As Zimbabwe’s international appeal swells, Victoria Falls, one of its major tourism hubs, is growing to accommodate the renewed interest. On my recent trip, I found that many forward-thinking hospitality experts in the area are busy preparing to make this growth as sustainable as possible.
Charles Brightman founded the Victoria Falls Anti-Poaching Unit in 1999. Having worked as a safari guide and tour operator for many years, he wanted to give something back, he tells me, from the back of the 4×4 we were sitting in. We’re being driven down a bumpy, dirt road along the Zambezi River, towards the site of a new Victoria Falls property, Great Plains Conservation’s Mpala Jena. Brightman is involved in discussions about setting up a private anti-poaching unit based at the lodge – one way in which new tourism can boost current conservation initiatives.
“There were alarming levels of poaching and increasing incidents,” Brightman says of why he started the unit. There wasn’t enough money from the government, so he set up an operation funded by private donors, which is, Brightman says, “an example of how public and private sectors can work together.” So far, the unit has arrested 800 poachers and removed 22,000 snares and traps.
Brightman’s rangers are all from the local area, creating employment. Healthier wildlife populations in Victoria Falls National Park increases tourism, generating further employment opportunities.
The Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust is another local organisation dedicated to conservation, supported by tourism companies such as Wild Horizons (one of their biggest donors). They work on rehabilitating injured or orphaned wildlife, anti-poaching initiatives, and they provide wildlife veterinary assistance. Crucially, they also run community outreach and training initiatives.
Later that afternoon, I join two more local conservation figureheads, Charlene (Charlie) Hewat and her business partner Veronica Chapman.
Hewat first made a name for herself in conservation in 1985, when she cycled from London to Harare over an 18-month period, raising money for and awareness of rhino poaching. She became known as the ‘Rhino Girl’, garnering media attention by meeting the Pope and the Duke of Edinburgh during her fundraising efforts – efforts that amounted to £240,000 being donated to the national parks. She later started Environment Africa, working as its CEO until it was operating in four countries. At this point, it became too big for her and she left.
In 2016, Hewat founded Greenline Africa with Chapman, who is also Green Tourism’s representative and advisor in Africa. Their aim is to keep the company small and localised, setting up and supporting various environmental and community projects in Victoria Falls and its surroundings.
Their recycling project currently has the backing of eight hotels, such as Victoria Falls Safari Lodge. They all drop off their recycling at Greenline’s site to be sorted and bailed. The project is run by the community’s youth and a percentage of the profits will be funnelled back into raising environmental awareness amongst locals.
Greenline also runs community upliftment projects 25 kilometres outside the city, as communities living further afield are the ones who often miss out on the economic benefits of tourism. Their focus is on the women and youth.
We drive out of town to the village of Dibutibu, where they have set up vegetable gardens, a clinic and a school, before heading to another nearby village to visit Matilda, a single mother to three children. She makes money by spending an entire month out in the national park cutting grass. Her community is desperately poor, and Greenline support women like Matilda with monthly packages of food and other essentials.
For those wanting to actively give back when they travel, volunteers can stay at a jaw-droppingly beautiful clifftop spot above the Zambezi, just outside the village, to teach or help women like Matilda carry water or cook.
“Our vision is for Victoria Falls to become Africa’s green centre,” Chapman says. But they’re in it for the long-haul: “A truly sustainable project takes around five years [to bear fruit],” Hewat notes.
Tourism can be the lifeblood of these projects – which is why Hewat and Chapman have joined forces with Shelley Cox, a passionate conservationist and (as yet, unofficial) ambassador for Zimbabwean tourism, and Nick Milne, trust manager of the Bumi Hills Foundation, to found Africa Conservation Travel (ACT).
ACT will act as a DMC, developing “conservation-conscious itineraries” to promote sustainable tourism and provide “third-party funding support for the conservation and community development sector”. Cox tells me they have identified partners who will “become direct benefactors of all itineraries booked”. Based in Victoria Falls, ACT will initially focus on trips in Zimbabwe, Botswana and Zambia, before branching out to the rest of Southern Africa.
Brightman’s tour operator business, Discover Victoria Falls, also runs conservation safaris, where guests can walk with him to find snares and learn about the anti-poaching unit, supporting the work they do whilst raising awareness of conservation and community issues.
As tourism gathers pace in Victoria Falls, people like Brightman, Hewat, Chapman, Milne and Cox will be key to ensuring new developments are sustainable and benefit all those who reside around the mighty smoke that thunders.