When Luke Bailes was growing up in Durban, South Africa, his family spent many holidays at his grandfather’s 15,000-acre wildlife reserve, Castleton, on the western edge of Kruger National Park. There, Bailes, who is now 61, would drive through the plains to view lions, elephants, rhinos and zebras. At the same time, in other parts of the country, these animals were being poached or hunted.
Compelled to protect the wildlife, Bailes bought the land from his family after his grandfather died and built a luxury safari camp, Singita Ebony Lodge. “I decided that tourism would be my way to grow my conservation footprint,” he said. “Hunting on the reserve was illegal and we had guards to watch for poachers.”
That first Singita opened in 1993, and today there are 11 more in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Tanzania, and another scheduled to open in 2019 in Rwanda. In all, Singita protects 1 million acres of plains on the continent and is known in the travel industry as one of Africa’s most conservation-focused safari camp companies.
A: I wanted to protect the beautiful wildlife Africa has. This is still my mission today. Poaching continues to be a big problem — rhinos and elephants are killed for their horns, and the different body parts of lions and leopards are highly prized. Also, Africa’s rapid population growth is putting an enormous pressure on the natural resources, which, in turn, has a negative impact on the animals.
A: I want to lessen the dependence that impoverished communities have on poaching, and we at Singita do this through education. When you educate people, you hopefully empower them and show them that they can have promising futures. In South Africa, we help educate 3,000 children a year, and in both Tanzania and South Africa, we have culinary schools where the chefs in our lodges teach the students how to cook. We employ some of these students and help place the others in food-related jobs. One of our graduates, a young woman named Tsakane Khoza, even recently finished an internship with Blue Hill at Stone Barns, in New York. She now works at one of our lodges in South Africa.
We also hire mostly locals to work in our lodges and promote them to managers. They can have long-term careers with us.
A: We opened just before [Nelson] Mandela came into power in 1994, and at the time, South Africa wasn’t known as a tourism destination. With Mandela, however, tourism really boomed, and luxury travelers who came to South Africa wanted to stay with us because we were the newest lodge around. We got lucky.
Q: What has been your biggest challenge when it comes to sustainability?
A: Mass tourism — that is, hundr and thousands of people in a place at a time — is disruptive to the ecosystem. Too many safari vehicles at once, for example, form tracks everywhere that don’t go away. Too many tourists use too much water and consume too many resources. For these reasons, all Singitas have between six and 17 rooms, and guests only go on game drives in private concessions — since there are so few people with us at a time, we can keep our damage to the environment at a minimum.
A: When I started, protecting the environment wasn’t a mainstream concept. We initially struggled to get our message out to guests. They came to stay in a nice property but didn’t necessarily understand or care about the sustainability piece of it. But this has really changed, and sustainable tourism is gaining momentum in a way that it never has before. Guests stay with us because they identify with what we do. They care about protecting the environment and the wildlife and even donate money to the cause.