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Can tourism save the rhino?

Only 5,000 black rhinos and about 20,000 white rhinos remain in all of Africa.

Two high-end safari companies have teamed up to relocate the endangered animals from South Africa to Botswana. Drew Gough explores whether a sustainable model for luxury travel can truly help conserve wildlife in southern Africa

"It's okay – come closer. They won't hurt us. They're curious about you."

It's near dusk in the Phinda Private Game Reserve, a few miles from South Africa's northeastern coast in KwaZulu-Natal province. The late-afternoon drizzle has let up slightly, and the soft light and gently humming insects fill this clearing in the forest with a false calm – punctured regularly by the eight 5,000-pound white rhinoceroses stomping around nearby.

They are curious – or curious and timid in equal parts – edging closer in slow, swaying steps before sniffing the air loudly, spinning and running away in a clumsy, dusty gallop to resume watching us from a safe distance. Always in pairs, the rhinos approach, sniff, pirouette, then run until their curiosity gives way to hunger and they start chomping on piles of yellow grass stacked for their dinner.

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"See? Curious. They're lovely animals," says Karrie, our young and endlessly enthusiastic guide. "It takes them a while to get used to having people around, but they're getting accustomed to it here."

"Here" is a safe enclosure in the heart of one of the most dangerous places in the world for a rhino. The boma is a walled area in a fenced-off game reserve, far from any perimeter fence and constantly patrolled by armed guards. Still, poaching is rife: South Africa lost more than 1,200 rhinos to poachers in 2014 and 1,175 in 2015. Even Phinda has lost a half-dozen over the past few years. Worldwide, it's estimated that a rhino dies every eight hours simply because their horns are more valuable than gold or cocaine.

Only 5,000 black rhinos and about 20,000 white rhinos remain in all of Africa. Both populations have seen a rebound, even though white rhinos stood on the edge of extinction a century ago – with possibly fewer than 100 left in the wild – and the number of black rhinos, which are still critically endangered, fell from about 70,000 in 1970 to a low of about 2,400 in 1995. Still, at the current rate of poaching, some wildlife groups estimate that rhinos have only a decade left. Poachers are often well funded and well organized, and governments are ill-equipped or unwilling to deal with them.

So who can? Phinda offers a model. This is a luxury game reserve managed by travel company &Beyond, a big player in the high-end safari game in Africa. In Phinda, it operates a homestead family lodge and five small lodges in the reserve's different ecosystems – two in the rocky hills, two in the grasslands and one in the remarkable "sand forest," which is exactly what it sounds like. Rates at the Phinda Forest Lodge begin at $575 (U.S.) a night, including all meals and two safaris a day.

It's an easy life to get used to as a traveller. A trolley of coffee and tea is delivered to your immaculate room in the middle of the forest before dawn. A guard with a flashlight leads you through a network of paths in case lions, leopards, snakes or spiders wait for you in the dark. You bundle into the open-air jeeps with your excited guide and stock-still ranger and head out into the brush to track game. You take pictures, you eat breakfast in the wild, you have more coffee spiked with Amarula as the sun comes up, you have more encounters – herds of elephants, lone giraffes, a pride of lionesses, a mother cheetah and her cubs – where you get so close you can hear the animals breathing, then you're bundled back to camp for sumptuous food, a shower, a nap, an optional spa treatment, lunch and drinks, then back out on safari until well past sundown. At night, you sleep to the sound of the thick forest and the scampering hooves of the bizarre, tiny duiker antelope. Then repeat.

Worldwide, it’s estimated that a rhino dies every eight hours, simply because their horns are more valuable than gold or cocaine.

Yes, it's opulent. Yes, it's excessive. And yes, it's a style of travel that appeals to the insufferable bucket-lister who's desperate to see a kill and who won't stop talking about it. But there's an argument to be made that the price tag is justified – and not just for the glimpses of big animals.

Phinda's rhino boma is part of a joint project with another luxury safari outfit, Great Plains, called Rhinos Without Borders. The boma's eight curious inhabitants are a key component of the project and will soon be moved to a Great Plains-owned concession in neighbouring Botswana, where poaching is virtually non-existent and the rhino population can slowly recover. They'll spend more time in another boma there while they gradually acclimate to the surroundings.

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Then they'll be set free.

