Africa Geographic interviews David Bristow, co-author of 'Africa's Finest'.
5 December 2014


Safari-going tourists are increasingly choosing sustainable ‘green’ lodges over gold taps. Some of the most luxurious safari lodges in Africa are prime practitioners of eco-tourism, but many others are green-washers who reportedly only pay lip service to eco-ethics. Incensed by these green-washers, long time travel and environmental writer David Bristow teamed up with co-founder of Wilderness Safaris and Great Plains Conservation Colin Bell. Their aim was to create a Green Safari model – a set of eco-standards for safari lodges. The result was Africa’s Finest, a book that with every turn of the page sets the standards, salutes the very best Green Safari destinations in Africa and has the reader aching to travel further – and greener – on this beautiful continent.
Bristow and Bell had to spend time in many of these idyllic places. It’s right to envy them, but it’s also important to know that it was a completely independent study done at their own expense. It took a year of planning and another two years of research conducted by themselves and a team of conservation experts. Their time was often spent snooping around ‘back of house’ and evaluating lodges on 102 points divided into four categories:

– Successful conservation work.

– The effectiveness of their community outreach programmes.

– Their use of renewable energies.

– Their waste treatment and disposal.

We chatted with Bristow at his home in Cape Town to find out more about his time ‘back of house’, why community is key to conservation and what destinations this extremely well travelled writer regards as his personal favourites.

SOlar panels lionscomp-1SRB_7091_19065-980-webSlide
Focus on renewable energy, community and conservation programmes are essential to successful sustainability.
©Africa’s Finest
(1)©Wilderness Safaris

AG: Tell us about one of the worst lodges.

DB: One large operator in South Luangwa (Zambia) didn’t want us the see their waste disposal system. One of our environmental consultants was staying there and they kept sending him on game drives to keep him from snooping about. So he just asked one of the drivers to show him their rubbish disposal, and was shown the worst open pit refuse dump you can imagine, with wildlife rummaging through it. Not only that, but grey water from the kitchen was being pumped right into the wetland – unfiltered, no grease trap – into this pristine environment. The average tourists would never see that. So we encourage tourists to request to see back of house, the heart of the operation.

Read more below the advert


AG: Is it harder for big, luxury safari operators to be green?

DB: On the one hand no, they have bigger resources to call on. But in other cases yes, because of the demands and expectations from guests. Take Singita for example. They have a camp called Pumashana in Zimbabwe. Behind the scenes there are these diesel generators pumping out carbon to keep the place turning over. It’s high end. Their guests want for nothing so you can’t have things not working. But beyond that they are feeding 20,000 school children every day of the year. They’ve also implemented an agricultural system that guarantees their food security. They have workshops training mechanics and irrigation engineers. People are being taught how to manage their water and food supply in a dirt poor part of a desperately poor country. Yes, you have a small lodge pumping out carbon, but without that lodge 20,000 kids, their siblings and parents would be destitute. So we say: Yes, there are betters ways to generate power, but they are doing more on a day to day basis than most safari operators on this continent to help their community.
In Tanzania, Singita has another fabulously luxurious camp, and they’ve increased the size of the migration corridor on the western Serengeti. They’ve bought the land from the community which would otherwise have turned the land over to agriculture and impacted on 20 or 30% of the migration. Outside of that corridor they’ve implemented community programs focusing on health, education and agriculture.

Singita Pamushana in Zimbabwe, a lodge that feeds 20,000 school children every day of the year. ©Africa’s Finest

AG: What should a safari operator focus on – community or wildlife?

DB: They go hand in hand. If you look at the Zimbabwean Campfire program it laid out what Ecotourism was, before the phrase became sullied. Ecotourism is a nature based experience, around a strong conservation ethic supporting the local population. These are the legs of the three-legged pot, and if one leg fails the pots falls over.
This is what it’s ultimately about: The land we know as a national park or reserve once belonged to Maasai, or Himba or San and so on. Then colonials moved them off to make game reserves because their land had the best water sources and grazing. Now those people sit on the boundaries looking at the riches inside. It cannot last. The community should be able to see the land as their asset and be made partners in the safari business, or the safari business will lose its tenure and the wildlife will end up in that three legged pot. For example, communities are killing lions because they prey on cattle. There are conservation programs dealing with this but many aren’t effective without direct community involvement. And you won’t sell a safari without lions. Look at Kenya. In 1950 they had 6 million people and 20,000 lions. In 2013 there were 40 million people and fewer than 2,000 lions. By 2020, finding a lion in Kenya could be like trying to find a needle in a haystack – and then Kenya will really be stuffed. Kenya is a poor country, it relies on tourism. The Maasai are putting pressure on the land because people in power are not sharing, and the Maasai are being undone. One of the things that some tourism operators do is channel profits away from sight of communities. They take the money from paying guests and divert it to overseas bank accounts. Not only do they dodge local taxes but they cheat their neighbouring communities out of bed levies owing to them. In East Africa, where the practice is endemic, it’s called “leakage”. These eco-pirates have done more than anyone else to sully the name and reputation of ecotourism.

