Sustainable tourism is about more than re-using your towels. To mark the UN’s Year of Sustainability in 2017, Keith Drew heads to Zimbabwe to see how a proper sustainable strategy can change people’s (and animals’) lives for the better.
“Wayne Rooney... Remember the name.” The final-year students at Ngamo Primary School in western Zimbabwe certainly do. I’m standing at the front of the class, fielding questions on what life is like in England, and it seems that the one thing these children want to know about is the former Manchester United star.
Another United question follows and Mthenjwa Moyo, the school’s principal, grimaces. He’s a Liverpool fan.
Like many of the guests that stay at one of Wilderness Safaris’ camps in nearby Hwange National Park, I’m visiting Ngamo to see what life is like for children in rural Zimbabwe – and to see how some of the money Wilderness receive from customers like me is being put to good use.
Ngamo is one of eight schools in Tsholotsho District that the company support. The children are so bright-eyed and engaged it’s easy to forget that the majority of households they come from survive off subsistence farming.
With little or no income, when times are tough, parents can struggle to put food on the table.
“Nutrition levels were so low that some of the children did not have the energy to walk to school,” Mxolisi Sibanda (MX), Wilderness’ Community Engagement Manager in Hwange, tells me, referring in particular to the children from Vozheka and Stambare, some 7km away.
“And if they did get here, they would find it hard to focus. You can’t teach a hungry child.”
The children have managed to turn a patch of Kalahari sandveld into a productive market garden
So Wilderness started a food programme, providing a lunchtime meal of sadza (cooked ground cornmeal) and sugar beans. Men from the local community bring the firewood, the women do the cooking.
“The children sit under the trees, they start feeding and then you hear the noise,” smiles Mthenjwa. “Then you know they are full.”
It costs over $65,000 dollars a year to feed Ngamo’s pupils one meal a day each, so the programme is provided only in the hottest months, when droughts are at their peak and crops are depleted. It's topped up through the year by produce from the school’s vegetable garden that Wilderness helped instigate in 2013.
Using a variety of organic techniques, the children have managed to turn a patch of Kalahari sandveld into a productive market garden full of kale, spring onions, tomatoes and beetroot, which either form part of their school lunches or are sold to help fund the fees of disadvantaged pupils.
The bull sloshes in the shallows, the cracked-leather creases of his hide darkening in the water
“A big male like that will drink 250 litres of water a day,” explains Livingstone Sana, my guide at Linkwasha Camp, as we watch an old bull jostling for the best position at one of Hwange's waterholes the following day.
The park is home to an estimated 45,000 elephants, the highest concentration in Africa. The numbers are all the more remarkable considering there’s virtually no natural surface water in Hwange.
Instead, the animals survive thanks to around sixty boreholes, drilled in the 1930s in an effort to make the newly founded national park viable for wildlife in the dry season. Keeping these running is vital.
“With the amount of elephants we have here, you can imagine how quickly the waterholes would dry up once the rains have gone,” says Livingstone, as the bull sloshes in the shallows, the cracked-leather creases of his hide darkening in the water.
With the underfunded Zim Parks struggling to maintain their boreholes, a number of operators and NGOs have stepped in to help. Wilderness alone sustains more than a dozen, covering the logistics and costs of refuelling and servicing the pumps.
We survey a forest of bleached and twisted tree stumps, their trunks destroyed by the elephants’ insatiable appetite for sap
It’s sterling work. But it is perpetuating a Catch 22. If the boreholes aren’t maintained, the reliant herds will suffer catastrophic losses.
But with a plentiful supply of year-round water, Hwange’s elephant population has grown to such an extent that it now far exceeds the park’s natural capacity. Habitat and food resources are under great pressure.
“Elephants can get through over 600lb of vegetation a day”, Livingstone tells me, as we survey a forest of bleached and twisted tree stumps, their trunks destroyed by the elephants’ insatiable appetite for sap. “And they’re not fussy about what they eat and where they go to eat it.”
I later learn that Livingstone is referring to the occasional foray of elephants outside the park and into the communities along Hwange’s southeast boundary.
Elephants can clear a field of sorghum in minutes, trampling other crops as they go. Lions and hyenas pick off livestock, and last year a 50-strong herd of buffalo invaded Ngamo Village after spotting a gap in the park’s boundary fence.
As he protectively eyes the cattle in the kraal behind his homestead, Johnson Ncube, Ngamo’s headman, tells me how he stops his community from taking matters into their own hands.
"By engaging with the local communities, we are able to show them the benefits of conserving their wildlife"
“We have been shown another way,” he smiles conspiratorially. “Yes, there are too many elephants, but without them the tourists would not come. Whatever is happening here is because of these animals”.
Johnson is referring to the numerous programmes Wilderness is undertaking at the nearby primary school, which I can see from the front door of his thatched home. And to the variety of other projects they've invested in, including a women’s craft co-operative (who make delicate baskets from the fronds of ilala palms, and necklaces and bracelets from recycled plastic) and a clinic that will provide medical care for Ngamo and nine other local villages.
“By engaging with the local communities, we are able to show them the benefits of conserving their wildlife,” explains MX. “We start at school and then it mushrooms into the wider community.”
The flagship scheme, Children in the Wilderness, is an educational programme that involves Wilderness running weekly environmental “Eco-Clubs” and, for one week a year, closing one of their camps to paying guests so it can host rural school children instead.
The next day, we leave Hwange for Mana Pools National Park, where Wilderness’ Ruckomechi Camp enjoys one of the most serene settings in Zimbabwe, stretching along the Zambezi as it traces the border with Zambia.
Hidden by broad-canopied albida trees and built using local materials, Ruckomechi blends quietly into the landscape. Solar power provides hot water and lighting for each of the ten en-suite tents, and the camp uses its own water-purification system. Take it all down and you would never know it had been there.
Rounded pads interspersed with the scrape of a curved front claw – the tracks of a pangolin, the most trafficked animal on Earth
Mana Pools is known for its walking safaris, and I’m eager to get out of the vehicle and track some game on foot. We see some impala and a lone male waterbuck. I learn that the “tok-tok-tok” in the trees is a red-billed hornbill. Jagged black stripes are zebra in the heat-haze distance.
And then we see the imprints in the sand. Rounded pads interspersed with the scrape of a curved front claw – the tracks of a pangolin, the most trafficked animal on Earth. Thanks to the supposed medicinal properties of their armoured scales, more than a million of them have died in the last decade.
Our guide explains that the Wilderness Wildlife Trust has been running a Pangolin Programme to rescue these diminutive mammals from the illegal wildlife trade, and they recently played a big part in CITES agreeing a total ban on their international trafficking.
After the week I’ve had learning about their sustainable work across Zimbabwe, I’m not in the least bit surprised.
Wilderness Safaris run cultural and community tourism programmes at their camps in Hwange. You can donate to one of their projects in Zimbabwe through the Wilderness Wildlife Trust.
A former Rough Guides Managing Editor, Keith Drew has written or updated over a dozen Rough Guides, including Costa Rica, Japan and Morocco. As well as writing for The Telegraph, The Guardian and BRITAIN Magazine, among others, he also runs family-travel website