By Claire Wrathall
The safari company Singita is protecting endangered wildlife by hiring poachers as gamekeepers.
It’s not often the path to a new career begins with an arrest, but Shaban Andrea’s first encounter with the safari company Singita came 11 years ago when he was apprehended by one of the scouts employed to patrol the 350,000-acre Grumeti conservation area on the western edge of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.
A feared hunter and poacher, Andrea had already served two prison sentences. But staff at Singita, which offers what many regard as the ne plus ultra of game-watching experiences, were confident that he poached because it was the only way he knew to make a living. Their intervention allowed him to be paroled on condition he join Grumeti’s anti-poaching team. And so the poacher turned gamekeeper, earning an honest wage for the first time in his life, building himself a house and seeing his own sons educated and go on to university.
“We knew we had to protect the land because poaching was absolutely rampant there,” says Singita’s owner and CEO Luke Bailes. “But the poachers quickly learned that if they started protecting the animals rather than killing them, then tourism would flourish and they could have jobs for the long term. The success has been remarkable.”
He now employs 120 scouts, most of them former poachers – “They now form the nucleus of our anti-poaching units” – at Singita Grumeti, which accounts for just over a third of the million or so acres of land that comprises Singita’s private concessions.
Spread across four countries – Tanzania, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique – each of the brand’s 12 lodges and camps is unique, not to mention strikingly and beautifully designed. And not all feature tents. At Lebombo on the edge of the Kruger in South Africa, for example, the 15 “eagle’s nest” suites are steel-and-wood structures cantilevered out from the cliff overlooking a river where hippo gather to frolic.
The food and drink aspire to exemplary standards too. Indeed they take their wine so seriously that Bailes has set up what he calls Singita Premium Wine Direct, so that guests can order the rare South African wines he sources for his 80,000-bottles central cellar at Stellenbosch after they’ve returned home.
And of course the service is practically telepathic. The young daughter of some guests was once overheard fretting that she’d forgotten her bathing suit. Within 24 hours, a selection of child-sized swimwear had been delivered, unbidden, to their room.
But what’s a safari lodge without abundant animals nearby? Singita’s anti-poaching initiative has been so successful that a decade on Grumeti has a greater concentration of game than anywhere else in the entire Serengeti,” enthuses Bailes. Thanks to the annual census of wildlife they conduct each year, they know, for instance that the buffalo population has grown tenfold from 600 to 6,000.
Just buffalo? “You start by getting animals that range, buffalo, wildebeest … Then you get what we call resident animals [elephant, rhino, giraffe and so on\, and as those populations build up, you get the predators: cheetah, lion, because there’s such a huge food source. We’re finding new prides almost every week. It’s just incredible!”
For, he continues, “First and foremost we are a conservation business. With the population explosion in Africa, pristine wilderness is disappearing by the day. Singita’s core purpose is to conserve large tracts of land for future generations.”