unnamedDAC_5comp 2SerraCafema108
1: Cycling Namibia’s arid landscape with Damaraland Camp.
2: A simple reed hut for guests on a sailing safari with Madagascar Island Safaris.
3: Luxury by lamp and candlelight at Garonga Camp in South Africa.
4: A Himba woman milks a cow in Namibia’s Kunene region.
©Africa’s Finest
(4)©Wilderness Safaris/Dana Allen

AG: Kenya is going through such a tough time, but are there places in Kenya that are getting it right?

DB: Don’t get me wrong, Kenya is astounding. It has gob-smacking variety – from Mount Kenya to Lake Turkana, Amboseli to Lamu. And the conservancies work better with communities. Some years ago every Maasai was given tenure to land. The conservancy model is that you pay him for that land. With that money he buys cattle, but he has less land to run those cattle on. Now they are running their cattle on conservancies. So, if you don’t embrace the community as partners, it won’t be sustainable. You need full community partnerships with responsible community members on the controlling boards. As soon as you have transparency it’s much easier to get transparency on the community side. Namibia does it very well because they have been working with communities from the word go.

Read more below the advert


AG: The average tourist will go on an African safari once or twice: How do they choose the most eco-friendly trip?

DB: Well the idea behind this book is: if you want to really help Africa, stay here – we’ve done the work for you. No other independent study of the industry is available. But most tourists go through tour operators, so we encourage those operators to use the book as a guide. Staying at these places gives visitors the best chance of making a positive difference, even partnering with an indigenous community to uplift their living conditions through wildlife conservation.

Friends,-warriors-and-hosts - Lemartis
Friends, warriors and hosts at Lemarti’s Camp in Tanzania.
©Africa’s Finest

AG: Which lodges are your personal favourites?

DB: My favourite part of the project was finding the little guys. In a wildlife scenario: Shenton Safaris and Remote Africa in Zambia. They are small operators doing the real thing without blowing their trumpets. But I like the sea a lot. In the Zanzibar archipelago off Mafia island is a little island called Chole. A Cape town guy, Jean Devilliers, built a lodge as a means of sustaining the small dhow building community there – dhows are not commissioned much any more so he took it on as a personal project. The lodge is built amongst baobabs and an old German fort covered in massive wild fig tree roots. There’s fresh seafood from local fishermen and fantastic diving in the marine reserve which enjoys the biggest concentration of whale sharks in the Indian ocean. It’s green at every level. It oozes eco-ness.
Then there’s Mike Kennedy in Lamu archipelago, on a little island called Kiwayu – which means “moonlight”. The whole lodge is eco: It’s wind and solar powered. It’s made out of woven palm leaf matting – a barefoot beach lodge with coral reef on one side and mangrove on the other – paradise if you don’t want the gold taps. For the kind of person I am those two places stand way and above anything else I have ever

Chole-Mjini-Lodge---Treehouse-exterior2Comp 3Chole-whale-shark
The authors favourite places:
1: Eco-friendly accommodation options at Chole Mjini Lodge on Chole island in the Zanzibar archipelago.
2: A room made of reed mats at Mike’s Camp on Kenya’s Kiwayu Island.
3: Chikoko Camp with Remote Africa in Zambia.
4: Chole Island offers diving with whale sharks.
©Africa’s Finest

Parting comment from the Editor: This book is an invaluable resource for travellers and the travel industry alike, as it sets the bar and challenges all African establishments to aim high and all travelers to seek out the special places that put community and biodiversity above short term profit. By Bristow’s own admission they missed a few deserving establishments that should be in this book, and I am equally sure that some that made the cut will fall out of favour at some stage. They also didn’t focus on places specialising in non-motorised activities like walking, horseback, canoe and cycling safaris which are, by definition, the greenest of the green. Hopefully the wave started by the authors will grow to eventually become the normal way for a lodge to operate.

africa's finest-bookAfrica’s Finest is available to order at the special price of ZAR500 excluding postage. Every second book of multiple orders will be a signed, leather-bound Collector’s Edition.

