Great Expectations

Dereck Joubert strides through tightly planted rows of pyrethrum and sweet potatoes on a steep rise in the Rwandan countryside. Reaching a craggy overlook near the mountain’s peak, he points down to the valley floor, where a muddy footpath snakes through the farmland.

"The road will come up through there," says Joubert, tracing the trail with his finger toward the confluence of three slopes.

Crops blanket the slopes and surrounding terrain, but the farmland ends abruptly about a mile in the distance, in the foothills of the volcanic Virunga Mountains. There, the rain forest takes over, thick with bamboo and home to about half of the world’s 700 remaining mountain gorillas.

"You’ll cross a bridge over the water," Joubert continues, "and pass from this world into the gorillas’ world. It will be overgrown, very mossy, and you’ll go through these giant lava steps and an arch made of volcanic rock. Then you’ll enter the main lodge and see this," he says, gesturing to the vista of emerald fields and 14,000-foot peaks.

Joubert, a wildlife documentarian who, along with his wife and business partner, Beverly, has spent most of his adult life in the African bush, has come to this mountaintop near the village of Ruhengeri to survey the proposed site for their company’s new lodge. With their partners in the African travel-and-wildlife venture Great Plains Conservation, the couple hopes to build a resort unlike anything Rwanda has ever seen: a six-villa retreat where trackers might lead gorilla treks directly from the front gates and guest-room rates could exceed $2,000 per night. Yet, for the Jouberts and their Great Plains cohorts, the lodge is simply a means to an end.

Great Plains’ long-term ambitions in Rwanda involve, among other plans, extending the boundaries of Volcanoes National Park by nearly 9,000 acres and reforesting the entire swath to reclaim the mountain gorillas’ shrinking habitat. The undertaking is impressive in scope, if perhaps idealistic. But Joubert’s unwavering confidence, as well as the passion and pedigrees of his Great Plains partners, makes the outcome seem inevitable.

The impetus behind Great Plains Conservation originated five years ago, while the Jouberts were vacationing with their longtime friend and fellow South African Colin Bell. "All of us were approaching 50, and we were doing a canoe trip down the Zambezi," recalls Bell, the cofounder and former CEO of the pioneering African travel company Wilderness Safaris. "And we realized that, despite all we had done [in wildlife conservation], we weren’t making an impact. Our efforts weren’t good enough."

Thus, in 2006, the friends formed their Seychelles-based company, an operation they describe as a conservation organization that is funded by ecotourism, rather than by aid or donations. Two additional partners—banker Paul Harris and World Wildlife Fund South Africa chairman Mark Read—soon joined Great Plains, which today manages a handful of high-end safari camps that finance the company’s preservation efforts. "We want this to be a solid business model that will be copied around the world," says Bell, Great Plains’ CEO, who has a degree in economics from Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand.

To date, Great Plains has applied its model in Botswana, Kenya, and Tanzania, where the company’s safari camps fund projects ranging from a predator-protection program in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro to an elephant sanctuary outside the Okavango Delta.

 

Colin Bell’s spectacles sit low on his nose as he scans the floodplain for signs of life—or death. "The delta to the left!" he suddenly shouts into his headset from the back of the helicopter. "Ten o’clock!"

The pilot veers left and follows the bright-blue Selinda Spillway as it cuts through fields of yellow-green grass in northern Botswana’s Selinda Reserve. A herd of red lechwe flees from the noisy chopper’s shadow below.

"There!" says Bell.

Below, about five feet beneath the water’s surface on the rust-colored river floor, is the perfectly preserved skeleton of a bull African elephant. Sepia-toned and ghostly, the carcass appears ancient, a fossil from a time when elephants roamed freely throughout the continent. But the skeleton is fresh, as is its watery grave. "I came through here a couple weeks ago," says Bell, "and that carcass was on dry ground."

The skeleton is significant—and a source of pride for Bell and his partners—because it is intact. "Most elephant carcasses in most parts of Africa are a result of poaching, so the tusks have been taken," explains Dereck. Elephants that die of natural causes are typically ravaged by hyenas, jackals, and vultures, but floodwaters covered this specimen before it could be scattered. "Small crocs ate the flesh, and fish cleaned the rest," says Dereck, "leaving a perfectly preserved carcass, ivory and all."

