Safari lodges: taking sustainability beyond animal conservation

Children in the Wilderness programme in action at Rocktail

Children in the Wilderness programme in action at Rocktail

Safari lodges are by their nature encouraging tourists to travel for the animals, but what if conservation becomes part of the experience? This example of best practice shows one group that's taking all aspects of its sustainability responsibilities very seriously.

Since they were established in 1983, Wilderness Safaris has grown from “one Land Rover and plenty of enthusiasm” to managing over 60 exclusive camps and lodges in nine African countries. Conservation has always been at the heart of Wilderness’ ideals, and today the brand is synonymous with conservation and responsible tourism.

Wilderness consider themselves to be first and foremost a conservation organisation and secondly a responsible ecotourism operator, and they firmly believe that this is the most practical means to contribute meaningfully to conservation. Their sustainability strategy is encapsulated by “the 4 Cs”:

  • Commerce
  • Conservation
  • Community
  • Culture

Many conservation initiatives span over the entire breadth and width of the group’s operations, but each property also works within its own specific context. Rocktail Beach Camp is located in the Kwa-Zulu Natal province, on the north-east coast of South Africa. Offshore from the lodge is the Maputaland Marine Reserve which together with the St Lucia Marine Reserve forms a continuous protected area stretching 150 km from the Mozambique border southwards to Cape Vidal and 3 nautical miles out to sea.

These marine reserves are component areas of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park; a 332,000 ha area that has been designated a World Heritage Site in recognition of its global importance. In addition the two marine reserves are recognised as wetlands of international importance under the Ramsar Convention.

The area where Rocktail is located is a nesting site for loggerhead and leatherback turtles, and their flagship project is aimed at protecting and monitoring these turtles. The Wilderness Wildlife Trust has provided funding of approximately one million Rand (app. GBP 60,000) since 1999 and data shows that both turtle populations are in fact increasing – one of the few populations in the world known to be doing so.

During the turtle season, a total of 30km of beach is patrolled nightly by Rocktail’s Turtle Monitors for signs of nesting turtles. In addition, fishermen from the local communities assist the Turtle Monitors by reporting any suspicious activity in the area. Guests visiting the camp can join the Turtle Monitors as they patrol the beaches at night and may get the once-in-a-lifetime experience to watch a turtle lay its eggs, while at the same time making a difference to turtle conservation.


Leatherback monitoring at Rocktail

Leatherback monitoring at Rocktail


Rocktail Beach Camp previously operated as Rocktail Bay Lodge in a location close to the current lodge site, and is building off the excellent partnerships forged between Rocktail Bay Lodge and the local community.

It was one of the first joint ventures in South Africa between community, a conservation authority and ecotourism, and has received a number of awards for its innovative operating model. These include the 1999 Tourism for Tomorrow Award and the Imvelo Award for Best Community Tourism Partnership at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development. Other awards for Rocktail include:

  • Platinum Leaf Award: Green Leaf Environmental Standard (2014)
  • Finalist: Safari Awards, Best Marine Safari Property in Africa (2014)
  • Nominee: Safari Awards, Best Marine Safari Property in Africa (2013)
  • Nominee: Safari Awards, Best Community Safari Property in Africa  (2013)
  • Winner: Travel + Leisure, Global Vision Award in Leadership (2012)

Rocktail Beach Camp strives to minimise its environmental impact, while at the same time optimising community beneficiation through the following sustainability initiatives:

Energy & Carbon
Rocktail has access to municipal power, as opposed to many other Wilderness lodges that run on generators and solar power. Energy consumption is closely watched and CO2 emissions from the entire operation (e.g. purchased electricity, vehicle diesel, LP Gas and even the wood burnt in the pizza oven) are measured. No full year comparison is available as of yet, but management estimates that initiatives such as installation of LED lights and turning geyser thermostats down have led to a significant decrease in energy usage.

