubating bird proceeded to carry the pieces of egg shell away from the nest and the non-incubating bird began to eat them.
The bird that had been incubating the egg then returned to the two chicks. She immediately sat back down covering the newly-hatched chick beneath her wings. The chick that had hatched first now stood in front of the incubating bird and after a short while, it headed beneath the safety of the adult’s wing to join its recently hatched sibling.
I took the picture of the adult bird with both chicks beneath it at 6:46 am which meant that all of this had happened in the space of 15 minutes.
We decided that we would head off as we did not want to place too much stress on the birds. We agreed that we would return the following morning to see what had transpired. We returned the following morning and arrived at the site of the nest at 6:30 am.
There was no sign of any of the birds. We slowly drove back down the road and then spotted the Three-banded Coursers about 70 metres from where we had seen them the previous day. They were still in the mopane woodland. We initially had views of two adult birds, but as we looked closer, we managed to spot the two chicks. One of them was lying beneath an adult bird and the other was huddled up next to a small branch. We watched them for a while and left them in peace when they both curled up beneath an adult bird.
Sara Blackburn graduated from the University of London with a BSc in Zoology, and quickly joined the Living With Lions team to run the Mara Predator Project (MPP), which she began in 2007. She created the MPP lion identification database and developed the project to involve lodge guides and visitors to participate in monitoring lions throughout the northern Masai Mara ecosystem. She has since adapted her system to the Laikipia and Amboseli Living With Lions study areas to facilitate lion monitoring in these regions. Alongside conservation and ecology, Sara has a keen interest in photography and art, which has facilitated her lion identification work.
Sara is still early in her career, and will soon be joining Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation and Research Unit to carry out a doctorate and further her work in lion research and conservation. She plans to conduct her research on the Mara lion population, and is especially interested in the impact of the conservancies on the ecology of lions in the region.
To find out more about Sara’s work and that of the Mara Predator Project, you can visit the website at www.livingwithlions.org/mara. The MPP website features the online database of study lions, and also provides lots of information on how to identify lions.
Ecological monitoring. What does this term mean and how important is it for the survival of the Mara’s lion population?
Ecological monitoring is important in understanding how and why populations changes over time, so that we can apply effective conservation techniques. Without knowing how many lions we have, we do not know if we need to increase conservation efforts. Nor can we assess how effective any conservation methods are without following how the population responds. This is most important in regions outside of national parks and reserves, such as our study area within the northern Masai Mara conservancies.
How are you monitoring lions within the Mara?
As most lions in the Mara are accustomed to vehicles, we monitor them by identifying individuals and tracking them by sight. Lions have a unique pattern of whisker spots on each side of the face, similar to the human fingerprint. As this pattern remains the same from birth until death, we are able to recognize individuals despite changes in their appearance, for example, mane length. We widen our monitoring efforts through citizen science, so non-scientists and members of the general public can contribute data. By training guides in a number of lodges across the region to identify lions, record simple yet accurate data, and involve their guests, we are able to monitor lions over a large area without excessive field costs. Most of our monitored lions are on an online database, and visitors to the northern Mara region can interact with the website to both identify lions and report their sightings.
How long has the Mara project been running and what changes have you seen to the lion population in this time? To what factors do you attribute these changes?
We have been running the Mara Predator Project within the northern conservancies and communal land for almost 4 years. We have recorded short and long term declines not only in lion numbers but in pride size and distribution. Essentially, monitoring needs to continue for several more years to determine whether this decline is a short term fluctuation in the population or an on-going trend. At this stage, we cannot confidently attribute rises in the size and spread of pastoralist communities to this decline, but human wildlife conflict has certainly been a major factor. The recent development of conservancies such as the Mara North, Olare Orok, Motorogi, Ol Kinyei, and Mara Naboisho Conservancies appears to have had a positive result on lion numbers, cub survival and pride size.
What has the monitoring taught you about lion activity in the study area and, conversely, what has it not, that perhaps you expected it to?
