At dawn the bush comes to life. Birds sing, a lion roars and a tiny deer steps gingerly past my veranda. As the first rays of light touch the acacias, there is a soft voice by the canvas and a tea tray is set out. Soon after sunrise, I grab my camera and climb on an open-top Land Rover to set out on the hunt for animals. The safari experience is underway.
I’m in Zimbabwe but you could apply the same paragraph to any one of a dozen African countries and thousands of safari trips. It’s a gorgeous thing to feel so deep in the wilderness, with nature in the raw just a whisker away. But what we don’t see, not very often, is the underpinning behind this ravishing image. Who works there? Where does the money go? What, if anything, does the operation contribute towards the preservation of the wilderness it exploits? And how secure is the long-term future of that wilderness? I had come on a trip that offers just that: a chance to see, clearly, what lies beneath.
Later that day I am sitting in a Zimbabwean primary classroom with Vusa Ncube, an ex-pupil of the school, who has come back to encourage kids to study hard and become wildlife guides like him. He has a bird book and shows the excited children pictures. When he asks who would like to be a guide they all cheer. One of the girls says: “I want to be a driver!” But when the talk moves on to attitudes towards elephants and lions, the children tell stories of crops trampled and cows slaughtered. I ask if any of them have ever been inside the park? After all their school lies only a kilometre from the perimeter of Hwange, a large national park and a key part of the vast Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, the very heart of southern Africa’s wildlife. They shake their heads. None have even been there.
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