Great Plains’ plans at Selinda are focused on preserving the area’s living elephant population, which currently numbers about 9,000. The Jouberts leased this 320,000-acre former hunting concession in 2004 and immediately ceased all hunting on the property. Eventually, the couple and their Great Plains partners hope to create an elephant sanctuary that will stretch northwest from their concession into Namibia and Angola. Today, however, Selinda is an island. "Every piece of land around us has been hunted for decades," says Bell. "In our neighboring camps, you can go out on a photographic safari, and the same elephant you take pictures of in the morning might be shot that afternoon."

Another distinction between Selinda and its neighbors is the quality—and paucity—of its lodgings. Zarafa Camp, opened in 2008, is one of only three camps with a total of just 16 rooms in the entire reserve. Set on the banks of a lagoon, the solar-powered camp consists of four elevated tent accommodations outfitted with copper tubs and custom colonial-style furnishings. Zip-up doors lead to wooden decks with plunge pools, from which guests can view hippopotamuses basking and bellowing in the lagoon.

The pools themselves often serve as watering holes for the elephants that roam Zarafa’s grounds. For those occasions when animals come too close for comfort, the camp’s rooms include air horns and World War II–era telephones to summon staff members, as well as crystal decanters filled with gin and brandy to soothe nerves. Guests are also provided with Canon EOS 40D digital SLR cameras, which they can use to capture wildlife on safari—or from their decks. "In the’90s, animals were running scared because of hunting," says Bell. "Now they’re coming into the camp."

The wildlife is not so habituated to humans at the Selous Project, a Great Plains concession within Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve. The company’s 300,000-acre plot is bordered on all sides by hunting parks, and was itself a hunting concession as recently as 2006. "We tried to make a movie in the Selous several years ago, and the hunters basically blocked us," says Beverly. "So for us now as Great Plains, it’s very gratifying to go into the center of the Selous and start this ripple effect of change."

Great Plains intends the Selous Project to prove the greater economic potential of photographic safaris over hunting safaris. Visitors to the property stay in a simple settlement of four guest tents on the banks of a river. But what the camp lacks in accoutrements, it makes up for in exclusivity: The Selous Project typically rents to only one party at a time, and the guests have sole access to the concession.

A stark contrast to the rustic settlement at Selous, Great Plains’ Ol Donyo Wuas camp in Kenya resembles a five-star beach resort in the bush. Originally opened in 1988, the 10-suite property underwent a renovation and reopened as a Great Plains camp in 2008. The retreat sits on a rise in the Chyulu Hills where, instead of ocean, the suites look out to a watering hole, the savanna, and, in the distance, the snow-covered peak of Kilimanjaro.

Ol Donyo Wuas is central to Great Plains’ People and Predators initiative, which aims to limit contact between big cats and farmers through measures such as establishing cattle-free wildlife zones. The company recently expanded its project in Kenya with the acquisition of Mara Plains, a six-tent camp in a private concession bordering the Masai Mara National Reserve.

Other Great Plains projects include the restoration of a private island in the Seychelles—where the company plans to open a beach resort by 2012—and the creation of a tiger sanctuary in India. But the company’s most exciting—and most pressing—venture is in the rain forest of Rwanda.

 

The gravity of the gorillas’ predicament in Africa first registered with Bell while he was on a scouting trip to Gabon. "We were looking for lowland gorillas and didn’t see a single one," he recalls. "On the last day we told our host we really wanted to see gorillas. So he led us into an industrial part of town and took us into this warehouse, where there was a huge cauldron. Inside there was a deep-frozen gorilla with his eyes chopped out and with a big wire ring around its neck."

In addition to poaching, which supplies the black-market bushmeat trade, Africa’s remaining gorillas face a rapid loss of habitat. In Rwanda, farmland has infringed on the primates’ protected area, terrain that now comprises just over 30,000 acres in Volcanoes National Park.