Firstly, we have confirmed that the Mara has one of the highest densities of lion in Africa, and that the communal and conservancy lands support a significant portion of this population. Lion activity in the Mara is similar to other natural populations in comparable environments, but we do see differences between the Masai Mara National Reserve (MMNR) and the conservancies – lion outside of the MMNR are less active during the day, almost certainly due to higher numbers of cattle and people. We do see cases of livestock depredation, but the number of livestock killed is low in relation to the number of lion in comparison with some other regions, probably due to high numbers of wild prey.
What things have surprised you?
I have been surprised at the small pride home ranges, and also at how quickly lions react to changes in livestock movements and are either disturbed in their behaviour or quickly leave the area. I have also been surprised by male lion behaviour – some prides have seen four different males in as many years; because new males usually kill a pride’s small cubs, frequent male turnovers probably reduce cub survival. Nomadic males can be pushed into other pride areas by livestock, and males have also been lost to conflict.
How can the model of lion monitoring that you have developed for the Mara be applied to other areas?
Our monitoring methods can and have been applied to other areas where lions are not elusive. If they can be approached by a vehicle, or photographed from a distance, they can be identified, and therefore tracked during daylight hours. Our monitoring methods are not only helpful in answering a number of ecological questions, but in further engaging the local Maasai community and visiting tourists in monitoring efforts. This helps to remind local people of the importance of lions in their own livelihoods, and also helps convey the message that there are often fewer lions than people think.
Which are the operators and lodges that work with the project and what kind of help do they give you?
Several lodges have engaged positively with our work. Serian Camp and Alex Walker gave us a home and immense support while we documented lion numbers and movements throughout the Mara North Conservancy. Kicheche Camps and Lodges have assisted with monitoring within Lemek, Mara North and Olare Orok Conservancy; Porini Camps and Gamewatchers Safaris have allowed us to expand into Ol Kinyei Conservancy. Several other independent lodges throughout the region have also assisted – Saruni Lodge, Governors’ Camp, Rekero, Mara Plains, Kichwa Tembo and Elephant Pepper Camp to name a few. African Impact plays a key role in identifying and monitoring lions within Mara Naboisho Conservancy. We hope to partner with several other lodges across the region as we continue and expand our monitoring efforts.
Essentially, lodges help us by allowing their guides to be trained to identify and collect data on lions they encounter on game drives. They also help by engaging their guests, whose photographs we use for lion identification. Lodge managers and owners have also contributed a large number of essential identification images and key local pride information.
What affect does the ever increasing number of lodges and camps in the Mara region have on lion pride dynamics and behaviour?
The Mara is constantly seeing increases in development, and the increasing number of vehicles surely impacts the environment. Of course, lion within the region are now accustomed to vehicles, but vehicles do on occasion interfere with natural behaviour such as hunting efforts and protecting cubs. Overdevelopment does disrupt prey movements and habitat availability, and young lions are often wary of vehicles. Harassment can lead to lionesses moving cubs more frequently, and can reveal their presence to hyena and other threats. However, I would say that tourism is the one human activity over which we should be least concerned. The increase in number of people and cattle is far more significant. It is also important to weigh the pros and cons of tourism. Lion and other animals survive in the region because they are the source of tourism generated income; without this, game is simply an inconvenience to local people, and competition for livestock and land.
How do you affect dialogue with the Maasai communities in and around the study area and how receptive are they?
Alongside monitoring, the main aim of Living With Lions (the parent organization behind the Mara Predator Project) is to help reduce human wildlife conflict. We do this by encouraging local communities to resume the traditional livestock husbandry practices that are effective in preventing conflict with predators, such as secure bomas, and diligent herding by young men instead of children. We have an educational video that reiterates these methods, and we show this throughout the communities. Engaging with the guides and lodge staff is also very important - they help communicate the importance of tolerating and protecting lion to their communities. We try to reinforce the connection between lions, local jobs, and income.
How does one begin to educate to the Maasai, who can rightly claim that they have existed side by side with lions for long before conservation organisations came into being? What are the most important issues to educate them about? For example, how do you work
with them in the construction of more secure cattle bomas?
