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Published by www.greenactionnews.com Friday, 13th December, 2013

You would think it’s a given. An upmarket safari lodge in the African jungle or savannah would endorse nature. After all, nature is the reason for an establishment’s existence. Nature fills the lodge with guests. But are these lodges really nature-friendly?

Some lodges have been touted and even awarded for their environmental credentials, but were found to be among the worst environmental offenders. Green-washing is a common crime in the African safari industry where a lodge or camp pretends to champion the cause of the environment but in fact does the opposite. I know of a 5-Star lodge in Zambia that ticked all the green boxes but it was discovered that it used an open refuse pit in the pristine bush some distance from the lodge. The pit was swarming with monkeys, warthogs and jackals rummaging among the plastic, non-biodegradable and sometimes toxic detritus.

For a lodge to meet a desired level of green cred it must, however, go far beyond just its management of waste. A lodge or camp must have a sustainable design and construction that blends with the natural setting, is appropriate to the area, is constructed with recyclable or local material, is easily removed with limited use of cement and no hardwoods – like ebony or mahogany - should be used in the construction.

Furthermore, there should be no animal products for decoration. I cannot count how often I have seen porcupine quills used as a decorative item in a game lodge. Thanks to this common décor trend among African lodges, porcupines are being slaughtered just for their quills. Seashells used in many tropical island resorts fall into the same category.

Charcoal or hardwood for those fires under starry African nights is another common mistake. The charcoal industry is primarily responsible for the decimation of many fragile forests in Mozambique, Tanzania and the Congo. Hardwoods for the use of dugout canoes, which are so popular with tourists on the Okavango delta, are also playing havoc with the sustainability of the rare hardwood trees. Clearing and the use of alien vegetation, which is a scourge throughout the continent is best for those great African bonfires at night.

True environmentally friendly lodges use solar panels to cut diesel emissions from generators, collect rainwater for all non-drinking water, use locally grown products as much as possible, limit the use of game vehicles and boats (and if deemed necessary drive on designated tracks and at low speeds), limit the use of plastic, implement programs like tree planting to offset possible carbon footprints, use of environmentally sensitive cleaning ingredients and have environmentally friendly sewerage and grey-water systems installed.

I have enjoyed fantastic experiences at luxury lodges where there is only a bucket for a shower (the water was heated perfectly by standing a full day in the sun), or the warmth at dinner of a pile of hot coals from the fire placed under my chair, or slept in a luxury bed out in the open directly under the stars. These make for novel travel experiences but also capture the best of an African safari while at the same time being environmentally friendly.

One must also consider ethical practices. A lodge that practices hunting or fishing cannot really be considered green because the value of an animal is infinitely greater alive than dead. This is especially true given that 3 of the Big 5 - elephants, lion and rhino – are teetering on the brink of extension. But the little animals, like the aforementioned porcupines, must not not be ignored either.

There is another aspect to being green on safari, and that is the level of involvement in the local community. Education programs, family planning, women empowerment, out-training and skill development by top-dollar lodges are critical for sustainable farming, environmental awareness and capital income. In my experience throughout sub-Saharan locals are the best guides as they impart a certain resident knowledge from their own experiences. A bird or an animal is described taking into account unique local fables, traditions and myths not just the behavioural and physical characteristics so common of field guides and books. Furthermore, local communities are often the best custodians of nature, if allowed to participate and benefit from it. Those lodges that take money from bookings and keep their earnings in overseas accounts are green-washers.

So, the most important criterion when choosing an African safari is whether or not an establishment has a deep respect for nature and does not impose a negative ecological footprint. Any establishments you choose must first and foremost be intrinsically bound to nature in both space and experience.

For the 50 of Africa’s most outstanding, environmentally friendly lodges see www.africasfinest.co.za