#EcotravellerHeroes – Singita founder and executive chairman Luke Bailes on ecotourism and conservation

In 1926, Luke Bailes’ grandfather purchased a tract of land in what would ultimately become the Sabi Sand Game Reserve. In 1993, Bailes opened the first lodge in the reserve – Singita Ebony. Today, there are 15 award-winning properties in four countries, all differentiated by a design aesthetic that fits the environment, sustainability best practices and a strong conservation ethic. Luke Bailes talks to us about sustainable ecotourism and how guests can play a valuable part in conserving wildlife areas.

Q: Singita – what has been the greatest impact and how can guests travelling to Africa do more?  

LB: Singita is a conservation brand with a 100-year purpose to protect and preserve large areas of Africa for future generations. As a globally recognised brand, we regularly attract like-minded high-profile guests, who are so inspired by the work we do, and ask to be involved with various projects. We are therefore spreading our knowledge and awareness. Bringing guests and conservation work together has far-reaching positive impact and contributes to numerous conservation initiatives and community empowerment programs run by our partner Funds and Trusts.

Q: What has been your biggest success when it comes to conservation?

LB: Refining our model of high-value-low-impact ecotourism has been our greatest success. It’s taken us a long time – 27 years – to perfect this model to the point where today we are making our greatest impact. Singita Ebony Lodge, in the Sabi Sand, pioneered luxury safari – creating a benchmark for sustainable ecotourism that remains to this day. A model which combines hospitality with an amazing wilderness experience to support the conservation of natural ecosystems. It’s the interdependence of our three pillars: community partnerships, biodiversity and sustainability that makes the most impact.  Our success stories are found in communities where we focus on education, enterprise development, early childhood development programmes; or specific conservation projects such as anti-poaching units and wildlife reintroductions or sustainable lodge operations.   Luxury safaris attract visitors who are willing to pay a premium for unspoiled nature. A high-value low-impact strategy is the best model that works for conservation. The rates sustain low density of visitors, offering guests an almost private game-viewing experience. We have almost a million acres of land under our care, yet we operate low guest densities with a small impact on the land. For example, Singita Grumeti covers 350,000 acres and is only traversed by five lodges or 124 guests.  Singita Grumeti is over half the size of the Maasai Mara Reserve, which has close to 4,000 beds. Today, Singita, and our partner funds and trusts (i.e The Grumeti Fund and Malilangwe Trust), are the trusted guardian of large tracts of land in Africa, responsible for successful conservation and community development projects that make a tangible difference to the people living and working in and around its lodges. This is our success story.

Q: Singita is the Shangaan word for ‘Place of Miracles’, what are the future miracle plans that you are thinking to create?

LB: We only embark on projects where the potential is as good, or better than the existing offering. As we look to expand Singita’s footprint, we will take our successful conservation tourism model into other key African conservation zones. We are actively looking in various countries in Africa and keen to expand the group as growth will support our 100-year purpose. To this end, we opened two lodges in Rwanda in 2019. This is an excellent example of how collaboration can actively advance conservation efforts, and how crucial these projects are to future generations.

Q: What is the one thing you hope guests take away with them after experiencing Singita?

LB: People always fall in love with Africa because it’s a place like no other. The reasons may differ for everyone…sometimes it’s the warmth of the staff (your banakele/butler or field guide) or the captivating wild open spaces, the incredible sunsets or perhaps the sheer thrill of seeing wild animals in their natural habitat that create unforgettable experiences for our guests. People feel privileged to stay in unpopulated, untouched wilderness areas, and they choose us because our lodges have a reputation for being authentic, while embodying a philosophy of sensitivity towards the environment.

Q:How has your outlook on travel changed due to the pandemic? How will that affect how you travel in the future?

LB: As a conservation brand, Singita has been focused on sustainability for over 20 years, even more so now. I am more conscious of having a light footprint; wellness; exercise and healthy eating. As well as making ‘understated’ a choice – no excess.

Q: What are the effects of the pandemic on conservation and Singita’s 100 year purpose and pioneering ecotourism model?

