Heads together

We asked Graham Boynton to report on the discussions and achievements of this year’s Conservation Lab in South Africa 
The Conservation Lab, the two-day annual conference attached to the We Are Africa luxury travel show, celebrated its fifth anniversary recently, and it seems to have come of age. Every delegate I spoke to said they had found it rewarding and thought-provoking and several claimed to have instituted actionable initiatives as a result of on-stage discussions.

There were significant changes over previous Labs. Firstly, the launch of CCFA (Community Conservation Fund Africa) included a US$10,000 donation to the Lab to pay for the flights of rural community leaders who would otherwise not have been able to afford to attend. One of the criticisms of past events was that the rural communities living alongside wild animals were barely represented here. (I must declare a vested interest here, as I am a co-founder of CCFA.)

The CCFA also made a US$25,000 award to the Mahenye Community project in Zimbabwe and the recipient, legendary conservationist Clive Stockil (pictured above right), received a standing ovation from the assembled delegates.

There were also intense debates on subjects that were previously avoided at the Conservation Lab, most notably the two-hour session between two professional hunters and two passionate non-hunting advocates and a presentation on why so few black Africans get involved in conservation.

The National Geographic film-makers Dereck (pictured above left) and Beverly Joubert, who have been attending from the first year (although Beverly missed last year’s Lab after being impaled on the horns of a buffalo and nearly killed), thought it was easily the best Lab ever. “We’re creating awareness here and we think if it continues like this more governments will get involved, as the Botswanans already are,” Beverly Joubert told me. “Now we need delegates from the EU and China.”

Jos Kent, CEO of luxury safari operator &Beyond, said it was a much more useful conference than he had expected and that the on-stage debates had acted as catalysts for wider conversations on the conference fringes.

While nobody expects a two-day gathering of conservationists and travel industry executives to have a profound effect on the deepening crisis in Africa’s wildlife and wild habitats, dialogue among relevant players is urgently required. If the travel industry has a role to play in rescuing the wilderness, exposure to new ideas should provide a platform for actionable outcomes. Thus, the best result from this year’s Conservation Lab would be measurable changes in behaviour. It is time for the industry to engage in community conservation with gusto.

Hopefully, next year’s Lab will show that this is just what happens when the great and the good stand on a stage and declare their intentions.

Graham Boynton has written for numerous newspapers and magazines, including Vanity Fair, Esquire and Condé Nast Traveller, and was the travel editor of The Daily and Sunday Telegraph between 1998 and 2012. The views expressed in this column are his own.