Life

The luxury lodges that let guests 'help' dehorn rhino, collar wild dogs, or monitor pangolins

Business Insider SA
Rhino notching and conservation activity at Phinda. Image: andBeyond.com.
Rhino notching and conservation activity at Phinda. Image: andBeyond.com.
  • Many high-end lodges and game reserves in Africa now offer guests the chance to participate in hands-on conservation experiences.
  • For an added fee, guests can accompany wildlife vets as they track, monitor, or collar animals like rhinos, elephants, cheetahs, wild dogs, and even pangolins.
  • Unlike extended volunteer programmes, these typically only last a few hours — and allow guests to return to the lodge for a sundowner in five-star comfort.
  • But operators say these experiences play a vital role where tourism, education, and conservation intersect.
  • And in many cases, they directly fund critical monitoring and rehabilitation programmes underway in reserves across the continent.
  • Here are eight lodges that offer top-rated conservation experiences in Africa.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

Many high-end tourism companies now offer guests hands-on conservation experiences. Depending on the reserve, its location, and the type of conservation programmes underway, this can mean anything from recording the health of a rehabilitated pangolin, monitoring the breathing of a sedated elephant, or assisting in a rhinoceros dehorning or microchipping procedure.

Lodges have performed these activities behind the scenes for many years, but many now allow guests to accompany vets and conservation teams — for a fee. In the face of the increasing cost of wildlife management, it's a welcome additional revenue stream for many. These programmes also serve as good companions to messages around conservation that most lodges communicate. 

In the wake of Covid-19, some operators report an increased interest in hands-on and behind-the-scenes activities to accompany the more traditional feet-up offering of luxury lodges.

Brandon Kemp, Asilia Africa's director for Southern Tanzania operations, says that they've noticed an increased interest in conservation experiences. As a result, they incorporated this into Usangu Expedition Camp in Ruaha National Park, where he says guests are part of the solution and not just the beneficiary.

"At Asilia, we see it as our duty to immerse our guests in the wilderness and provide the opportunity to connect with nature. By offering these hands-on conservation experiences, we hope to inspire the conservationists of the future and create a ripple effect that will help safeguard wild places for generations to come," Kemp told Business Insider South Africa.

Although guests will return to their luxury lodges at the end of the day, they directly contribute financially to campaigns that monitor and protect animals on the property.

Charli de Vos, ecological manager at andBeyond Phinda Private Game Reserve, says the fees guests pay for their popular pangolin experience go directly towards covering the costs of tracking devices for the animals reintroduced on their property.

"Guests pay for the privilege of accompanying our team as we monitor the pangolins, and that experience helps directly cover the programme's cost. Although the amount they pay doesn't cover the cost of a single satellite tag, it assists in the project's overall funding," De Vos told Business Insider.

Tintswalo Lapalala, in the Waterberg region of South Africa, may offer sightings of big game, but they now also focus on conservation activities. Alistair Leuner, who oversees all safari operations for the Tintswalo group, believes this offers multiple benefits to visitors and the wildlife.

"We believe these experiences show the public a different view on wildlife and conservation and offer a different aspect to tourism. If guests tell us beforehand they'd like to be involved in a conservation experience, we can get them involved. And in doing so, this helps the reserve, the animals, and tourism," Leuner told Business Insider.

Many high-end luxury lodges in Africa now offer these hands-on conservation activities, usually for an added fee. The cost ranges from around R2,000 per person for pangolin monitoring to R10,000 or more per person to participate in a rhino or elephant dehorning, microchipping, or collaring activity. Most lodges also require guests to book a three-night minimum stay when adding these activities to their itineraries. 

Here are eight lodges currently offering hands-on conservation experiences:

Tintswalo Lapalala

Tintswalo Lapalala is a family-friendly camp located in the Waterberg region of South Africa. They provide guests with hands-on conservation experiences like collaring African wild dogs and cheetahs, where possible. They also offer rhino and elephant programmes that allow guests to witness the darting of these animals and participate in various tasks like monitoring breathing rate and temperature.

Tswalu

Tswalu in South Africa's Kalahari region offers conservation experiences with rhinos and pangolins. Guests can accompany scientists and doctoral students as they learn more about pangolins and their behaviour in the wild. Between April and September, guests can also join Tswalu's rhino notching initiative, during which trained trackers and vets dart young rhinos, notch their ears for identification purposes, and collect DNA samples for a global database.

Ngala Private Game Reserve

Ngala Private Game Reserve shares an unfenced boundary with the Kruger National Park, and they offer a popular rhino conservation activity. A vet will dart a rhinoceros from the air, and guests who follow in open-air vehicles will witness and participate in tagging the rhino's ear and microchipping its horn.

Marataba Conservation Camps

Marataba, located in the Marakele National Park, has earned a name as one of South Africa's go-to conservation experience destinations. They've achieved this by encouraging guests to become fully involved in conservation experiences like elephant, rhino, and predator management, snare removal, and setting and retrieving camera traps for monitoring various species on the property.

Kwandwe Private Game Reserve

Kwandwe Private Game Reserve, located in the Eastern Cape, prides itself on tailor-made safari experiences - including a three-night, four-day rhino conservation safari. On it, guests accompany experts who dart rhinos, insert microchips, and notch ears.

Phinda Private Game Reserve

Phinda Private Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal offers several conservation experiences for guests. These include accompanying vets and conservation teams on elephant and rhino tagging, collaring, or ear-notching excursions. They also offer a popular pangolin experience that involves tracking animals and monitoring their health and performance since being released back into the wild.

Usangu Expedition Camp

Usangu Expedition Camp is a new camp located in Tanzania's Ruaha National Park, with a particular focus on conservation experiences. Guests there can participate in various conservation experiences in the region, including placing, and later retrieving, camera traps, tracking collared lions, and meeting researchers working at the adjacent Douglas Bell Eco Research Station.

Ol Pejeta Conservancy

Ol Pejeta Conservancy in northern Kenya is home to the world's last two northern white rhinos. These also offer various conservation experiences primarily focused on their anti-poaching initiatives. Guests can learn more about the conservancy's anti-poaching dog unit and meet a dedicated team of rangers who patrol the vast property.

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