LB: Africa’s wildlife is under huge threat. Africa governments have little resource to be able to fund the critical work that needs to be done to save as much wilderness and wildlife as possible. Tourism represents one of the most viable ways to raise awareness and attract resources to help us save as much of Africa’s wilderness as we can. Tourism not only benefits local communities by providing much needed employment and skills training, it also provides a future for these communities.   Singita’s  model combines hospitality with an amazing wilderness experience to support the conservation of natural ecosystems. This founding philosophy drives every aspect of Singita’s day-to-day operations, as well as its 100-year vision to protect and preserve vast areas of African wilderness for future generations. It is the driving force behind all our decisions.   Attracting high net worth individuals is absolutely key as the support of our guests, donors and partners is essential in bringing our conservation vision to life in order to support the incredible far-reaching conservation initiatives of our partner funds and Trusts, namely The Grumeti Fund (Tanzania), The Malilangwe Trust (Zimbabwe) and Singita Lowveld Trust (South Africa). Despite the immense challenges currently facing us all, together with our non-profit partners, we are undeterred in our efforts to protect the biodiversity and ecosystems of our reserves. The Covid-19 pandemic is putting  conservation under enormous pressure. If tourism collapses, the ripple effect could threaten to wipe out decades of proactive conservation work on the continent. If ecotourism stops funding the conservation work of non-profit partners, the likelihood of illegal hunting and poaching increases.   Our Hospitality business supports our conservation purpose through engaging with influential guests  about our conservation mission, providing employment to local people, procuring from local businesses and investing a portion of revenues into our conservation efforts. The profound impact of our combined conservation work can be seen in the transformation of the land under our care, the thriving biodiversity of each reserve and concession, and the exceptional safari experience available to Singita’s guests. This has been our life’s work, and we remain committed for the long term.

Q: What are your biggest concerns regarding conservation in Africa in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic?

LB:My main concerns are human-wildlife conflict and poverty – and that if the latter increases, it will place the continent’s wildlife at heightened risk. Africa doesn’t have the same financial firepower as first-world countries, so the pandemic could be far more damaging here for people and wildlife.   However, many communities bordering our lodges are impoverished, and worse off due to the declining economic situation. The reality is that many people have already lost their jobs and may turn to poaching for bushmeat, as they have no other sources of income. And without normal tourist activity, there is less movement in parks and reserves, which provides more cover for poachers. Added to that, human-wildlife conflict could flare up if precious resources such as crops or livestock are damaged or threatened.

Q: How has safari tourism in Africa evolved since the inception of Singita? And how did conservation-minded safari companies like Singita, and NGOs like African Parks, help prove the economic value of wild spaces?

LB: Ironically when Singita first started in 1993, pristine wilderness and abundant animal populations were common, whereas today the opposite is true. It is such an irony that the fewer well-protected areas there are, the more valuable they become, as people realise how unique such an offering truly is. So, it’s no surprise that prior to COVID-19, inbound ecotourism in Africa had been growing year on year. If you add to that carbon offsettting and all the work done being done to further value open savannah grasslands and protected forests, it makes pristine wilderness extremely valuable now, more than ever.   But bold and audacious initiatives are necessary – such as the ones undertaken by African Parks and by us – to solve that range of problems facing the continent’s wildlife and wilderness. The reality is that 60% of Africa’s animals have been lost over the past 40 years, and scientists predict that close to a million species will become extinct over the next 20-30 years. The situation is rapidly getting worse and we work tirelessly every day to reverse this process.

Q:Lastly, what can travellers do to help – both now and in the future?

LB:Travel to Africa! The more travellers come to Africa, the more funds will flow into its economies. The benefits will then filter into the continent’s communities, where one person normally has 10 dependents. When there is an increase in the demand for ecotourism properties, more employment is created and lodges do better – leading to more opportunities for new entrants to the business.   It’s worth remembering that you don’t just support a lodge – there is a far-reaching economy that is created by ancillary services like transfers, private charters, laundry, butcheries, and more. Travellers should also do their homework before they come. They should choose responsible, conservation-driven brands and make sure that their travel dollars support sustainable projects.

 for more information on Singita visit: www.singita.com        

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