In Pursuit of Human Happiness.
The fate of many endangered species relies on a harmonious relationship with humans. Tracey Croke talks to visionaries putting communities first, protecting wildlife and making travellers happier, too.

It’s been a long international travel drought. After two years, we can finally return to unforgettable faraway places. And it’s no surprise we’re hot to trot on safari. But rather than focusing solely on capturing memories of playful lion cubs, endangered rhinos or the great wildebeest migration, travellers are zooming out and looking at the bigger picture. Travel has changed – and so have we.

The awakening of a more mindful traveller will change how we navigate the animal kingdom post-pandemic, says Dr Milena Nikolova, a behavioural expert who speaks about happiness in travel. “Experiences that take travellers to communities that live in balance with the environment and biodiversity that surround them, will bring special fulfillment,” she says.

Philanthropist and founder of G Adventures Bruce Poon Tip describes this connection as a seismic shift. “Travellers are seeing how smart choices can positively benefit local people and deliver a richer travel experience at the same time.” A new study by the operator found the most important factor for people when they are selecting a holiday is knowing their money benefits locals.

Community spirit

With an overwhelming 93 per cent of people saying travel is important to their wellbeing and mental health, returning travellers will be much happier if their dream safari hasn’t trampled livelihoods.

A case in point is the UNESCO World Heritage Area of Chitwan National Park in the subtropical Himalayan lowlands of southern Nepal, where G Adventures offers the opportunity to see rare Bengal tigers and one of the last populations of greater one-horned rhinoceros.

The village of Barauli – in the park’s surrounds – is home to the Tharu people, who have inhabited the area for centuries. Yet they have no role in managing the park. “Villagers are excluded from being able to use resources that had traditionally been in their lands,” says Jamie Sweeting, president of not-for-profit Planeterra foundation, a partner of G Adventures, which connects communities with the tourism industry.

Planeterra worked with Barauli to develop a community homestay program. The village built 14 cottages with all the mod-cons to add a unique cultural offering to the wildlife-spotting mix. Since completion, 24 people are earning an income and 1,000 more in the community are benefiting. “It only takes a small number of people to make a huge difference,” says Poon Tip.

Sweeting says when G Adventures travellers are asked about the most memorable parts of their trip, visiting a community enterprise ranks near the top.

Digging deep

But how do we untangle ethical businesses from less scrupulous operators who spin a good community-support story? A written commitment to deliver ethical projects on an ongoing basis, says Donna Duggan, owner of Maasai Wanderings and Nasikia Camps in The Serengeti, where guests have been spotting the ‘Big Five’ and wildebeest migrations for 16 years.

Duggan, a registered nurse originally from Brisbane, created the eco-safari experience with husband Naseeb Mfinanga, who passed away tragically in a plane crash five years ago. She describes her late husband as a visionary who deeply understood the complex synergy between a thriving community and conserving the beauty of his country, Tanzania. As the couple built their safari business and raised two children, they set about supporting thousands more through community health, education and food programs. Together they built classrooms, libraries, toilets and wells with pumpstations for clean water.

The legacy of Mfinanga lives on in his wife’s continued devotion to neighbouring communities by providing clinic facilities, meals, books and laptops for schools. Remarkably, Duggan managed to keep on 110 of their 148 staff throughout the pandemic and will increase her team again once visitor numbers rise. She advises travellers to book safaris with travel-board registered companies and ask operators for their fair-trade practices, such as fair pay and safe working conditions.

In Kenya’s Great Rift Valley, Nicky Fitzgerald aims to give guests a magical experience at Angama Mara safari lodge overlooking Maasai Mara. She believes to succeed it’s essential to consult with local communities. “[The] animals our guests come to see simply wouldn’t be there if the people who are the guardians of these reserves didn’t consider this is the best land use,” she says.

Tangible benefits from conserving wildlife flow to people through the Angama Foundation: “Employment; support of small businesses and farmers; investment in education, clean water and health; upskilling; sharing of cultures; employee empowerment; and always paying it forward,” Fitzgerald says of the foundation’s key components.

The staff village at Angama Mara was built with the same attention to detail as the guest accommodation.

“We take care of our staff, and the staff takes care of our guests. Time and again we hear our guests say, ‘we came to Africa for the animals, but we will return for the people’.”

If people prosper, everything flourishes. “People first. Always. It’s simply the right thing to do,”

says Fitzgerald.

Images: 01 Angama Mara employee 02. Nasikia’s Tarangire Ndovu Tented Lodge 03. Cheetah cubs 04. Angama Mara staff © Stevie Mann 05. Donna Duggan with community members.