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LUKE BAILES MUST have the best job in the world. As the founder of ultra-luxury safari lodge operator Singita, he owns 15 exclusive properties from South Africa to Tanzania, Zimbabwe and his latest in Rwanda - where his super wealthy guests get up close and personal with gorillas in their natural habitat.
But all that luxury underscores the real purpose that Mr Bailes started Singita - conservation. While most can only read horror stories about rhino poaching and dwindling wildlife numbers in the face of climate change and habitat destruction, Mr Bailes is doing something about it. Income from the lodges goes towards buying and rehabilitating land to house and protect wildlife, while also contributing to anti-poaching efforts and community development projects.
Mr Bailes is part of a new wave of philanthropists who, apart from their traditional counterparts who fund human causes such as medicine and education, are worried about the future of the earth and are using their influence to bring about real change.
Although he started out 26 years ago with just one tiny lodge and no hospitality experience, Mr Bailes has since built up a successful business model that, in addition to generating revenue from a customer base of high net worth individuals, has garnered support from like-minded investors and benefactors and made him one of the most influential conservationists in Africa today. Under his watch, Singita now owns two million hectares of land where literally, the deer and the antelope freely roam - along with lions, elephants, hippos and yes, rhinoceros. And by the looks of it, Africa’s wildlife couldn’t have found a better crusader for their safety.
What was your exposure to wildlife when you were young and what sparked your passion for conservation?
I grew up in South Africa and my family had land in Sabi Sands which I bought over in 1993 to build the first Singita lodge. It was in the middle of nowhere and it was hunting land that belonged to my grandfather. I was nine year old when we started visiting on family trips and I loved it. I’ve always loved animals and the bush and the meaning behind it. The biggest problem with Africa is that we have 1.3 billion people in the continent, which is forecast to reach 4.4 billion by the end of the century, or 40 per cent of the world’s population. Already, we’re seeing a huge impact on the pristine wilderness, with the animal population declining by 60 per cent in the last four decades. For me, it’s a crusade to stop that and ensure that the areas that are still pristine stay that way, and maintain the animals that live in them. That was the genesis of Singita - to build a brand to finance what we’re doing, so we married high-value, low impact tourism with conservation.
How did you make the connection between luxury tourism and conservation? And what’s the difference between you and other conservation organisations?
We own the land that our properties are on. And because we are financially viable, we can ensure that these properties are protected forever, unlike a lot of NGOs who are continually looking for donations - when the money stops, the project stops. And because the brand has become so trusted and respected, there are incredible opportunities offered to us like Rwanda, where we were invited by the president to (open Kwitonda Lodge). We bought about 170 acres of land right on the edge of Volcanoes National Park (where mountain gorillas live in the forest within), which we are committed to reforesting to create more habitat. We are going to buy more land and we’re involved in other projects including community uplifting and early childhood development programmes.
Luxury lodges require a lot of money to upkeep. How does Singita stay financially viable and continue its conservation work?
We do it three ways: One is our tourism business which is small but we charge very high so it’s high value and low impact. Two, we have what we call Singita private partnerships where very wealthy individuals who stay with us are intrigued with what we do and they want to participate. We never push it, but people do come to us. Three, we have donations from guests. For example, we are currently bringing 20 rhinos into the Serengeti - which used to have 1200 rhinos but today in the whole of Tanzania there are 100 at the most. So guests hear about it and they want to donate money for say, one rhino.
Besides these 20 rhinos, what are some of Singita’s biggest success stories?
When we became involved in the Serengeti 15 years ago, there were hardly any animals on the property because of the poaching. So we hired 120 poachers - they just wanted jobs, so we brought them in and they stopped all the poaching because they know exactly how other poachers think. We also matched it with sophisticated surveillance technology which has helped to improve our anti-poaching practices. Every year, we send out a helicopter to count every animal - 15 years ago we had around 500 buffaloes. Last year it was just under 8000. We did a river study and counted 160 lions there so we think there are 250 of them on the property. In Zimbabwe we have the largest population of rhinos and the most black rhinos. Because of our anti-poaching efforts, we lost just one rhino, which is a great achievement.
While poachers may be blamed for the dwindling rhino population, it’s clear that the only way to stop poaching is to stop the demand for it. Do you think that will ever happen?
The poacher is not the culprit because he is desperate. If he can kill a rhino he can live for five to seven years on what he gets paid. If he gets caught, there are 10 waiting for the job. The answer is to stop the demand. I think there is hope but things will get worse before they get better. But one reason that it can get better is the millennials. They are a lot more sustainabilityinclined and they’re telling their parents that the medicinal value of rhinos is pure nonsense. So they may be the solution but the problem is that we are running out of time. There are only 24000 rhinos left in the whole of Africa now, and just 4000 of them are black rhinos. So that’s really a big issue.
How do you feel about this personally and how does it drive you?
I’m sick of it but we live with this every day. But that’s why we all feel so passionate about it. The wilderness is going to disappear faster than we think so our task is to find more of these beautiful places and keep them safe. Currently, we’re working on projects in three countries - a marine project in Mozambique, and another two in northern Kenya and the Okavango Delta in Botswana. After 26 years, we’ve built up a level of influence which leads to opportunities like these. And I want to do more. If I die, I would love to die knowing that we saved and protected areas that will stay like they were for the next 100 years.