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Wildlife tourism is to create community empowerment and transform lives through conservation – Nico Van Zyl

Nico Van Zyl (Wildlife expert)

South African born tourism experts ,  conservationist who specialize in wildlife tourism have express his displeasure over attack launched on foreigners living and working in other countries.

In an exclusive interview with African Development Magazine, Mr Nico urges African leaders to eradicate corruption and teach youths how to manage wealth, empower people by sharing the wealth and allow economies to prosper.  He also speaks about how he discovered the value of eco-tourism, natural conservation and wildlife.

Below are excerpt:

Tell us about yourself?

I am South African born who grew up in Durban KZN, where I went to school and then later varsity college, where I studied finance and auditing. Eighteen months into the course, I discovered that the corporate finance world was not going to be my happy place. I left college much to the demise of my parents, but luckily for me, an uncle invited me to work on a game farm in the Limpopo province. I grabbed the opportunity with both hands and never looked back. I found my passion by laying down deep roots into the African bush and soil. I naturally developed a deep love and comprehensive understanding of Nature conservation and in particular wildlife conservation. I learned the critical value of conserving natural resources for sustainable future use. After my initial apprenticeship on the farm, I spend a short period in the private security services where I covered a large portion of South Africa’s conservation areas doing anti-poaching missions, at the same time establishing relationships with local rural communities surrounding protected areas like Zululand to Venda, and beyond onto the boarders of the Southwest Province and Botswana. The anti-poaching and law enforcement period shaped my added comprehension of the importance of conservation but also introduced me to the economic value of eco-tourism as I discovered the value of wildlife and the surrounding protected areas, the value it holds for tourism and the local indigenous people living in these remote areas.

I went on to work for larger established conservation companies including national parks management authorities, private conservation groups and then progressed into eco-tourism property management agencies. Primarily my focus was on conservation and wildlife management; however as I grew more in understanding the value conservation as a potential commodity for eco-tourism, my career started steering me into more tourism orientated areas of business. I got involved with guiding, and I converted from a park ranger into a wildlife guide. My specialty as a guide developed into horseback safaris, and I later established my own tourism company, where I offered guided safari tours on horseback. Having my own business added many skills sets to my self-development profile which included building infrastructure such as trails, roads, and later safari camps. After 12 years in conservation and eco-tourism, I decided to immigrate to the United Kingdom and spend a total of 4 years in equine veterinary nursing. I don’t regret the move to the United Kingdom or my time in the veterinary field, but my heart always remained in Africa. Inevitably mother Africa drew me back as I became increasingly homesick for the African continent, its people and culture and the incredibly warm hospitality of Africans in general.

Although the United Kingdom remained my base for the past 15 years, I travelled back and forth to African and various regions working for larger eco-tourism and safari operators in Africa. My career progression developed into managing properties and lodges, which had a fundamental part in developing biased charity projects for the companies I was employed with. Foundation and charity work plays a significant role in successful tourism management as well as development. I established myself as an ambassador and advocating champion for the Africa Foundation in Tanzania. My highlight as an eco-tourism manager thus far has been my experience in Tanzania as assistant general manager and then later acting general manager of the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge on the rim of the crater in the highlands of the Ngorongoro conservation area rated as one of the best African safari lodges in the world and the top 100 hotels of the world. During my time as a general manager, I was excessively exposed to the areas of sustainability and the importance of developing greener management approaches for more effective economic strength in eco-tourism.

In 2017 I enrolled in fulltime studies when I went back to school at a University in England to do a BSc degree in Sustainable Tourism Management. During my studies, I was approached by the CEO of SafariStaff Africa to take over the management of the organization and develop it internationally. SafariStaff Africa is a boutique specialized recruitment agency providing extraordinary staff profiles for the entire safari tourism market in Africa. I joined the company as general manager intending to enhance the business portfolio. We have since introduced some significant positive changes to the business, including a slightly different name. SafariStaff Africa became SafariSaff International as we realized the importance of providing support to developing eco-tourism and empowering people across Africa. SafariStaff International now has clients and staff placed through the entire African continent from Ethiopia to Madagascar and Namibia. I am proud to be heading the development and growth of SafariStaff International as Director of International Development and co-owner. We now have offices in London, Melbourne, Australia, Kenya, Windhoek, and South Africa. We are also very excited about future development into West Africa and looking forward to establishing an office in that region soon.

What was your 1st experience on sustainable Eco-Tourism?

Early on in 1996, I discovered the value of eco-tourism when a considerable amount of assessment was placed on wildlife, such as showcasing the African big five to international tourist and nature lovers. When governments found it challenging to support conservation efforts, as the demand for urban development grew, many conservation organizations were left stranded with reduced funding towards their efforts of sustaining the natural environment and wildlife habitats. We had to reinvent the wheel, and luckily for the industry, several knowledgeable entrepreneurs introduced a beneficial and sustainable business model, combining conservation and tourism. Infrastructure such as old farm homes were turned into lodges and hotels where tourists paid a premium to view animals on safari but were also offered comfortable lodging options and all the hospitality services combined with it. The model provided significantly better managed revenue streams for the industry, and that led to successful eco-tourism management.

What are a few of your success stories regarding your journey on a safari tour?