Send orders to:


Sign up to get our magazine stories
and most popular blog posts every week

  • Writer

    Whether luxury can really be green in the truest sense is debatable. The author may also want to research singita a bit more as their Mara camp used large amounts of endangered and illegal mninga hardwoods which are usually harvested from the game reserves of southern tanzania. In addition, Does one really need all that stuff luxury and waste in such a beautiful and sensitive area. Or would it be rather best to have a small, tasteful low impact camp, whether seasonal or mobile, instead and educate your guests on the importance of having a low footprint.

  • Anon

    Interesting that Great Plains is mentioned . Their community programmes may be very good but rather like carbon offsetting this does not excuse the overuse of resources in the first place. Lodges with big diesel generators humming away so that guests can leave their lights on all the time and use hair driers whilst using the wifi in their rooms does not make me think of true green credentials. Equally,lodges in drought areas shipping in water every day so that guests can have a plunge pool outside their room? Surely we should be minimising the footprint and educating people. Sure , everyone has to make a buck but there must be a happy medium. Maybe safari should not be so accessible. If we are not careful we shall destroy the very thing we wish to show guests, by overdevelopment and greed. It is not a perfect world but there are ways to make lodges far better if we lower peoples expectations of 6 star luxury. Do you really need Michelin star chefs in the bush??

  • Writer

    Well said anon. A great deal of the focus on many lodges is how luxurious they can be. If as much time was spent on getting guests to embrace the features of low impact camp operations then maybe there could be a shift in the industry away from often wasteful opulence. Many high end visitors actually are well informed and educated and find such excess offensive. When one considers the staff housing, water, waste, in addition to the guests’ then it brings to mind that a luxury lodge is inherently irresponsible. The real way to be responsible is by low impact, light footprint, low resource use accommodations. A simple fly camp will always trump a lux lodge in this regard. And in terms of making it pay, there are many wealthy discerning guests who would prefer such camps and lodges. Some of the examples above are interesting and good, but the glaring omission from the article at least is the operators doing lightweight fly camps in pristine areas which leave no footprint and which also give a lot back to the community. Surely, these would be the most responsible way.

    • Simon Espley

      Perhaps you’re focussing only on the luxury options described and ignoring the several references to rustic alternatives?

  • Ken Watkins

    In answer to the question “A lot greener than these places”.

    How can Zarafa be green its luxury replaced a very rustic camp called Zibilianja which had 4 tents solar water heating via small plastic containers, but then you only paid $300 rather than $1,500.

    Green is camping in a normal tent, copper baths not needed!

    Independent I think not!!!

    Must be selling badly this is the second blog

    • Anton Crone

      Ken, I’m glad to see you visit our online magazine so often. In this interview Bristow gives as his ideal eco-destinations: the low key and spartan Mike’s Camp in Lamu archipelago and Chole in Zanzibar archipelago. Prices are $250 per night for Mike’s and around $200 per person per night for Chole. Please find links here:

      I am sure you would enjoy these fine establishments. If you’ve stated at Zarafa we would welcome your assessment of their sustainability initiatives.

      • Ken Watkins

        I fancied some more rabid abuse!
        I do not go to the seaside, I am a wildlife safari person.
        I never visited Zarafa, why would I pay 5 times as much to be in the same place?

        • Anton Crone

          Good to hear, Ken, I often get seasick myself. Thankfully Bristow highlights two of his favourite wildlife safari options in the interview: Shenton Safaris and Remote Africa. Definitely worth considering as I am sure you are familiar with the wonders of South Luangwa. Shenton’s camps are less than half the price of Zarafa and Remote Africa has a wonderful special offer of a six night walking safari for just $3,330. Link:

          • Ken Watkins

            I have been to South Luangwa, but find other places more “interesting”. I know of Shenton Safaris through my mate Andy Rouse, a wildlife photographer.

          • Anton Crone

            And according to your original statement, you dispute their green credentials, is that correct?

          • Ken Watkins

            Not sure what you mean by “original statement”, but simply Zarafa is nowhere near as green as Zibilianja was even if it has lots of solar power, the only extra green is the “greenback”

          • Anton Crone

            Your statement “A lot greener than these places” which would include Shenton Safaris and Remote Africa.

          • Ken Watkins

            My comments on “green” related to Zarafa, as I stated above.
            Do you have any idea as to why solar power is considered green, processing of Polysilcon uses great amounts of energy, the other ingredients of a panel are Aluminium and glass, neither of which are particularly green!

          • Anton Crone

            Ken, by saying “these places” your statement clearly refers to all safari operators mentioned in this interview. Zafara itself is not actually mentioned in this interview, but I take it you are referring to its inclusion in the book and our gallery selection.

