A SA company is live-streaming Africa's spectacular 'Great Migration' to viewers around the world

Business Insider SA
  • South African company WildEarth, which has been broadcasting live safaris for several years, has seen its viewer numbers skyrocket during lockdown.
  • During the lockdown, WildEarth focused on broadcasting its twice-daily safaris from reserves adjacent to the Kruger National Park, but quickly expanded to include both Phinda Private Game Reserve and Tswalu.
  • From August, they will be broadcasting live from the Maasai Mara, and launching a dedicated channel on DSTV.
  • For more stories visit Business Insider. 

Even though inter-provincial travel is now allowed in South Africa, it’s still not possible to venture beyond the country’s borders for a casual holiday. And although some countries are starting to open up and travel once again, the appetite for long-haul international destinations may take some time to recover.

The result is a sustained interest in online and virtual travel - and South African company WildEarth, which has been broadcasting live safaris for several years, has seen its viewer numbers skyrocket as a result.

During the lockdown, WildEarth focused on broadcasting its twice-daily safaris from reserves adjacent to the Kruger National Park, but quickly expanded to include both Phinda Private Game Reserve and Tswalu, in the Kalahari, as soon as conditions allowed. And starting this month, they will be broadcasting live from the Maasai Mara to an expected bumper local and international audience - on various streaming platforms and via a dedicated 24 hour channel on DSTV.

“The Great Migration is probably the world's most iconic natural event and WildEarth are privileged to be able to share it with the world once again,” says Graham Wallington, CEO of WildEarth. “WildEarth has a camp in the Mara Triangle and will be broadcasting every day from the Mara even after the migration leaves in a month or two. It truly is a spectacular place with magnificent wildlife.”

During the great migration almost 2 million wildebeest, Thompson's gazelles and zebra migrate from Tanzania's Serengeti National Park into Kenya's Maasai Mara - with much of the action taking place at river crossings. 

"Crossing the great Mara river is a very dangerous enterprise for these herds as the river is full of massive and hungry crocodiles who have been waiting a whole year for this feast,” says Wallington.

It’s at these rivers that tourists often pay vast sums of money to sit and wait amongst dozens of fellow travellers, in anticipation of watching the often-harrowing crossings. But with international travel still not available to many around the world, these numbers are expected to be lower than in previous years - and many more will settle for the livestream courtesy of WildEarth.

WildEarth currently has two safari vehicles going out into the Mara every day, led by guides Isaac Rotich and David Githu, and in a few weeks they aim to increase this to three. And already the channel has broadcast a scene that shows just how dramatic the event can be.

Navigating Covid-19 lockdowns

One of the key appeals of these live-streamed safaris during the global pandemic has been the way in which they portray a sense of familiar normality of the outside world, during a time when the lives of most viewers are anything but.

With a constantly changing parade of personable and knowledgeable guides lamenting about such simple pleasures as hatching grebes and suckling hyena cubs, it required a minimal suspension of disbelief to imagine the world as it is was before lockdown.

As broadcast media, WildEarth was deemed an essential service - they were able to continue broadcasting during the strictest days of the lockdown and continue portraying this voyeuristic sense of normality.

“WildEarth has always been a decentralised company that has always operated 100% digitally, so moving to Zoom meetings and having everything in the cloud was not a challenge, as that is how we have always been,” says Wallington.

As restrictions eased, WildEarth began adding more locations to their live streams - and in spite of the careful juggling act between presenters, camera operators and other staff, Wallington says they have successfully avoided any staff becoming infected with the coronavirus.

“We are lucky in that our teams can quite easily isolate, as they are isolated in the wilderness anyway,” says Wallington.

Massive increase in lockdown viewers

South Africa’s hard lockdown has been good for WildEarth - during early lockdown Wallington says WildEarth’s viewership rose five-fold, with viewership from South Africa increasing fifteen-fold.

“While viewer numbers have dropped somewhat since the April peak, our global viewership is still more than double when compared with March, and South African viewership remains at well over seven times what it was before the lockdown,” says Wallington. 

“Expressed in hours viewed, this number for South Africa is currently still eleven times what it was before lockdown.”

People are also starting to watch more of each safari than they did previously. Wallington says people are sticking around for 50% longer than they did before the lockdown, which means on average South African viewers are watching about 50 minutes per three-hour drive.

Each live-streamed safari is currently viewed by about 40,000 people, and in the month of July, a total of about 1.5 million watched their safaris - down from a peak in April of about 2 million.

The increased viewer numbers and interest around the world has lead to interest from several new opportunities. In mid-lockdown they licensed shows to the BBC and Chinese conglomerate Tencent, and have recently agreed on a deal with CGTN to broadcast directly to China, complete with Chinese subtitles.

Locally, Wild Earth struck a deal with SABC 3, to broadcast the safaris live between 3pm and 4pm daily, which Wallington says reaches 200,000 viewers per show. And in late-August, Wild Earth announced that it will be launching a brand new 24 hour safari channel on DStv Channel 183.

The new DStv channel will initially feature seven hours of live safaris each day - with a vision to expand this offering to include live safaris around the clock, from various timezones.

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