Luke Bailes, the charismatic founder of Singita, is one of the most influential individuals in African wildlife tourism. His efforts to preserve large areas of African wilderness by promoting environmentally conscious and socially responsible hospitality have made him a high-profile figure throughout the continent. For the past two decades, his company has set the standard for luxury wildlife lodges around the world.
In 1925, Bailes’ grandfather purchased a tract of land in northeastern South Africa at the edge of the Kruger National Park. The tangled bushveld proved unsuitable for cattle ranching, but the estate remained in the family. Ultimately, a group of nearby farms joined together to create the private Sabi Sand Game Reserve. Today, the 250-square-mile reserve has a 31-mile-long unfenced boundary with the national park.
With the release from prison of Nelson Mandela, tourism to South Africa boomed. Bailes opened his first camp, Singita Ebony Lodge, in 1993. Eleven other properties have followed, in Tanzania and Zimbabwe as well as in South Africa.
Bailes believes that luxury safari tourism has a crucial role to play both in conservation and in generating well-paid employment. His approach is inspirational, and today it is widely admired and copied.
Read on as Bailes shares his thoughts on the future of African wildlife and how to get engaged in Singita’s conservation efforts.
Can you remember the precise moment when you first decided you wanted to go into wildlife tourism?
I have such a passion for conservation and realized that at one point I couldn’t do it on my own. It was probably around the time when I bought the additional land in the Sabi Sand with the intention to start generating revenue to fulfill my conservation desires.
What makes Singita different?
We have access to over a million acres. All aspects of the guest experience are private and exclusive, whether it’s a game drive, a walk or a dinner. You feel like you’re the only one there. Also what distinguishes us is the scale of conservation and community work that we do. We spend $12 million annually on conservation work, which is matchless in the safari industry.
What is the most challenging — and most rewarding — part of your career?
The continuing and escalating pressure on wildlife, and the concern that we’ll not win the battle. The most rewarding part of my career are the success stories in wildlife population numbers increasing and poachers becoming scouts. Since we started protecting the 350,000 acres of Singita Grumeti in 2002, we have seen an enormous increase in animal populations. The area was previously heavily hunted, and the game had almost been wiped out. For example, we have seen buffalo numbers rise by 1000 percent since 2003, and overall we have seen a 4x increase in mammal biomass on the property.
One of our most significant community projects is the Singita School of Cooking in which we take young people from the community who have limited education and little chance of finding a job and we train them over 18 months to become fully trained chefs. Approximately 60 chefs have found careers, and 95 percent of the graduates are currently employed. We’ve also been able to feed 19,000 children daily around our reserve in Zimbabwe. The rewards are exciting.
When it comes to tourism in Africa, what are your most critical concerns and greatest hopes?
One of my concerns is that African governments will not regulate tourism enough. They need to strategically manage tourism and the numbers. The World Tourism Organization estimates that worldwide tourism will grow annually from 1.2 billion to 1.8 billion and that will affect Africa too. If it’s not managed in Africa, then these iconic areas will be overtraded.
I’m also nervous about population growth and pristine wilderness areas diminishing, and the mass slaughter of some animal species such as rhino and elephant. Our greatest hope is that consumers of ivory, rhino horn and lion body parts in Asia will get the message about the plight of these animals before they become extinct and it’s too late.
How can Singita guests help?
Firstly, they can help build awareness of [our mission]. Also, we need people to be part of our conservation efforts; we can’t do this by ourselves. Sustainability has a lot to do with revenue; conservation work is expensive. For example, a guest donated $350,000 for a canine unit. Simply by being part of a life-changing safari experience guests are already making a contribution, but also we need them to become aware of the need for and cost of conservation.
Are you noticing a change in guest expectations?
Travelers want to be far more connected to the earth in its original state and to an authentic, real experience. Previously, travelers preferred to be disconnected from the wild, not too close to nature, and therefore the tangibles were important for comfort. But now people are more aware of threats to the environment, so they want to be connected to rare and bespoke experiences. That’s why Singita’s Mara River Tented Camp and Explore are popular: pared-down offerings, off-the-grid and close to nature.
Which of the Singita properties is your favorite?
What I love about Singita’s offering is that there’s something for everyone — and I appreciate the differences every time I visit. We have 12 unique lodges and camps across five different ecosystems in Africa. The wide-open plains of the Serengeti make for beautiful viewing of large herds of game, while the lush bushveld of the Sabi Sand and Kruger National Park create adventure around every corner with extensive viewings of elephant and predators. One of the most dramatic settings is Singita Pamushana: the majestic baobabs, mopane forests and sandstone outcrops take my breath away every time.
Singita also is set to launch its latest venture on a breathtaking, isolated but contained, 188-acre piece of land, right on the edge of Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. This is going to help create a once-in-a-lifetime circuit between the gorillas in Rwanda and the Serengeti for one seamless trip.