It is true that the Maasai have coexisted with lions in the past. However, this was when there were far fewer Maasai, and far more lions. Quite simply, lion were abundant, and able to survive a low rate of human-caused losses. However, a small lion population cannot survive large losses. Lion numbers have plummeted due a relatively recent breakdown of tolerance by local people and an increase in the potency and availability of lethal methods of control, particularly the use of poison. The current level of conflict has resulted in sharply declining lion populations.
The most important issues are those of tolerance and preventing lions from taking cattle. We know how to greatly reduce or even stop livestock depredation, and local pastoralists are beginning to recognize that wildlife makes a positive contribution to their lives – the income a landowner receives from land rent, job income, community development and trade from tourism vastly outweighs the cost of a single depredation event. To kill a lion in retaliation for a small loss in livestock does not balance the books. The Anne Kent Taylor Foundation assists Maasai in this region in building very strong predator proof bomas by providing materials at half price, and LWL education programmes try to remind people that their traditional practices were very effective at protecting livestock from predators. Through detailed population monitoring, we are also able to measure and evaluate the effects of different preventative methods on lion populations, assisting conservancy management.
Just how serious are the Maasai about protecting the lion population in your study area?
The answer to this depends on personal circumstances and situations. Many of the newer generation of educated Maasai guides recognise the importance of lions for their income and see the positive effects of tourism for their communities. However, many local pastoralists remain intolerant of lions despite the fact that their growing herds are financed by land rent from the conservancies. Cultural beliefs and social pressure are sometimes more important in determining attitudes than current economic realities. Cattle have a huge value to the Maasai beyond their financial worth – they also determine social status. Few Maasai are prepared to lose cattle to lions but many are willing to sell a cow to fund half the cost of improving their bomas. The establishment of the conservancies has been a major positive step, as they pay several million dollars per year to local landowners in return for good conservation practices. As a result, there has been an increase in tolerance and a reduction in retaliatory killings as people begin to realise that predators are central to their tourism income.
Livestock compensation schemes: how do they work? Do they work? What is the possibility that such a program is open to abuse? What has your experience been of compensation schemes in the greater Mara area?
Livestock compensation schemes which reimburse herders who have lost livestock look great on paper, but are open to abuse through falsified claims, and also encourage poor livestock management – why look after your livestock if someone will pay you when a lion eats it? Compensation also can lead to blackmail – people killing wildlife to underscore demands for higher payments. My personal opinion on compensation schemes is that they make the long term situation worse. They are costly, open ended, and dependent on donor funding. They do not promote positive change or tolerance, and can encourage bad herding practices. Sustainable conservation must come from the communities and not be dependent on outside organizations.
What steps are being taken to improve animal husbandry practices in the region?
Some conservancies are encouraging changes such as increased herder age and zoned grazing grounds, and are also working to improve herds: Anne Kent Taylor is also operating around the Mara Conservancy to help pastoralists to make their bomas predator proof.
Retaliatory killings: Maasai spearings, furadan poisoning, poaching with snares etc, all contributing to the declining lion numbers - what is the prevalence of each in the Mara study area and what steps are being taken to combat them?
Retaliatory killings account for several lion deaths per year throughout the Mara region, mostly by spearing and poisoning. Conservancy management ranger teams work with the Kenya Wildlife Service to prevent lion killing, but prosecution is rare. Many predators die in snares set for antelope, but I believe that bushmeat poaching has been significantly reduced by the conservancies’ ranger teams.
Agriculture: how much financial compensation are the current conservancies bringing local communities compared to agriculture? If the latter is likely to be more beneficial, what will stop these conservancy stakeholders, (Maasai), pushing to increase agricultural production?
Agriculture is a threat to the Mara ecosystem and much of the northern region has been lost to wheat farming. However, the conservancies provide more financial compensation to Maasai landowners for tourism than they would gain from agriculture. Tourism in the region also supplies a large number of jobs and a respectable amount of trade to local communities.
How are declining game numbers, (reported as between 50 and 70%), affecting the various prides behaviour? How far have you recorded lions ranging from their traditional areas?
