“Did you hear the lions this morning?” asks Ade.

“What, no!” I replied.

“Yeah, they walked right by your tent. They were SO LOUD. I can’t believe you didn’t hear them”.

I’d heard the hippos grunting as I blearily opened my eyes around 5 am. Or maybe, half-awake, I thought it was the elephants yawning, or the warthogs fighting. Frankly, even in a few days camped out on the banks of the Luangwa river, I’d become quite accustomed to the mysterious guttural sounds and surprisingly proximal presence of my new neighbours. But lions? No, surely they’re far more elusive?

The tent in question is at Flatdogs Camp, a stone’s throw from the main entrance to South Luangwa National Park in Zambia. It’s a restful spot from which to see pods of hippos keeping cool in the river and families of elephants splashing their way across the water. The air is filled with the competing aromas of fragrant blossom and freshly brewed coffee. The rhythmic ‘try-harder’ (or ‘drink lager’, depending on how your ears interpret it) calls of the Cape turtle dove lulls me into a meditative reverie. I sit under the shade of a mahogany tree marvelling at the baboon soap opera unfolding in front of me and I ponder this timeless ecosystem and the intricate balance between humans and nature.

Elephants-crossing-the-Luangwa-river-sustainable-safari-in-ZambiaElephants crossing the Luangwa River © Diana Jarvis

How to do a sustainable safari at South Luangwa National Park

South Luangwa National Park was established in the early 1970s when threats from poaching and deforestation were still huge. Large animals have always posed problems for the local inhabitants and not least by trampling and eating crops. By the late 1980s, black rhinos were pronounced locally extinct and there were only about 2000 elephants left after a combination of an aggressive government-backed culling programme and illegal poaching. Forests were being cut down at an alarming rate for house building, firewood and charcoal, as well as for agricultural land. Fast forward thirty-odd years and Luangwa has become the only national park in the world to be pronounced sustainable by the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNTWO). So how did it manage this? What does sustainability even mean when it comes to running a national park?

Flatdogs, like the vast majority of tourism businesses in South Luangwa, is owner-managed and built in keeping with the natural environment. “We decided to try and be as responsible as we possibly could in terms of what we use” Ade, the camp manager explains to me, “thatching is great because it regenerates, bamboo is great so long as it responsibly managed. We have a borehole and all our fresh drinking water comes from there so there’s no need for plastic water bottles.”

Flatdogs-tents-sustainable-safari-in-ZambiaThe tents at Flatdogs Camp © Diana Jarvis

It’s not just the infrastructure: “All the builders and people we employ have either been trained by us or are trained in the local area. Our furniture comes from a local youth development centre that has a carpentry program teaching young adults to become carpenters, there’s also an agricultural program which is where we buy a lot of our veg. They also have a mechanical project and a building program. Project Luangwa – which we fund – takes some of their builders. So it’s all intrinsically linked.“

And they’re not the only camp in the Luangwa Valley to run on these principles. Flatdogs has teamed up with a number of other safari camps – Mfuwe Lodge, Time + Tide, Kafunta Safaris, Robin Pope Safaris, Lion Camp, Remote Africa Safaris and Shenton Safaris to create the Luangwa Conservation and Community Fund (LCCF). The purpose of the fund is to use the income from tourism to support the local community in sustaining livelihoods as well as respecting the nature that visitors come here to experience.

Israel Njovbu, who works in reservations at Flatdogs sees this first hand: “People spend thousands of dollars on a flight and hotels just to see a monkey. I see it as a simple monkey – or maybe a lizard that I push out of the way. And then I think, OK, so this is important. We don’t have much money here in Zambia, but what if we didn’t have the wildlife?”.

Each of the lodges charges guests a $10-$15 conservation fee per overnight stay and the funds are split between Conservation South Luangwa (CSL) and a range of other local community projects like Project Luangwa. CSL employs just under 100 local people and nearly half of them work on the front line on daily anti-poaching patrols. They’ve also set up conservation clubs in local schools to teach and inspire kids the importance of looking after and understanding wildlife. Project Luangwa works in local communities and has established both Girls’ Clubs and Boys’ Clubs to address gender issues including menstrual health awareness which is succeeding in keeping girls in school longer.

Jonathan-guide-sustainable-safari-in-ZambiaSafari guide Jonathan © Diana Jarvis

My safari guides Jonathan and Mabel are direct beneficiaries of all this amazing work. They both grew up locally and attended conservation clubs in school. This germinated a deep passion for nature and they went on to study for guiding qualifications. Mabel is one of the very few locally trained female guides in the whole of the South Luangwa. As we sip our sundowners and watch as the disappearing sun turns the landscape a deep peachy red, she tells me “Our males here think we are only capable of washing plates, cooking and carrying babies. They don’t think we can do this like I’m doing now.” Although still a trainee, after seeing her passion and aptitude, Flatdogs employed her as a spotter and have supported her continuing education.

We head back into the jeep for a night safari. Jonathan gets a tip-off from a guide in another safari vehicle but it’s Mabel who sees it first. A male lion, just sitting there, all-powerful and resplendently calm all in one go. We drive right up to within about ten metres and he doesn’t mind us one bit. It seems the staff and the animals are equally content in this self-sufficient landscape.

Diana was a guest of Flatdogs Camp and flew with Ethiopian Airlines and ProFlight Zambia.

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