Travel's new philanthropists

The smell of burning rhino horn is exactly the same as the smell of burning human hair. I know this because I’ve helped a vet cut the horn off a live rhino with a chainsaw. This sounds brutal, but dehorning has become common practice in Africa. Cut off the horn, the thinking goes, and the critically endangered rhino is devalued; there’s nothing left to poach. It’s working, too. In Phinda Private Game Reserve, in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal, they’ve not lost a rhino in two years.

“We decided to turn our experiences inside out, letting guests take part in what we’re doing at the community and conservation level,” Joss Kent, the CEO of &Beyond, which runs 29 lodges around the world, tells me.

These trips are one of a new slew of luxury philanthropic experiences that let guests get their hands dirty for a good cause, in between sampling the finer things in life. They might help collar lions, take part in cheetah tracking for a breeding project, or de-horn a rhino (the horns grow back). The idea is to allow a deeper understanding of how a game reserve works, with money raised going towards funding projects.

But that deeper understanding comes at a price. These trips with &Beyond cost US$8,800 (£6,900) per person for six nights. The company also offers translocation trips with safari tour operator Great Plains Conservation to capture and move rhinos from South Africa to poaching-free Botswana. Each trip is tailor-made for particular donors, with prices on request. There’s a long waiting list.

“We’re definitely seeing a shift from passive observation to a more participative experience with a sense of purpose,” Kent explains. “And we’ve found that many guests become lifelong donors.”

Ted Turner, the founder of CNN and owner of Ted Turner Reserves, agrees. “There are more people out there today who want to travel with purpose instead of just lying on a beach somewhere,” he tells me.

Turner is the second-largest private landowner in the US, his reserves covering 585,000 acres in New Mexico and Colorado and incorporating nine luxurious lodges including Ladder Ranch, which guests can take over from $2,200 (£1,725) a night. Teams of scientists have been gradually rewilding these former cattle farms, tearing down fences and reintroducing endangered species such as bighorn sheep, black bears and bison. “We help our guests understand that it’s because of the conservation efforts that they’re able to hike some of the most beautiful trails in the US,” says Turner.

Luke Bailes, founder and CEO of luxury safari operator Singita, says it’s the access and experiences travellers are looking for. “There’s a new breed of philanthropist genuinely worried about the state of the world. It’s the experience they’re looking for, not the luxury.”

The luxury probably helps, though. Singita is known for running some of the most opulent lodges in Africa. A one-night stay at Singita Sasakwa Lodge in Singita Grumeti, fringing Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, costs from US$1,234 (£967). A-listers love it (former guests have included the Clooneys, the Beckhams, Oprah Winfrey and Natalie Portman) and visitors can expect beautiful rooms, manicured grounds, a private vehicle and guide, superb food and an incredible wine cellar.

The idea behind all this luxury is a high-yield, low-impact model that sees private companies charge a hefty fee for a very luxurious experience, limiting the number of visitors and thereby minimising the impact on the land. It’s essentially a way of funding work previously done by governments and NGOs.

Singita now calls itself a ‘conservation company’, not a travel company; conservation has been at the forefront of the brand from early on. Part-funded by US hedge fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones, Singita operates 12 lodges, protecting over a million acres of land in Africa. Tudor Jones first partnered with Singita 15 years ago, after buying the rights to various concessions in an area of Tanzania that had been hard hit by unregulated hunting. Working with local communities to reduce poaching, fund education and offer jobs and training, the results have been impressive and wildlife is thriving: for example, there’s been a tenfold rise in the buffalo population; 16-fold in the case of lions; and fourfold in the case
of elephants.

“Educating local communities is key,” Singita’s Bailes tells me. “Giving them alternative forms of livelihoods, increasing the regional economy.”

Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo faces very particular challenges when it comes to the local community. Africa’s oldest national park is at risk from thousands of armed militias — and the illegal charcoal trade they support — in the surrounding area. The park recently reopened, following the kidnapping of two tourists and the murder of a ranger last year, with a huge conservation initiative driven by park director Emmanuel de Merode, who also happens to be a Belgian prince. While the immediate aim of the park is to protect its natural heritage and the rare lowland gorillas that live there, de Merode has said its “higher mission” is to create employment and bring stability to a war-torn and impoverished corner of DRC. The goal is to create 100,000 jobs for locals by 2022.

So employment is crucial. Generating tourism jobs, which require a high level of training, creates not only income but value and a reason for local support of a conservation initiative.

The Long Run, a membership organisation of nature-based tourism businesses, has gone so far as to include commercial success in its core values. Its members pledge to four ‘Cs’: conservation, community, culture and commerce. Launched by Jochen Zeitz, the billionaire former CEO of Puma, Long Run members currently protect 13 million acres of biodiversity. The goal is to conserve 20 million acres and improve the lives of two million people by 2020. All members strive to provide luxurious experiences that benefit the environment and locals — but they also need to make money to ensure long-term viability.

“The Long Run gives us ideas and guides us on what more we can do,” Michael Lutzeyer, the owner of Grootbos in South Africa, explains (see side panel, next page). His lodge is also part of National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World, which has stringent sustainability markers — Grootbos is, for example, plastic-free and carbon neutral.

Read the full article on National Geographic