We discover exciting news on the ground in Zimbabwe, a former star of the African safari industry.
As the shadows of afternoon lengthened over the lowveld, we picked up the heart-shaped footprints of a rhino in Zimbabwe’s 130,000-acre Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve. I moved quickly through the prickly scrub and needle-toothed acacia to keep pace with the anti-poaching scout up ahead—himself a former poacher who has worked for the Malilangwe Trust, a Zimbabwean-owned conservation nonprofit, for 18 years. Every few minutes we’d come upon animals in clearings—zebras at water holes, giraffes blowing up clouds of dust, and elephants, their healthy numbers secured by the Trust’s squad of 84 armed scouts, who cover more than a dozen miles a day on foot to monitor wildlife. Their vigilance—backed by a substantial grant from an American philanthropist—is why Malilangwe hasn’t lost an elephant or rhino to poachers in seven years.
Against the backdrop of Africa’s conservation crisis—from ivory burns in Kenya to the killing of rangers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—those encouraging stats are a bit of a shock. So, too, was the fact that I was back in Zimbabwe after avoiding it for a decade. Considered the jewel of Southern Africa’s safari industry in the 1980s (like Kenya was to East Africa), Zim had hit some rough times: In 2000, President Robert Mugabe’s soldiers began driving out white farmers. Tourists took flight; hyperinflation choked the economy; cholera and famine crept in. I grew conflicted about promoting tourism in a country where it enriched a violent government. Then last year I heard something remarkable: Eight Malilangwe rhinos had been moved to neighboring Botswana in a government-backed translocation project. How, I wondered, could a country perceived to be so politically reprehensible afford to give up an excess of one of the world’s most endangered species?
As I looked into it, a new picture came into focus. While an aging Mugabe hangs on to his office, his treasury tried to stabilize the country’s currency by hitching it to the U.S. dollar, and the wheels of tourism were again turning. China has spent heavily on infrastructure, including a glossy $150 million airport expansion at Victoria Falls, and a spate of luxury lodges have opened to meet demand. Joss Kent, CEO of &Beyond, which operated for 15 years in a concession next to Victoria Falls before pulling out 5 years ago, reopened Matetsi River Lodge in August. “We’re willing to take the risk on Zimbabwe’s recovery,” Kent told me over the phone. “Vic Falls is on everyone’s bucket list.”
Deborah Calmeyer, the Zimbabwean-born owner of safari outfitter Roar Africa, who was forced to abandon Zimbabwe in 1988 with only a few suitcases, told me that Malilangwe “has all the soul of a place that has pulled through.” It was Calmeyer who tipped me off to the rhino rebound, noting that Malilangwe owed its success to conservationists who didn’t bail on Zimbabwe but started employing locals who might be tempted into poaching with jobs at Malilangwe’s only tourist lodge, Singita Pamushana. I was eager to see for myself how the Trust had protected this swath of wilderness—and how foreign donations can fuel a virtuous cycle of conservation and tourism. I arrived last May to growing—if cautious—optimism. The Trust’s director, Mark Saunders, whisked me to Gonarezhou National Park, bordering Malilangwe, whose protection could help secure a contiguous ecosystem. There are currently no rhinos left in Gonarezhou’s 1,930 square miles, but with further investment to improve security and infrastructure, the species could rebound—and with it, tourism, said Hugo van der Westhuizen of the Frankfurt Zoological Society, which works with the park, as we swooped low in his Cessna 185. Baobabs and gardens of doum palms burst up like giant shuttlecocks from the dust below. Herds of elephants gathered around water holes. Our wing tips nearly scraped the edge of the Chilojo Cliffs; beneath them, the Runde River caught the African sun, turning the water into a thread of gold. “Some places are sacred,” said Garth Thompson, a freelance Zimbabwean safari guide, who joined us in the plane. “Gonarezhou is my church.”
Back in Malilangwe, on another rhino-tracking walk, I began to understand how Thompson felt. We paused at scrapes in the grass where a rhino had marked its territory; soon, we saw the spot where it had lain down under the laced canopy of an acacia tree in the heat of the day. The game scouts split left and right around a dense copse of trees to pick up tracks. Not long after, the scouts stopped dead. Ten yards in front stood the rhino, her calf, and a large male. I watched them grazing like I watch sheep in England. These were creatures at peace with themselves, protected, in the last place in Africa I expected to find them—the fragility of Zimbabwe’s shifting story told simply in the sound of a newborn rhino’s breath.
WHERE TO STAY AND SEE ZIM ON THE REBOUND
&Beyond Matetsi River Lodge
The best alternative to the stalwart (and crowded) Victoria Falls Hotel, the lodge just reopened at the&Beyond Matetsi Private Game Reserve with modern stone-and-thatch bandas in a 123,500-acre concession 25 miles up the Zambezi River from the falls. Expect good elephant herds, a gym, and an 82-foot-long pool.
Hwange National Park is heaving with elephants—some say too many for the ecosystem to support—so a rich wildlife experience is a given. Linkwasha is a tented camp that reopened in May 2015; the look is creamy-grey contemporary, with a sizable pool.
In May, Wilderness Safaris opened the revamped Ruckomechi Camp at Mana Pools, now with ten tented suites, in the Zambezi Valley. Good for driving, walking, and river-based safaris, its new sister camp, Little Ruckomechi, is 1.6 miles downstream.
The only lodge in Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve has operated since 1998, despite Zim’s ups and downs. Villa 7, decorated with African textiles, is among the most beautiful homes for rent in Africa (it sleeps ten). Notably, the staff all share an infectious belief in conservation done well.
This tented lodge reopened last year in wildlife-dense Hwange National Park and has won awards for its sustainable design—like an elephant drinking pool at the deck’s edge.