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Documentary filmmakers, Dereck and Beverley Joubert, on how mindful travel can support conservation in Africa

January 9, 2021By Bethan Andrews

Found yourself rethinking your travel ethos with this increased time at home? The philanthropist founders of Great Plains Conservation tell us just how integral this could be to nature, wildlife and communities in Africa

Africa is facing an additional pandemic, fuelled by the side effects of the current one and one that will result in a step back to more poaching, more poverty and more ignorance. Once we begin to ease our way out of lockdown life, the continent is relying on a new wave of interest from travellers and deeper, more considered tourism to aid its way out of it.

Fortunately, the impact of Coronavirus has inspired people to protect and nurture the places they visit. While seeking more fulfilling experiences post-pandemic, many more people than before are looking at ways they can travel while giving back. According to a recent report from booking.com, 67% of people want their travel choices to support the destination’s recovery efforts.

While perhaps only making a small dent in recovery from the catastrophic impact of Covid-19 in Africa, this is good news. Ecotourism has provided one of the biggest supports to Africa in the last decade, and without it, everything shifts. As The Financial Times reported: ‘The effects of Covid on conservation tourism in Africa have been seismic – on a continent where, in 2019, tourism contributed 14.7% of Namibia’s GDP, 10.7% to Tanzania’s, and 8.2% to Kenya’s. According to 2019 figures published by the World Travel and Tourism Council, wildlife-based tourism specifically generated more than US$29bn annually for Africa, and employed 3.6 million people.’

Conserving nature in a time of crisis is a sobering thing – conservation has all but been forgotten by the wider world throughout the pandemic. And, it’s important to note, it’s not just the animals. People are quick to assume that conservation and sustainability stops at the eradication of poaching, the care of animals and natural landscape recovery, but, of course, it goes so much deeper into communities too. 

This is something that conservationist filmmakers, National Geographic explorers and writers, Dereck and Beverley Joubert have prioritised since the inception of Great Plains Conservation. ‘It’s interesting because the question about how we’ve reacted to Covid is almost an extension of how and why we started Great Plains,’ explains Dereck. 

Having spent many years exploring across Africa and identifying the places and communities that were going to erode and decline, Beverley and Dereck established Great Plains in order to address this. ‘We started to buy up land to put an ecotourism model on to fund it. We look at areas that are vulnerable and how we can make them better, but it’s the community that is integral and at the heart of it – we invest heavily in the people.’

Derek & Beverley Joubert

12 years in, Covid struck and, clearly, tourism was going to come to a halt but their conservation work couldn’t afford to. ‘We would rather collapse the company than lay anyone off, so we immediately transferred as many staff as possible into frontline conservation work,’ explains Beverley. ‘Many others have not been able to do that so joblessness is rife and disillusionment follows. Poaching, because of this, has gone stratospheric – there are places in Africa that have lost 80% of their wildlife in this last year.’ 

Great Plains established Project Ranger in March to combat this, an initiative designed as a solution to keep front line conservationists in the field, stopping poaching and supporting those who give so much each day to protect Africa. Contributions will supplement budget deficits with local ground partners by funding salaries, training, and operations of wildlife monitors, rangers and anti-poaching personnel. 

Largely, this is a twofold initiative. ‘We really need to make sure that when Africa opens up again, there’s actually something to come and see – this keeps communities alive and protects wildlife,’ says Dereck. ‘But it’s also about keeping dreams alive, to ensure there’s a message of hope going out and that we’re protecting what we have today and focusing on what we need for tomorrow. It’s about education, looking to the younger generation to become conservationists in the future. We hang on the word hope – getting the rangers out there again, spreading hope to the kids.’

Of course, Africa isn’t alone in seeing the effects of little tourism, but it becomes problematic when you consider the conservation status of the continent pre-Covid. However, as a positive of the last 12 months, in a year where people have craved a renewed connection with nature, the pandemic has allowed for the realisation from many that ecotourism really is crucial.

So, what can we, as travellers, do to help? The key, it seems, is not necessarily in travelling less, but in being more mindful going forward. Delve into the why and what behind your travel choices. ‘It’s got to be about more than sending money. It’s a great opportunity for us all to be reflective and really think about the way that we engage with the planet. It’s time for us to redraw those contracts and renew our vows,’ Dereck suggests. ‘The very worst thing to do is to hunger for going back to normal – I don’t think normal was good. Think about the way you engage with the planet through travel, and with each other, and discard the things that are bad.’ 

As we chat, we reflect on how, as Covid-19 started, the media reported about new wildlife happenings, animals relaxing and cleaner air quality and I agree wholly that we should remember that. ‘I would hope that we want to retain the good things and ease back into travel with meaning – start planning that now,’ Dereck continues. ‘It would be wrong to say that the world was better when no one was travelling, as it leads to isolationism and xenophobia. Find the travel and hospitality companies that are doing it right.’ 

As always, Dereck and Beverley are ahead of the game with their initiatives and actions at Great Plains Conservation. The preservation work the Joubert’s do constantly is inspiring, and they’ve utilised this year to refurbish old camps and create incredible new ones too – built with sustainability and socio-cultural travel in mind. Although you can still consume meat in their restaurants, of course, they’ve introduced vegan cuisine at all of their camps. Following on from the idea of using this time of less travel to reflect and make small, manageable changes going forward, Beverley encourages us to consider reducing our meat intake. ‘Everyone could simply reduce his or her meat consumption to 80% plant-based and the rest could still be animal protein,’ she says.

They’ve also introduced additional private jet safari experiences. The private jet charters include a specially curated itinerary ensuring privacy and safety for small parties that stay in the same camp and travel between camps via private jet together. Utilising private lounges, immigration services and guides, chefs and butlers, the high-end service complements the fact that, once you are in Africa, space, clean air and natural social distancing surround you. ‘We’ve made it so that people can stay longer too and work from our camps,’ says Dereck.

While uncertainty and anxiety in travel prevails, lending itself to bubbled travel is a brilliant initiative from Great Plains. And, although it might not be for everyone, there’s no doubt that it’s attractive to and an appealing way to travel for wealthy individuals looking for a luxury experience.

When it’s safe to do so, I can’t wait to put down plans for an extended visit to Africa and it’s humbling to hear that the local communities involved with Great Plains are looking forward to welcoming travellers. ‘When tourists came back for a short while in the December period in Kenya, we saw how the Maasai people who work in all our lodges embraced the fact that tourism could come back,’ says Beverley.

‘They were passionate about getting back to representing their culture, the land and the wildlife. It’s a dedication, it’s not just a job for the community and they are so excited to welcome you all back.’

For more information on Great Plains initiatives and their new camps for 2021, take a look here