When Luke Bailes, 61, was growing up in Durban, South Africa, his family spent many of their holidays at his grandfather’s 15,000-acre wildlife reserve, Castleton, on the western edge of Kruger National Park. There, Mr. Bailes would drive through the plains to catch sightings of lions, elephants, rhinos and zebras. At the same time, in other parts of the country, these animals were being poached or hunted and their numbers were declining.
Compelled to find a way to protect the wildlife that he loved seeing, Mr. Bailes eventually bought the land from his family after his grandfather died and built a luxury safari camp, Singita Ebony Lodge, in the midst of the reserve. “I decided that tourism would be my way to grow my conservation footprint,” he said. “Hunting on the reserve was illegal and we had guards to watch for poachers.”
That first Singita opened in 1993, and today there are 11 more in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Tanzania, and another scheduled to open in 2019 in Rwanda. In all, Singita protects one million acres of plains on the continent and is known in the travel industry as one of Africa’s most conservation-focused safari camp companies.
Below are edited excerpts from a recent conversation with Mr. Bailes, the executive chairman of Singita.
Can you talk about the mission that led you to start Singita?
I wanted to protect the beautiful wildlife Africa has. This is still my mission today. Poaching continues to be a big problem — rhinos and elephants are killed for their horns, and the different body parts of lions and leopards are highly prized. Also, Africa’s rapid population growth is putting an enormous pressure on the natural resources, which, in turn, has a negative impact on the animals.
In addition to managing wildlife concessions throughout Africa, you have other initiatives to help protect the wildlife. What are these?
I want to lessen the dependence that impoverished communities have on poaching, and we at Singita do this through education. When you educate people, you hopefully empower them and show them that they can have promising futures. In South Africa, we help educate 3,000 children a year, and in both Tanzania and South Africa, we have culinary schools where the chefs in our lodges teach the students how to cook. We employ some of these students and help place the others in food-related jobs. One of our graduates, a young woman named Tsakane Khoza, even recently finished an internship with Blue Hill at Stone Barns, in New York. She now works at one of our lodges in South Africa.
We also hire mostly locals to work in our lodges and promote them to managers. They can have long-term careers with us.
When Singita Ebony Lodge opened, high-end safari lodges were rare, but your property became so successful that you opened two more lodges in the same area soon after. What do you attribute this success to?
We opened just before [Nelson] Mandela came into power in 1994, and at the time, South Africa wasn’t known as a tourism destination.With Mandela, however, tourism really boomed, and luxury travelers who came to South Africa wanted to stay with us because we were the newest lodge around. We got lucky.
What has been your biggest challenge when it comes to sustainability?
No matter how much work I do, there is always more to do because wildlife areas continue to be under threat. My challenge is to find new concessions where we can keep doing what I set out to do.
You’re an advocate of low-volume tourism. What exactly is this?
Mass tourism — that is hundreds and thousands of people in a place at a time — is disruptive to the ecosystem. Too many safari vehicles at once, for example, form tracks everywhere that don’t go away. Too many tourists use too much water and consume too many resources. For these reasons, all Sinigtas have between six to 17 rooms, and guests only go on game drives in private concessions — since there are so few people with us at a time, we can keep our damage to the environment at a minimum.
How has sustainable tourism evolved since you started Singita 25 years ago?
When I started, protecting the environment wasn’t a mainstream concept. We initially struggled to get our message out to guests. They came to stay in a nice property but didn’t necessarily understand or care about the sustainability piece of it. But this has really changed, and sustainable tourism is gaining momentum in a way that it never has before. Guests stay with us because they identify with what we do. They care about protecting the environment and the wildlife and even donate money to the cause.
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