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Why Zimbabwe is the Best Safari Destination for Ethical Travelers

Article and photos by Rebecca Shapiro

Zimbabwe is a country of contrasts. The kindest locals, the harshest dictator, the prettiest scenery, and the most abundant wildlife all co-exist in this southern African gem. And after years of ruinous hyperinflation that left its economy in tatters, it’s only recently returned to the bucket list of travelers worldwide.

But what a well-deserved return. Not only is the country home to Victoria Falls, the almighty waterfall offering awe-inspiring views and adventure sports aplenty, but the safari scene is unrivalled. Teeming with wildlife, not with tourists, its national parks boast constant opportunities to spot The Big Five, in an environment emphasizing protection from poachers. The largest of these is Hwange, a park that’s roughly the same size as Switzerland and the third largest on the continent. Once home to Cecil the Lion, and still home to the highest population density of elephants in Africa, it’s pretty special.

Elephant driking from pool at camp at Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe
Elephant drinking from a pool at Somalisa camp, Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe.

But if you still need tempting, read on for more reasons why Zimbabwe is not just a magnet for thrill-seekers and animal lovers, but also for you. If you’re the sort of traveler who’s looking to make a meaningful contribution, who cares about long-suffering locals and oft-neglected wildlife, and who’s ready to explore a stunningly underrated country, then here’s why Zimbabwe could be your ideal destination.  

The Need for Growth and Development

Sub-Saharan Africa isn’t known for its wealth. But even in a region beset with poverty, Zimbabwe’s suffering stands out. Constant political and economic crises between 2000 and 2008 led to the country’s GDP halving. And even today, Zimbabwe’s GDP is lower than all four neighboring countries. This is due, in part, to the fact that Zambia, Botswana, Mozambique and South Africa have more developed economies, largely a consequence of natural resources like copper and diamonds. But the disparity is also due to the fact that they are all democracies; even if imperfect, they are an improvement upon Mugabe’s brutal regime.

Since Zimbabwe eventually embraced the US dollar in 2009, stability has widely returned. But that’s not to say the poverty isn’t debilitating—when a taxi driver shakes your hand, repeating his thanks again and again when you give $10 instead of $5 for a ride, you can’t help but be moved. And saddened. Luckily, you can channel these emotions into support for a whole host of fantastic local charities and organizations (see links at bottom of article). Oh, and you can support the country’s tourism industry. Its safari scene is less crowded and more exclusive than that of the tourism giants (South Africa, Kenya, and Tanzania). This makes it all the more sincere and special.

Lions at the Linkwasha Concession of Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe
Lions at the Linkwasha Concession of Hwange National Park.

Empowering Locals Without Being Patronizing

One thing that really struck me about the country was just how much effort both insiders and outsiders put into rebuilding it post-crisis. This passion was hard not to notice in the tourism industry. Every single hotel, lodge, or camp I stayed in (10 in 14 days!) had incredible initiatives and inspiring methods for helping the community. Wilderness Safaris, Africa’s largest safari company, is one of many that localizes their hiring process—this means that about 92% of their many employees are citizens of the country in which they’re employed.

Another key player in the field is African Bush Camps Foundation (ABCF), which aims to empower rural communities. Talking to Sophia, the CEO, really impressed upon me how distant their work is from some of the less helpful development schemes or "voluntourism" programs of all kinds that saturate the continent. She was brutally honest about the challenges facing the country (“there’s no point in buying books for a school when the kids aren’t eating”), but hopeful, at the same time, that the foundation’s long-standing efforts in Dete town are beginning to pay off. The proof is in the pudding—thanks to ABCF’s assistance, Mambanje Primary School went from having no power, to having its very own computer lab.   

Man walking in Dete town, where many work in tourism.
Dete town is just on the edge of Hwange National Park—many people there are employed in tourism.

The Green Safari Scene

It’s the theme of sustainability where Zimbabwe really comes into its own as a tourist destination. Eco-warriors will find themselves right at home thanks to the burgeoning focus on green accommodations. My first time in the country coincided with Green Tourism’s initial visit. The sustainable tourism certification program was grading the properties, and as I suspected they might, rewarded some impressive environmental efforts. Amongst the green award-winners was Somalisa, a camp that not only stuns in the luxury it provides, but also in the number of solar panels it uses. Victoria Falls Safari Lodge also received acclaim for its eco-friendly tourism, as the surrounding stones, natural grasses, and some 6,000 surrounding trees were translocated into a nursery and replanted once construction was complete. 

