Nowadays, it's pretty much accepted that the positive impacts of a holiday should not be all one way. Safaris are also embracing this trend, offering packages with a softer carbon footprint – and from which local communities benefit.
Today, we expect more from operators than poorly paid local staff and properties inappropriately located in areas of great beauty. And, increasingly, that's what we're getting.
South African officials estimate that every tourist supports 10 local people, and in the current climate, with many small lodges hanging on by their fingertips, tourist dollars can make a real difference. But when anyone can promote themselves as "green", wading through the greenwash can be an uncertain process. A good rule of thumb is to find out how long a lodge owner has been in the business. "Most smaller camps were set up by people with a love of the bush who have no interest to see it trashed," says Chris McIntyre, managing director of the owner-run safari company Expert Africa. "The vast majority of small safari-camp owners are in it for the long term. They know that if the community or their staff are unhappy then it won't work out."
Yet, while small operations are more likely to have strong grassroots, you should not automatically discount larger companies. You should, however, ask rigorous questions of them, says McIntyre. "Find someone who's been to the lodge. It's a dead loss talking to someone flogging a brochure when they've never been to the place. Ask what feeling they get from the lodge and what the owners do for community development. Quiz people about specific conservation and developmental programmes. Talk to owners to get an idea of their motivation. If the most important thing to them is the bottom line, then you probably should look elsewhere."
Increasingly, operators administer a community levy – usually $5 or $10 a night – to ensure some money goes directly to local people. Responsibletravel.com offers several such ventures, including a walking safari in northern Kenya that employs local Samburu warrior guides and where a fee is paid to the community for every client. The safari explores the Laikipia plateau, home to elephant, lion, leopard and African wild dogs. Luxury tents offer hot showers and mattresses, while three-course dinners are served with wine. Prices start at £2,125 for an 11-day trip (01273 600030; responsibletravel.com/Trip/ Trip901095.htm).
Remote Africa Safaris are owner-managed by John and Carol Coppinger and have just four small camps in both the North Luangwa and South Luangwa National Parks of Zambia. The local safari guiding team has been together for many years – a good indicator of the ethos of the set-up, and the Coppingers support 30 local suppliers and 25 local farmers and their families. Prices for a nine-day trip start at £2,847 per person booked through Expert Africa (020 8232 9777; expertafrica.com).
Stanley Safari Lodge, near Victoria Falls in Zambia, reopens this summer and supports the local Mukuni community by employing the majority of its staff from the village, and endorses an orphan sponsorship programme. Aardvark Safaris (01980 849160; aardvarksafaris.co.uk) offers an eight-night trip, including two nights at the lodge, from £3,540 per person.
This autumn sees the launch of the Naboisho conservancy in Kenya to bolster the local ecosystem and wildlife. The conservancy is home to antelope, hippos, ostriches, and giraffe, along with the big cats, elephants, endangered black rhino and Cape buffalo. The savannah has crocodiles and 500 species of birds. Steppes Discovery (01285 643333; steppesdiscovery.co.uk) offers a six-day safari exploring the conservancy from £2,149.
Operators often invest directly in conservation. Research funded by a lodge in Uganda has established that chimp numbers have halved in recent years in the Kyambura Gorge close to Uganda's Queen Elizabeth National Park. Bridge & Wickers (020-7483 6555; bridgeandwickers.co.uk) offers a seven-day small group tour for £2,445 that stays at the Kyambura Gorge Lodge, which supports a project to create a buffer zone to protect the gorge.
In the southernmost part of the Great Rift Valley in Mozambique, Explore Gorongosa Camp is part of a project to continue the post-civil war rehabilitation of Gorongosa National Park. Audley Travel (01993 838500; audleytravel.com) offers an 11-day trip that includes three nights at Explore Gorongosa from £3,937.
A safari operation owned entirely by local communities in Namibia called Conservancy Safaris – the first such organisation in the country – has helped game counts rise for many species. In the Kunene region, the lion population has increased from 30 to 120 in the past 15 years. The Zambezi Safari and Travel Company (01548 830059; zambezi.com) offers a nine-night tour to the Kunene region on a Conservancy Safaris itinerary from £5,100.
You can also look at how operators source the energy they use to run their camps. Garonga, a luxury 12-bed camp to the west of South Africa's Kruger Park, has recently invested in solar energy and a bio-digester converts waste food into methane to power the kitchen. Imagine Africa (020-7622 5114; imagineafrica.co.uk) offers seven nights at Garonga Safari Camp from £1,985 per person.
Operators occasionally link up with established international conservation charities. This autumn Baobab Expeditions (0844 8268550; baobab expeditions.com) offers a tour in co-operation with the Born Free Foundation, taking in the Serengeti in Tanzania and the Masai Mara. Guests can learn first-hand about the Born Free Foundation and visit Elsamere, the former home of George and Joy Adamson. Prices from £4,124 for a 10-night tour.
Safari operations, and the local people who work for them, are no more immune to fluctuations in the global economy than anyone else. By choosing a safari with greener credentials, at least some of your money directly supports conservation and communities– making that gin and tonic as the sun sets over the savannah taste all the better.
All prices are per person, based on two sharing, and include return international flights and most meals.