Great Plains hopes to increase the gorilla habitat in the country by nearly 30 percent through reforesting funded by revenues from the lodge—which could open as early as 2011—and the sale of carbon credits. "When we first pitched this to a conservation organization," says Bell, "they said we were naive."

It is indeed an ambitious project, one that will require significant financing and government cooperation. Fortunately for Great Plains, the company appears to have a like-minded ally in Rwanda’s executive branch.

Paul Kagame, who became president of Rwanda in 2000, has been heralded internationally for bringing peace to the country after the 1994 genocide in which an estimated 800,000 people were killed. As a general during the war, he forbade his troops from poaching animals, and as president he has taken such ecologically minded measures as banning plastic bags and instituting twice-monthly national cleanup days.

"There are two stories about Rwanda," says Kagame. "One is of a tragic and turbulent history, and another is what we’re talking about today—creating a bright future and preserving our lives and our animals. How do we make these coexist?"

The coexistence of humans and wildlife is the fundamental concept—and contradiction—behind Great Plains. From Rwanda to Botswana, the company is taking steps to limit contact between people and animals while simultaneously, through tourism, increasing exposure. It is a balancing act that the founders are intimately familiar with.

"When Dereck and I are making a movie, we have a policy not to intervene with wildlife," says Beverly. "But when we feel that it is a man-made situation—when man has affected and harmed an animal—we will intervene.

"With Great Plains," she continues, "every single project we’re taking on is in an area that involves man-made situations. We’re looking at how we can take these areas and bring them back in harmony, and back in balance."

PROTECT AND SERVE
Great Plains Conservation (www.greatplainsconservation.com) launched in 2006 with a mission to safeguard wildlife by securing large tracts of land for conservation and “sensitive, low-volume, low-impact ecotourism.” For tourists, that translates to exclusive safari camps with first-rate guides and amenities such as private pools that overlook watering holes popular with elephants and other big game. The company’s properties host no more than a handful of visitors at a time, in settings as diverse as a delta basin in Botswana and, in the coming years, a private island in the Seychelles. Each of the Great Plains camps has a specific role in the company’s overriding goal of conserving wildlife.

THE SELINDA RESERVE: This 320,000-acre concession in northern Botswana includes three safari camps, the best of which is Zarafa ($1,025 to $1,445 per person), a refined four-tent outpost on the banks of a lagoon. Selinda is home to lions, wild dogs, and approximately 9,000 elephants, and is at the heart of Great Plains’ plans to create a sprawling sanctuary for the pachyderms. Activities at the reserve include 4x4 safaris and overnight canoe excursions. www.selindareserve.com

OL DONYO WUAS: This opulent 10-suite retreat ($530 to $810 per person) in Kenya reopened under the Great Plains banner in 2008. The company is working with local Masai communities to decrease poaching in the area and protect the region’s lions and other predators. Guests can explore the savanna and forests on foot or by safari vehicle, mountain bike, or horseback. www.oldonyowuas.com

MARA PLAINS: Great Plains took over this camp in a private concession bordering Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve last January. An extension of the predator conservation program, the camp provides an ideal jumping-off point for viewing the area’s big cats and their prey. The six tents at Mara Plains ($610 to $720 per person) are more rustic than those at other Great Plains properties, but the company plans to upgrade the camp in the coming months. www.maraplains.com

THE SELOUS PROJECT: As private a safari experience as can be had in East Africa, the Selous Project is a former hunting concession encompassing scrubland, rivers, and unexplored mountains in southern Tanzania. Selous’ four semipermanent tent accommodations are basic, but the nightly fee ($250 to $750 per person) grants exclusive use of the more than 300,000-acre reserve. www.selousproject.com

VIRUNGA VOLCANOES: Still in the development stages, this project bordering Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda will pair a small lodge with a massive conservation effort. The plan involves extending the habitat of mountain gorillas through reforestation funded by the sale of carbon credits and revenues from the six-villa property.

ALPHONSE ISLAND: Great Plains is restoring native flora and fauna to this private isle in the Seychelles, where the company aims to open a resort by 2012. Revenues from the resort will help protect bonefish, Afri­can pompano, and other species in the coral atoll ecosystem.

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