A personal favorite camp, and green champion, was Vintage. For me, the back-to-basics camp in Hwange National Park felt most appropriate, considering we were in such drought-stricken land. Despite its lack of running water, delightful meals are still rustled up, and somewhat delightful showers are had (via buckets). The camp really goes the extra mile to be green—there’s compost toilets, solar panel jam jar lamps, and the owner even boasted that the whole site could be dismantled and disappear completely within hours. And this eco mind-set has translated to the activities on offer, where guided walks and horseback safaris are encouraged over game drives. That means more exercise and minimized carbon footprints. Zimbabwe, you pioneer!

Vintage green camp
Vintage camp, in Hwange National Park, is an enthusiastic champion for the green cause and walks the walk.

The Infamous Animal Conservation Needs

A positive consequence of the rage and outrage following Cecil the Lion’s death last year was a renewed focus on animal conservation. This is incredibly important in a country where illegal poaching has had devastating consequences. It killed 60% of the rhino population between 2003 and 2005, according to the WWF, and in Hwange, Cecil’s former home, wiped out 300 elephants in 2003. Thankfully, if you choose well, your visit to Zimbabwe can really help the good guys—some safari companies make a point of supporting anti-poaching organizations, ensuring that your travel expenditures result in a more ethical contribution. Sikeleli Safaris, for instance, supports the Imire Rhino Sanctuary and Victoria Falls Anti Poaching Unit.

There are two further examples that help illustrate some of the country’s kindest conservation projects. The Hwange Lion Research Project works with Oxford University to collect long-term data about lion demography and behavior. Having met some of the dedicated researchers in person, they seemed emblematic of the country’s capacity for giving their all to projects, even in the face of adversity. On a smaller, but no less heart-warming scale, is the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust. One of its special projects concerns Sylvester the cheetah, who was orphaned so young he was unable to live in the wild. He now works as an "ambassador" cheetah, interacting with schoolchildren and the public to raise awareness of his endangered species plight. As well as donating to his upkeep, you can visit him at The Elephant Camp in Victoria Falls—a truly unforgettable experience.

Vintage green camp
Author with Sylvester the cheetah, at The Elephant Camp, Victoria Falls.

The Proud Showcasing of Zimbabwe’s Talents

If it wasn’t already apparent, Zimbabweans are a pretty proud people. And the pride in their products is something the tourism market really shows off – even in the most high end safari camps like Linkwasha and Somalisa. In the former camp, local drinks from the bar are complementary, while imported ones do not come free. And in Somalisa, gowns and laundry bags in rooms are made by the Thandanani Sewing Project, a group formed of widows and single mothers. Similarly, the pride in other local arts is hard not to notice—it can be seen everywhere you look. At Vic Falls Safari Club, for instance, the walls are all adorned with authentic African prints.

Francie, the fabulously feisty overseer of safari camps such as Vintage and Miombo, stressed to me that “it’s about hand ups, not handouts.” These values have meant that Vintage donates a percentage of each guest’s payment directly towards local conservation projects such as Iganyana arts center (pictured below). This is where local artisans earn a profit from creating traditional crafts and jewelry out of recycled materials, and is well worth a visit. It’s one of many ways in which development and sustainability in the country is being tackled with such sensitive, sensible methods. For the traveler, such an ethical stance is just one of millions of reasons why Zimbabwe is such a fantastic destination.

Arts and crafts for sale
Arts and crafts for sale at the Igayana arts center.

Just give the country the opportunity to prove itself to you as a premier travel destination, and I can personally guarantee that you won’t regret it.

Ways you can help local organizations make a difference in Zimbabwe

Pack well with Pack for a Purpose
This inspired non-profit provides lists of supplies needed in local communities worldwide—travelers simply pop some requested items in their luggage pre-departure. Since 2010, over 54,000kgs of supplies have been given to over 60 countries; with Wilderness Safaris helping a great deal in Zimbabwe.

Volunteer at Mother Africa Trust
Founded in 2006, this Zimbabwe-based trust works sensitively and effectively to help the country’s people and environment. Volunteer projects are mostly in Hwange and Matobo Hills and range from assistance to children in need to elephant research to archaeological digs.

Donate to Friends of Hwange
There are tons of organizations worthy of a donation, but Friends of Hwange does exceptional work looking after the national park’s waterholes. The organization uses diesel engines, windmills, and solar systems to provide water for wildlife, ensuring much-needed tourism revenue.

Intern at Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust
This Victoria Falls-based organization offers fascinating internships (plus accommodations) for graduates or professionals interested in wildlife conservation. The month-long stints include projects that provide rabies vaccinations, monitor collared lions, test cattle for disease, and more.

Register for a MyPlanet card
These free cards link to a charity of your choice, meaning that shopping at one of their partner stores donates a percentage of your purchase on your behalf. Choose a beneficiary such as Children in the Wilderness so that children in Zimbabwe’s rural communities can benefit.

Rebecca Shapiro is a London and Vancouver-based travel blogger and freelance journalist. See her blog for more.

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