Without a longer study and comparative behavioural studies, we can’t confidently quantify the effect of declining game on the Mara’s lion population. All wildlife has declined steadily in the region, but many factors have contributed to this. Sustainable cattle grazing within the conservancies does work to attract game by keeping grass short and lush, and I have noted that prides within the conservancies have relatively stable ranges throughout the year. Lions within the Musiara region – the Marsh Pride – do range several km outside of the MMNR on a yearly basis when game becomes scarce. This behaviour increases the risk of encounters between cattle and lions, and can result in a higher number of depredation and retaliation events. However, I do not believe that prey availability within the Mara region is a significant factor in the decline of lions – if one encounters a starving lion in the Mara, it is almost always due to injury than by lack of food. Again, it is more a case of encroaching cattle and human populations that is driving the decline.
What is the future for the Mara Study and how dependent are those plans on large scale donor funding? What is the cost each day of running the study and how can small level donations, made by readers of Safaritalk, for example, help?
Our work depends entirely donations. We need to expand our team beyond one primary researcher and also hire several more Maasai assistants to expand our educational work. We are also restricted by only having one small vehicle. Personal donations go a long way in covering fuel and other running costs, which are around $40 a day. Donations can be made through the website here.
I hope that the Mara Predator Project will continue for several decades, for many reasons. It is important that we conduct a long term study if we are to fully understand population changes in the Mara. It is also important that conservancy management teams are provided with on-going data to help in their conservation efforts and measure their results. The project also directly benefits local lion conservation, most notably by involving Maasai guides in our efforts and conducting conservation education within local communities. I believe that education and long term community-driven changes are the best approach to conservation.
Aside from interaction with the study through your website and social media, how can tourists learn about your work whilst staying in Kenya? How can you better involve them? For instance, do you give talks and presentations at the camps and lodges which support you? If so, how successful have they been and what is the reaction from the tourists who meet you? What is your request of tourists visiting the area?
We do give presentations at lodges and also occasionally able to accompany tourists on game drives when they are interested in the project. The overall reaction is extremely positive – being able to recognise individual lions is an exciting and rewarding experience, and both guides and guests form a bond with individual lions and prides. It’s like a real time BBC ‘Big Cat Diary’, and I do enjoy sharing guests’ enthusiasm. We encourage our trained guides to their guests about the individual lions if they are interested, and again, this gets very positive reactions. At some of the participating lodges we have laptops set up with the online database so that guests can identify lions they saw on their game drives. Our leaflets encourage guests to upload their photos for us, too. If regular tour guides and visitors to the Mara could also share their photographs with us, and even try to GPS tag their images, it would be another great help to our monitoring efforts.
Why is the monitoring of lion’s behaviour so important? What new things can be learnt that are not already known, and how would you respond to the idea that with fast declining numbers, more focus, effort, financial assistance etc should be put on protection and anti-poaching measures rather than more research and monitoring?
We know a lot about natural lion behaviour from many in depth and long term studies. Now, with humans being the major threat to lions, the most important research questions lie in how lions behave in relation to human presence and activity, and also how local communities react to the presence of predators. It is important that we understand how lions behave in areas frequented by livestock and people, and ultimately how they learn to coexist alongside humans, as these are becoming the typical conditions which many lion populations must deal with.
In fact, research and monitoring costs very little compared to anti-poaching and other law enforcement activities. Monitoring populations is an essential part of conservation work – again, without knowing how many lions we have, and how populations are changing in relation to both human pressures and conservation actions, we do not know if our hard work is having any effect. The most effective use of conservation funding is in minimising human threats such as retaliatory killing, alongside effective monitoring.
What are your concerns for the future of the lion prides in the study area?
The speed at which human and livestock numbers are growing in the Mara region is alarming, and many predict that without intervention, the Mara may lose its lions and other wildlife within a couple of decades. Over four years we have seen a decline in the number and size of prides, and also a reduction in areas frequented by lions. I expect that this trend will continue if human numbers continue to increase within the region. However, the conservancies have been remarkably effective in forestalling further development by paying local people excellent income for effective wildlife conservation.
The views expressed therein are solely those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of Safaritalk.