If you care about eco-issues, Zimbabwe's Pamushana Lodge sounds alarmingly opulent. In each of its six villas, sliding glass walls open onto a private swimming pool with panoramic hilltop views. Every villa has an outdoor shower and its own telescope. Interiors feature fireplaces, vast bathrooms and sumptuous African artwork. Yet the Malilangwe Reserve (of which Pamushana is part) has regenerated a 400km2 area of Zimbabwe's lowveld, while contributing substantially to the development of surrounding communities. So you can recline in the sauna free of guilt.
Since its foundation by local conservationists in 1994 over 1300 animals (including Black and White rhino, eland and sable) have been relocated into Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve
, at a cost of US$4.2m, to counter game depletion caused by competition with cattle and agriculture. Zimbabwe's largest private nature sanctuary now contains the country's widest variety of wildlife, including over 400 bird species. The Big Five are regularly spotted among the hills, woodlands and savannahs, interspersed with gems including Wild dog and oribi. Game-monitoring and anti-poaching systems are, naturally, comprehensive.
Funds were initially raised from a conservation organisation, but now the reserve earns income from Pamushana and its slightly humbler sister lodge, Nduna. For all its glamour, Pamushana was built from indigenous materials, with traditional thatching and stonework reminiscent of Great Zimbabwe.
Malilangwe's Neighbour Outreach Programme is also impressive. Spending on community projects totals over Z$31m. Pages long, the list of concrete achievements includes the construction of clinics and classrooms, the provision of bursaries to over 280 primary, secondary and tertiary students, and the donation of textbooks worth Z$450,000 to schools. The trust has also provided cash and assistance worth more than Z$500,000 to neighbouring Gonarezhou NP, while promoting sustainable land use and nurturing local businesses.
Among the beneficiaries is the Hluvuko Theatre Group, which Malilangwe is supporting during Zimbabwean tourism's current crisis. Elsewhere, local enterprises are less fortunate. Over 30 communities in Zimbabwe rely on income from tourism under CAMPFIRE (Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources), a widely admired, pioneering venture aimed at resolving the conflict over land between wildlife and people. Since its inception in 1989 over 250,000 rural Zimbabweans have taken control of their natural resources. Wildlife is now respected as a breadwinner.
Many trustee organisations are behind CAMPFIRE, including the Wildlife Department, to which hopeful district councils must apply. Some CAMPFIRE communities raise income by leasing land to tour operators such as the horseback safari company in Mavuradona. Others offer cultural and wildlife tourism themselves. In Mazoe, Sunungukai Camp is run by a locally elected committee and offers hiking, fishing and guided small game and birding walks. Guests can camp or stay in traditional huts, eat with villagers and enjoy storytelling and dancing.
Conservation is particularly important in CAMPFIRE areas adjacent to national parks, where conflict between wildlife and man has been greatest. Using funds raised, communities can fence their crops against wildlife (rather than killing it). Income is distributed to individual households, but is often pooled again for communal purposes — to improve schools or to buy a grinding mill. "There are problems to face, but I see CAMPFIRE as a child learning to walk," says the project's Cherry Bird. "Sometimes it falls, but you don't abandon it saying it will be a cripple for life, you pick it up... and set it on its way again.
If you look after it well, teach it and feed it, maybe it will look after you in your old age." Her words could apply to any community tourism project in Africa. Hopefully Zimbabwe's CAMPFIRE communities will emerge from the country's current difficulties walking tall.