Wilderness Safaris was still in its infancy when the company demonstrated its philanthropic bent. In the mid-1980s, founders Colin Bell and Chris MacIntyre helped finance a study of declining vulture populations in Namibia, a project that continues today. By the early 1990s, philanthropy had become such a major element of the company’s operations that it established the Wilderness Wildlife Trust to coordinate a broad spectrum of humanitarian, research, and educational programs.
In 2001, a visit by Paul Newman prompted the actor to combine aspects of his children’s empowerment organization, the Association of Hole in the Wall Camps, with Wilderness Safaris’ Children in the Wilderness program. The joint initiative now introduces more than 1,000 disadvantaged inner-city children each year to the wonders of the bushveld.
Animals remain a primary focus for Wilderness Safaris, which, through its trust, sponsors ongoing studies on brown hyenas, giant Maputaland sea turtles, and bat-eared foxes. In national parks where fences keep animals from migrating in search of water, the trust has funded the digging of boreholes to pump out water from deep underground. And in one of its most successful conservation ventures of recent years, Wilderness Safaris has played a key role in reintroducing black and white rhinos into the Okavango Delta.
Wilderness Safaris also has made efforts to support the communities of the Okavango Delta and other regions where it operates camps. In the delta village of Seronga, population 1,800, the villagers now own a boat that carries residents to work, school, or the hospital. Seronga also has stores for food and other necessities that it did not have before.
Obonye Kamela, who grew up in Seronga and is now a guide at Vumbura Plains, is learning skills that will stand him in good stead no matter what he does in the future. The 29-year-old “Obi,” as his colleagues call him, began his career at Wilderness Safaris in 1996 as a poler, pushing a macoro boat across the delta’s waterways. “Every day I deal with people from every part of the world,” says Obi. “They’ve traveled thousands of miles to be here and learn about my part of the world. In a way it’s like being a teacher. We have things here in the delta that nobody else has. We have to take pride in them and guard them for future generations.”
Seronga is part of a five-village community that is home to Obi and 70 other Vumbura Plains employees. The delta community receives $400,000 annually in concession fees from the camp, but that may change, says Obi. “Wilderness Safaris is training us for the day when we operate the camp ourselves.”