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People-powered protection is behind Wildlife ACT’s winning model for wildlife conservation

Wildlife ACT is trailblazing a new model of grassroots animal conservation – empowering ordinary citizens to become changemakers safeguarding endangered species.

We sat down with Co-Founder and Chairman Johan Maree to learn how Wildlife ACT equips volunteers on the frontlines protecting Africa’s at-risk wildlife – a venture that earned them first place for Best for Nature-Positive Tourism at the WTM Africa Responsible Tourism Awards 2023.

Q: Could you describe what Wildlife ACT does?

A: Wildlife ACT is a conservation organisation that utilises tourism models to support its work. What sets us apart is our collaborative approach. We focus on forming partnerships with national reserves and nearby communities to address conservation needs effectively.

By understanding the specific needs of each reserve and community, we tailor our efforts to achieve conservation goals in a sustainable and impactful manner. Our work is not just about protecting wildlife; it’s about empowering local communities and fostering a sense of stewardship towards the natural environment.

Q: How has the need for your services changed since you first launched in 2008?

A: Initially, we noticed increasing pressure on national reserves, both financially and resource-wise. Many reserves struggled to provide adequate monitoring for management needs. Over the years, government agencies and conservation entities have faced even more pressure, leading to a greater need for resourceful solutions like ours, particularly in combatting issues like poaching.

Q: Could you explain how your monitoring activities help reserves combat issues like poaching?

A: While we do not directly engage in anti-poaching efforts, our focus on endangered priority species monitoring provides reserves with vital information for making informed decisions. By understanding these species’ movements, behaviours, and health, reserves can implement targeted conservation strategies to protect them from threats such as poaching.

Our monitoring data is a valuable tool in the arsenal of conservation efforts to safeguard vulnerable wildlife populations.

Q: How do your volunteer programmes operate?

A: Volunteers join our professional monitors in the field, contributing to our conservation efforts while gaining firsthand experience. They pay for the opportunity, which helps fund our monitoring operations. Volunteers collect essential data for management reports, offering a behind-the-scenes look at conservation work and its impact.

Q: What is the demographic makeup of your volunteers?

A: Our volunteers come from all over the world, reflecting the statistics of the various nationalities that visit South Africa. We have people from the UK, Europe, and America. When we started, most volunteers were in their 20s and 30s, but our most loyal segment has been those aged 55 and up.

We have a tremendous return rate among volunteers over 55 – over 20% of those who joined us returned within the first three years. The notion that volunteering here is just for young people has changed over the past 15 years.

We also see that volunteers joining us will go on five-star safari lodges later. So it’s more than just an experience for the wealthy. People increasingly want to feel their travels contribute something meaningful; our volunteers reflect that.

Q: How do you select the agents you partner with, and what criteria do you consider?

A: We want to ensure that the agents who work with us do not have other projects that involve potentially unethical animal interactions. Specifically, we refrain from partners involved with captive breeding programmes where the animals are unnecessarily confined without intent to release them into the wild eventually.

Before selecting a partner, we thoroughly review their listed projects to assess them. If we find projects we want to avoid being associated with, we cannot partner with that agent or try to educate them on the potential harm those projects can have on wildlife. Often, it is the first time the agent has considered these ethical issues.

Q: Could you highlight any particular species or projects you are currently focusing on?

A: While we work with various species, our co-founder, Chris Kelly, is particularly passionate about wild dogs and vultures. Healthy vulture populations are critical for the well-being of surrounding wildlife and ecosystems.

We want more people to recognise that by giving them direct exposure to these maligned birds. Through firsthand experience, volunteers quickly realise just how amazing vultures truly are. We’re also involved in projects concerning black rhinos, such as the translocation initiative with WWF to establish new populations and ensure their long-term survival.

Q: What aspects of your application and pitch resonated most with the judges?

A: One of the critical aspects that resonated strongly with the judges was our ability to quantify our impact. We provided detailed quantitative and qualitative data on how our funds were utilised and how tourists actively engaged in our conservation initiatives.

Additionally, our holistic approach towards involving local communities, mainly through our community conservation outreach programme, stood out. We emphasised the importance of giving community members ownership of the nature they are custodians of, and this commitment to community involvement struck a chord with the judges.

Q: For organisations considering entering responsible tourism awards, what advice would you offer regarding their submission?

A: Quantifying impact and demonstrating how tourism contributes to ethical objectives are key. Be clear about your goals and how tourists’ participation supports them.
It’s work putting the effort in. Winning the award has boosted our credibility and attracted interest from potential partners.

Nominations for the Responsible Tourism Awards 2024 close on 22 March! You’re invited to submit applications via the WTM Africa website here.  

Africa Travel Week

Africa Travel Week (ATW) focuses on inbound and outbound markets for general leisure tourism, luxury travel, LGBTQ+ travel and the MICE/business travel sector as well as travel technology. Shows include: ILTM Africa, WTM Africa, EQUAL Africa, ibtm AFRICA, Travel Forward, Sports & Events Tourism Exchange and African Tourism Investment Summit.