Rhinos Without Borders is wholly funded by the conservation arms of Great Plains and &Beyond, which plan to relocate at least 100 rhinos from South Africa to Botswana. It's an expensive project. To relocate one rhino costs $45,000, and the annual operating budget runs to $4.5-million, which includes staff at the rhino tracking centre in Maun, Botswana, and a field team of 15 who follow the animals once they're relocated.

Rhinos Without Borders is both a conservation project and a symbol. Preventing animals from being killed unnecessarily in small numbers has a knock-on effect. Hearing fewer gunshots means calmer animals acting more naturally – following typical migration patterns, being cautious, but not terrified of human visitors – which leads to better game viewing, more money coming in to the company, more social projects in local communities and broader conservation programs, which kicks off the whole cycle again. The goal is not to save a hundred rhinos but to save as many animals as possible.

It's a long slog.

Matetsi Private Game Reserve in northern Zimbabwe.

Fisher is a giant. Standing more than 6 foot 5, he has the physique of a football player – broad shoulders, sturdy stance – but the eagerness of a kid. His rifle is always strapped to the hood of his truck, but his favourite weapon is a pair of high-powered binoculars, which he wears at all times on a harness across his chest.

His second-favourite weapon is his bird book. As the car trundles through the narrow paths of &Beyond's Matetsi Private Game Reserve in northern Zimbabwe, he frequently slams on the brakes to point out a particular passing ibis or snipe, such-and-such bee-eater or red-capped whatsit. He also really likes insects.

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He's a local boy, but Fisher has travelled southern Africa extensively. The big game animals interest him, but his true love is the stuff beneath the water or behind that leaf. Like other guides at safari companies, his knowledge and love of animals is infectious.

But Matetsi is an unusual place.

An hour upriver from Victoria Falls along the Zambezi River, it's a reclaimed hunting concession next to a still-very-much-active hunting concession. In addition to the standard difficulties with poachers, Zimbabwe, bankrupt after years of Robert Mugabe's rule, isn't shy about offering hunters a chance to shoot one of the big five game animals – elephant, lion, leopard, rhinoceros and cape buffalo. (Cecil the lion was killed a few hours south of here.)

Matetsi is expensive but the staff are remarkable, open about their frustrations with their country and the difficulties they face during the currency crisis.

Government officials have seized land, including game parks, to host either legitimate hunting or to tacitly allow poaching.

The armies of wannabe Hemingways, armed with selfie sticks and firing high-calibre rounds into sleeping lions, make up a minority of tourists, but their impact on Zimbabwe's large mammals is significant – and not just in terms of dwindling populations of elephants and rhinos.

No, the animals act differently in Zimbabwe. They're afraid. They're aggressive. You won't find playful lionesses cuddling a metre from awestruck travellers here.

The sound of the jeep's tires crunching the rough road in Matetsi sends giraffes and elephants crashing through the dry brush, the latter bellowing what Fisher calls "a war cry."

There's a valuable contrast, though, especially for anyone on a typical safari circuit through southern Africa.

At Phinda – even with its occasional nighttime incursions from poachers – and at other protected game reserves in South Africa, the animals border on placid, rarely disturbed by human presence; in Zimbabwe, with the occasional gunshot ringing out in the distance, the animals are scarce and scared. Fisher explains that it will take years before they get used to humans again and that it will require the closing of the other hunting concessions nearby.

Matetsi’s lodge is set at the riverbank, providing the only source of light for miles.

Like the rest of the tourism sector in Zimbabwe, Matetsi is expensive ($995 a person per night) and a bit slapdash. Its lodge is set at the riverbank, providing the only source of light for miles and drawing every local insect to the dinner table and the interior of its concrete bungalows. Cans of Raid are provided and used liberally, somewhat overriding the promised tranquillity of the surroundings. The lovely outside seating areas of each private villa are overrun by possessive baboons. But the format – coffee, game drive, breakfast, nap, wine cellar, game drive or sundowners on a pontoon boat on the Zambezi – is good, the food excellent and the staff remarkable, open about their frustrations with their country and the difficulties they face during the currency crisis. They rely on tourism for their livelihood, but the industry is threatened by an arbitrary government, rampant corruption and the decimation of the local animal populations.

The degree to which tourism boosts African economies varies. South Africa, with more than animals to offer the casual traveller, generated about $10-billion in tourism revenue in 2011, about 2.3 per cent of GDP. That same year, Zimbabwe generated $634-million from tourism, or 6.4 per cent of GDP – the highest percentage in Africa.