The greatest success for me is to make people aware and understand the importance of sustainability and conserving our earth’s natural resources for future generations. To see the light come on inside of peoples mind when they discover the critical importance of eco-tourism through a well-managed and successful interpretation of eco-tourism offered to tourists by an experienced guide. One of my greatest success stories is the friendship I established with a very highly respected American business man who valued the concept of eco-tourism on safari so much that he donated One hundred Thousand United States dollars to the Africa Foundation to be used for community development initiatives a well as wildlife protection.

What are some tips that you would tell aspiring or rising who wish to work at game reserve s in the 21st Century? –

IT MUST FIRST OF ALL BE A PASSION! Working in a lodge is not just a job; it is a lifestyle. You must be able and willing to live the lifestyle that the jobs created. Many people associate the industry and game reserve or lodge jobs with luxury and comfortable exotic life’s! For those that work as staff, it is quite the opposite! It is one of the most demanding situations in the world, and if you intend to do the job only to get away from the general populous of society, think again! You must have a genuine love and appreciation for people and an appetite to serve on every peck and call from strangers 24 hours a day. Secondly enjoy, take time out to also appreciate the environment that you’re in. Your office inevitably becomes your home, so take time out to enjoy your home! Lastly, invest time in educating yourself with global and international trends in all industries. Knowledge is power, and with power comes respect, so teach yourself so that you may teach others!

Throughout history, there have been numerous cases of xenophobic attacks in many countries; the recent one happens in South Africa where Nigerians were affected, how does this affect tourism?

Unfortunately, it does affect tourism very negatively! Tourism is a concept based on inviting people to discover an exotic landscape, encourage people to learn and appreciate different cultures, and at the same time contribute as much as they can to the economic development of the country they visit. When there is unrest amongst people in a land of interest from tourists, it creates a negative perception in general. We have seen the impact of terrorism in East Africa and then the health thread from Ebola in West Africa. Both those incidents recovered fairly well although Ebola had a more significant effect and more stagnated recovery period. Xenophobic terrorism; which it is, by the way, has more substantial negative impact because it is directly associated with socialism. If a host nation in a tourism country display aggressive notions towards foreigners, or foreign visitors, by default or even perhaps unintentionally, the message that is crated communicates that visitors are not welcome! That reduces the footfall of tourism to any destination, and sustainable growth is slowed significantly!

Tell us about SafariStaff and the activities to inspire the youths?

SafariStaff International is a specialized boutique hospitality and tourism recruiting agency. It also provides training solutions to lodge and or hotel owners and management in all areas of operation. We believe that people must be empowered! We attempt to recruit managers for positions who have a passion for empowering people in the workplace. The youth play a significant role in sustainable tourism for the future. We have to create opportunities for the youth to learn the industry and gain experience from within. Managers must be able to recognize, identify support and enhance the potential in individuals. Listening to the youth is vitally important, and as business owners and managers, we must take advantage of the new generation that has quick access to on-tap information through using a medium such as technology that is driven by our youth! Allow the youth to teach us the tech we do not know or understand and see how exponentially any businesses grow!

You have visited many countries, what would you advise the African leaders?

Eradicate Corruption within! Then teach people how to manage wealth! The reason why there is so much corruption amongst the African states is that no one has been prepared on how to deal with wealth! Educate people to gain wealth and how to share wealth for all to benefit. Empower people by sharing the wealth and allow economies to prosper. Implement and recruit a strong police force and regulate government policies in both private as well as the public sectors to create opportunities for all the nations. Africa is one of the fastest-growing continents in the world with enormous economic potential. It safeguards the majority of the planet’s natural resources as well as its earth commodities! If the African nations can come together, overlook the regional cultural indifferences, we can overpower many of the larger institutions in the global arena that keep chains on Africa’s growth!

African ethnic groups and tribes have customs and traditions that are unique to their culture. What do you like about African Culture?

The fact that most have the discipline to remain original and authentic by continuing to practice their ancestral traditions. Then, no matter what circumstances, the one thing I value the most about the African culture is the coming together of large groups of people in a time of crisis and the constant support they provide to each other in those difficult times!

Amazing memories are unforgettable; can you share with us most amazing memory?

Wow, when you travel and visit Africa, she has a way of providing many unforgettable memories. One of my highlights so far was the opening of a school laboratory, the building of a dining hall for kids to eat in at school and providing food for young school kids every month in rural settlements of Africa!

Animal and nature lovers dream of going on safari, and they’re always thrilled with the experience, tell us SafariStaff point of wildlife tourism and why?

The point of wildlife tourism is to educate people! If we can provide a tangible experience and that is life-changing, then we have converted people into sustainable human beings! The reason why is so that they may have a transforming experience so that they may implement personal change for a better-sustained lifestyle!

Do you have a favourite quote regarding business/entrepreneur that you would like to share with the readers?

Richard Branson once said; “If someone offers you an opportunity, even if you don’t know how to the job, take it! Learn and teach yourself quickly and do the job! Opportunities are everywhere; it’s what you do with it that matters”!



Thank you for sharing with African Development Magazine.



About the author

Adewale Adenrele Muhideen

Journalist ,PR, Researcher, Culture and Tourism promoter, Business Development Consultant.

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