            It would be worth reading about how the Great Plains Foundation, towards which Zafara guests contribute, adheres to the principle that Bristow mentions: “Ecotourism is a nature based experience, around a strong conservation ethic supporting the local population.”

            Here are a couple of links about their not inconsiderable use of “greenbacks”, and their future plans:



          • Ken Watkins

            I have no interest in Great Plains, you however may have, they are amongst the best publicised bullshitters in Africa, and don’t ask me to explain, you are quite frankly annoying!!

          • Anton Crone

            Thanks for the discussion, Ken. Looking forward to more of your feedback in the future.

          • Ken Watkins

            Thank goodness, looking forward to more of your propaganda!

          • africageographicmagazine

            Hi Ken. This is a request to keep your comments constructive and non-personal. Your comments in this and other recent feeds favor personal insults and fantasy over fact. Failure to respect this request will lead to your being banned from this site. Your thoughts, ideas and feedback are welcome (whatever your views) but your personal attacks and conspiracy theories are not. For further information refer here:
            Thanks, moderator for Africa Geographic

          • Ken Watkins

            Hi Africa Geographic Magazine,
            Please supply me with details of my comments which contain personal insults and/or fantasy.
            I would also like to know what “conspiracy theories” you believe that I am involved with.

            Given the comment by Anton above “looking forward to more of your feedback in the future”, I find this turn of events to be somewhat strange!

  • Chris Liebenberg

    I would not say that it is accurate to assume that fly or semi permanent camps have a lower ecological impact than permanent camps. Permanent camps that are well built with sensitivity in mind, are able to set up a “clean” infrastructure with water purifying plants, solar banks, waste water digesters, grease traps etc. I have a strong personal preference for fly camps but the reality in the industry is that these are often set up as cost saving options specifically to avoid the costly infrastructure and when saving money is important, the guest experience will usually trump ecological sensitivity. I have seen well built permanent camps with 20 rooms that have virtually no impact and I have seen 2 month old fly camps with black and grey water running over tanks, diesel and paraffin spilling into the soil. Trash being exposed by wildlife where no adequate trash enclosures have been built etc. One of the reasons why Botswana put measures in place to curb mobile camping was because of the bad ecological track record of these camps.

  • Vicki S

    Interesting reading.
    May I ask a different but still distantly related question? Why is that one of the reasons guests choose to stay at an expensive private lodge in many places is because they get told they will be taken ‘off road’.
    A very important marketing tool.
    Meanwhile little creatures and fauna are being bowled over by massive jeeps bashing around in the bush to ensure guests get the best sighting. I have seen shocking examples of this and just don’t understand, I know it’s all about the ‘sighting’ but what about the damage done along the way?

  • Bahati Robert Hare

    I total agree with your research. Well done. This will help me as are tour operator.

  • Andrew Campbell

    You mention they are basing the ‘sustainability’ criteria on:

    – Successful conservation work.

    – The effectiveness of their community outreach programmes.

    – Their use of renewable energies.

    – Their waste treatment and disposal.

    There are many other factors one should consider when assessing how ‘green’ a tourism operation is. Some of these include waste minimisation, water conservation, impacts on biodiversity, responsible procurement policies, cultural considerations and adherence to nature tourism best practice principles. There are many others of equal importance.

    Basing a ‘study’ such as this on only a few of the factors contributing to responsible tourism operations will lead to a list that cannot claim to show the ‘most sustainable and responsible safari destinations in sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian Ocean Islands’ as all factors relating to sustainable and responsible tourism have not been considered.

    • Anton Crone

      HI Andrew,

      Thanks for your comment. The article states: “…evaluating lodges on 102 points divided into four categories:…” Those four factors are actually categories under which 102 points fall under. You can get a sense of many of those points here:

      All the best,

  • Roger Moris

    Dear Mr.,

    We are
    “nature lovers” (particularly Africa) living in Belgium . I just did read the “How green is your
    safari ?” -article from Africa Geographic.

    So the past
    two years we went to South Luangwa (Zambia), once to the camps of the
    “Bushcamp Company” (Mfuwe and other Bush Camps) and last time to
    different camps from “Robin Pope Safaris”.

    Now we are
    a bit worried with the story in this article about “One large operator in South Luangwa
    (Zambia) didn’t want us the see their waste
    disposal system………….”

    Now we
    really hope this is not about the camps mentioned above, otherwise we would
    feel a bit guilty by choosing these companies for our safaris.

    Can you
    please give us more information please ?

    Many thanks
    in advance. With kind regards

    Roger Moris & Marleen Rotthier