How a Few Adventurous Philanthropists Are Changing the Face of Conservation
“I guide all over Africa, experiencing beautiful lodges on $100,000-plus itineraries,” said Michael Lorentz, the South African safari specialist who brought me to Gambella and whose company, Passage to Africa, arranged the complex logistics for African Parks’ donors. (On their return home, the group committed to an annual donation of $1 million to $3 million as a direct result of their trip.) “Most guests want to have a beautiful vacation in the African wilderness, but there are also travelers out there with deep pockets who want to be exposed to the issues. So I take them to those places. It’s by no means always luxurious, but it is sophisticated. It is about the interaction between tourism, conservation, and philanthropy in parts of Africa where they come together in a very real sense.”
According to Paul Milton, whose London-based Milton Group advises private family offices on conservation-oriented philanthropy, it is a confluence that gained traction with the financial collapse in 2008. “NGOs could no longer fill the gap with small donations from the man in the street with regards to funding the conservation of large, at-risk environments,” he said. “But there has also been another side to the financial collapse. Families are starting to pay more attention to the future economic sustainability of their investments, and the interest their kids hold in projects for the long term. This next generation cares about the environment; they have a more spiritual, emotional, and holistic approach.”
Milton has worked with the U.S. hedge-fund manager Paul Tudor Jones, who leases 350,000 acres in Tanzania as part of a luxury tourism and conservation project called Singita Grumeti. This is a well-documented story, not least because of the quality of the lodges Tudor Jones and his South African partner, Singita’s Luke Bailes, have put in place. The property’s extravagant suites, swimming pools, spa treatments, and private-guided safaris help lure first-time visitors to Africa in an environment where they can feel safe while still being exposed to some of the conservation issues at play. Offering a completely different perspective is African Parks’ project in Chad, which I visited in January 2015.
Bordered by Libya, Sudan, Nigeria, Cameroon, and the Central African Republic, Chad is a country where security issues and threats to wildlife are very real. In Zakouma National Park, poaching has decimated the local elephant population, which has dropped from around 4,000 to fewer than 500 in the last decade. These numbers have started to improve under African Parks’ care, but threats and security issues remain. The dangers are not enough, however, to deter Lorentz—last April he made his sixth visit to Zakouma—or the most intrepid of the new philanthropists.
James Coleman, an industrialist from the United States, donated funds to build a new high-end tourism venture in Zakouma. Called Camp Nomade, it is as beautiful as anything I have experienced in East Africa—eight elegant canvas tents outfitted with rugs from Libya, carved wooden trunks, golden camel bells, and silver jugs—in the last place on the continent I expected to find it. The income from every stay is directed 100 percent back into conservation. “Zakouma is such an exotic landscape,” Coleman told me in an interview for the Financial Times. “There’s quite simply nothing else like it. People need to see it for themselves and understand the challenges it has overcome.”
Coleman’s point rang true when, a few months later, I traveled to Kenya to join an elephant-collaring exercise close to the Maasai Mara. Veterinarians working with the Mara Elephant Project were darting the elephants and attaching GPS collars so the organization could track the movement of the animals and monitor their safety. (In the Mara, much of the threat to elephants comes from agriculturalists, who kill the animals when they damage crops.) Also present at the collaring event was a representative of the Irish philanthropist Denis O’Brien, who committed a six-figure sum to the Mara Elephant Project after taking a safari with Richard Roberts, one of its founders. Roberts launched the organization in 2011 with the Indianapolis-based philanthropist Suzanne Fehsenfeld, who, since falling in love with Africa on safari, has dedicated more than $1 million to the project.