A small portion of those figures comes from hunting tourism – generally less than 5 per cent. Fisher argues that more hunting, legal or otherwise, means fewer animals and fewer tourists.

Next door, in Botswana, is proof.

Even from 5,000 feet up, it's clear that Botswana's Okavango Delta teems with life. Elephants, buffalo and hippos appear as grey dots with long shadows at the water's edge. When no animals are visible, their tracks always are, stretching for miles through the drier parts of the delta to some distant watering hole. There are roads made by people here, but they are few and untrustworthy.

On the ground, as we wobble out of the seven-seat plane to the baking runway, the remoteness of the delta sets in. The nearest town is a 45-minute flight away – or at the end of a very long, bumpy, hot drive. Apart from these private airstrips dotted irregularly through the area, all to service fly-in luxury safari camps, the most reliable features of the land are animal-made. Towering termite mounds – each hosting a small community of warthogs – serve as landmarks along the dirt roads to Great Plains Selinda Camp.

This short trip is eventful. Hippos poke their noses out of the spillways and occasionally snap their jaws. Crocodiles splash away. Herds of sable antelope and kudu mingle with zebras and monkeys. And now and then, in the distance, you can see a giraffe moving ever so slightly behind the trees. You can see more animals in the 45-minute drive from the airstrip to the camp here than in two full days of safari in Zimbabwe.

The animals are so used to humans here that even the camp, a few modest tented bungalows facing the spillway, is one of the prime viewing areas of a six-day safari and one of the great travel destinations, all understated luxury executed to a high level and worth every one of the many pennies (starting at $820 a person per night, not including the small-plane transfers). Elephants – there are more in the Okavango Delta than anywhere else on Earth – wander up to the water to drink, then spend the day tossing dirt on themselves to keep the flies away. Hippos leave the spillway by the dozens after sundown to feed on the camp's grass. Dinner on the small verandas are enjoyed before an audience of green glowing eyes in the darkness.

It wasn't always so. Great Plains – founded by National Geographic filmmakers Beverly and Dereck Joubert – was one of the first companies to realize that people would be just as interested shooting an elephant with a zoom lens as with a rifle, so it started promoting photographic tourism in the delta with the opening of Selinda Reserve in 2006. It took three or four years, they say, before the animals stopped fearing the presence of humans, then a few more before the animals didn't notice them at all.

Great Plains aimed to prove that hunting concessions and hunting revenue could be replaced by other forms of tourism. Other companies followed suit, and before long Botswana's government realized that the value of safari tourism could easily outpace hunting tourism. In 2014, it banned hunting outright and has effectively repurposed its army as an anti-poaching unit. As has happened partially in Phinda and may, with luck, one day happen in northern Zimbabwe, the animals gradually returned to areas where they were once vulnerable to hunting and poaching.

In early April, the rhinos from South Africa arrived – 12 in all, spending time in a boma before their release into the delta. They will be safe from humans here, because almost everything is safe from humans here.

The combination of a government with a conservation ethos and the willpower (and firepower) to back it up, plus an industry heavily invested in high-end, low-volume, full-board safari adventuring produces one of the greatest experiences a traveller can have. Great Plains takes a portion of its proceeds and uses it to buy more tracts of land for conservation in southern Africa, then aims to keep its small camps running at a high cost to essentially finance wild spaces with very few people.

The result is something like this: try to process your frequently changing surroundings – the lush spillway and its hippo-saturated waters giving way to dry tracts of sand blown north from the Kalahari Desert, sand so deep that any amount of rain is instantly absorbed, and this giving way to grasslands with low trees, giving way to acres recently scorched by fire after a storm, giving way to a blast of green and brown around a putrid watering hole. This kaleidoscope is so heavy with animals that a moment rarely passes without your jaw dropping open at the nearness and bigness of something or the smallness and peculiarity of something else. And even within this always-breathtaking space lies the opportunity to be completely dumbstruck, such as when you sit in an open jeep in the middle of a field for hours as a herd of hundreds of elephants lumbers past.

This is the essence of the deal we make when we travel. In exchange for our time, money, patience and sometimes health and sanity, we may be fortunate enough to glimpse something previously unknown to us, if only for a moment. In the Okavango Delta, the deal seems tipped heavily in the traveller's favour.

The writer was a guest of the properties mentioned. Neither &Beyond nor Great Plains reviewed this story before its publication.

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