The biggest success thus far in the area of water is the reduction of bottled water usage through providing water purified on-site in the guest rooms and public areas. Reusable water bottles are given to guests upon check-in. The only bottled water consumed now is carbonated water, and Wilderness plans to implement a system that allows for production of carbonated water on-site shortly. This will completely eliminate the use of bottled water at the camp. Water for the camp is taken from a local borehole and stored in tanks at a position higher in altitude than the camp in order to utilise gravity to feed the water instead of a pressure pump. Although low-flow showerheads do not work due to the already low water pressure, dual-flush toilets are currently being installed and other water-saving initiatives are being evaluated.

All inorganic waste (plastic, paper, tin and glass) is separated on-site, and removed by a local recycling partner. Organic waste is sent off-site either for composting or pig-feed. Wastewater is collected above ground and treated before re-entering the environment.

Cleaning products
Wilderness has worked together with Ecological Brands to develop a detergent solution suitable for safari camps. Rocktail was the pilot site for this project, and the detergents will now be rolled out across all other Wilderness camps. The detergents make use of no harsh chemicals and due to their bacteria and enzyme base, the wastewater treatment plant is performing better than ever. In addition, staff are very satisfied as it is much less harsh on their skin.

Education & training
Children in the Wilderness (CITW) is an environmental and life skills educational programme for children, focusing on the next generation of decision-makers; inspiring them to care for their natural heritage and to become the custodians of these areas in the future. At Rocktail, 2 primary schools in the local community operate Eco-Clubs with the help of CITW. These are regular after-school programmes that give all learners who are interested in the environment a chance to meet, learn, discuss and expand their knowledge of environmental issues. Approximately 40 children are currently enrolled in Eco-Clubs run by CITW in the area. There is also a mentor training programme for staff and community members.

Each year, the lodge closes for 3-5 days to host a CITW camp. In 2013, 24 children attended interactive workshops (on conservation, environmental management, the geography and geology of the area, culture, HIV/AIDS, nutrition and the importance of wilderness areas to their communities and their country); and participated in various marine activities including turtle research and a boat trip out to sea where they got to see breaching humpback whales, turtles and dolphins amid much excitement and joy.

Rocktail is a joint venture with the KwaMpukane Community Trust and a local Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) partner, with these partners holding 17.5% and 10% of the equity respectively. The majority of the staff employed at Rocktail are from KwaMpukane and have received tourism skills training and development. Rocktail pays a monthly lease fee to iSimangaliso Wetland Authority totalling 8.5% of revenue earned, as well as payments for turtle permits which enable guests to accompany the turtle research team to track turtles on the beaches.

“We choose to engage with Wilderness Safaris because they were here not only to take away but to give back to the community. The engagement process is sufficient because Wilderness Safaris in each and every decision making they don’t just decide but they consult us first. In terms of how Wilderness responds to key topics and concerns, their responses are always positive and they are willing to listen and to take steps ahead.” (SJ Ngubane, Chairperson KwaMpukane)

Rocktail Beach Camp is also a member of  Pack for a Purpose, through which they source school supplies, clothing and equipment such as solar powered laptops.

Brett Wallington (Group Sustainability Coordinator at Wilderness) says “the main benefits of Rocktail’s sustainability initiatives are without a doubt the positive impact on the environment and local communities, followed by guest and staff satisfaction. However, it is also important to demonstrate that the initiatives lead to cost-effectiveness in the longer term. The Commerce C is what gives us the resources to make interventions under the other three Cs (Conservation, Community and Culture). We can only make a difference in Africa if we are doing well as a business.”

Rocktail is one of Wilderness’ best performing camps in terms of sustainability, and much work is now focussed on replicating this success at other camps and lodges.

Wallington gives the following advice to similar businesses looking to replicate Rocktail’s sustainability success:

  1. Analyse and evaluate your business to understand where your greatest impacts will be.
  2. Be realistic. Sometimes, it is more effective to start small to get the ball rolling and see the immediate effect before moving on to bigger and longer term projects.
  3. Measure your impact. When you have measurements, you can set targets and monitor progress. Sustainability is no different from finance in that sense.


Words: Katarina Mancama

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