Safari is big business in Zambia but the wildlife is facing issues like climate change and poaching. Here's how sustainable safaris are helping to protect nature in Zambia

Silent safari

For a moment the tables are turned on one of Africa’s most alert predators. Dozing in Kafue’s fierce heat under a decaying tree, a slumbering leopard fails to hear us drift towards the riverbank in an electric-boat until metres away. 

Our vessel is so quiet that even when she finally opens her hazel eyes, she is unperturbed, and merely yawns before slumping back to sleep.“It’s what we call a silent safari,” says captain Lex Munuma.

It was a hot and dusty drive from the capital Lusaka to Kafue National Park. Some 40ºC in the shade, the savannah grasses are yellowing yet Ila Safari Lodge, operated by Green Safaris, is a riverbank oasis. 

It’s the first of several lodges I’m visiting which are outstanding examples of how tourism can embrace both conservation and rural self-empowerment, and enable local communities to live more sustainably. 

This Dutch-owned property consists of ten river-facing luxury tents and is one of Africa’s most eco-friendly lodges. It operates on 100% solar energy - no noisy gas-guzzling generators - and the walls of its elegant open-sided lounge area are built from sandbags to avoid bringing concrete into the environment. Vegetables come from a local organic farm providing employment to farmers and a fair-priced market, and water is filtered naturally through reeds. The kitchen will soon run on biogas from the guest’s toilet waste. 

“This is the future of safaris. We have to respect the environment we are in,” says its Manager, Malemia Banda.

Most innovative is the camp’s electric-safari vehicles and boat, charged by solar energy. Not only do they avoid emitting carbon, but cause less disturbance to animals. I enjoy several silent safaris at the lodge, mingling quietly with a thousand-strong herd of buffalo and floating close to a bathing herd of elephants joyfully hosing themselves with cool Kafue river water. 

Blending in with nature

A few hours away Green Safaris plans to open its new Chisa Bushcamp around June 1. Located on the pancake-flat Busanga Plains, it embraces the ethos of blending into the environment: its four spectacular treehouses are designed like bird-nests, woven from natural materials. They sit in the canopy and shield safari tents while offering wonderful views across the wildlife-rich plains. 

“The guests will be invisible to animals although they may have an eagle for company in the nest,” jokes Lex.

After three days I return to Lusaka to take Pro-Flight’s light aircraft service to the outstanding Mwufe Lodge in South Luangwa National Park. It’s a more arid environment, which accentuates the need for safari operators to be low-consumptive users of precious resources in times of environmental duress. 

In my first game drive I see lions engaged in a stand-off with a crocodile while a luxuriantly-maned male narrowly avoids being trampled by elephants. The adventure doesn’t cease by night and a torchlit game-drive with my guide, Masuzyo Zimba, reveals honey badgers and civets, so bizarre-looking, they could’ve been assembled by Dr Frankenstein.

Run by the Bushcamp Company, Mfuwe Lodge’s 18 bungalows are ideal for safari novices – both comfortable and secure. I meet Manager Amy Alderman in their lounge area, furnished brightly with fabrics from the local community, and she outlines their outstanding commitment to conservation and community development. 

Guest revenue is used to contribute to local schools - school meals, teacher salaries and sponsoring pupils - as well as developing a local secondary school’s infrastructure. They run a clean water project to establish wells, plant trees with youth groups, and contribute to the anti-poaching capacity of South Luangwa.

“We’re not here to pay lip service to such issues. We take our responsibilities seriously,” says Amy, handing me my own metal refillable flask that enables them to save using 50,000 plastic bottles each year. 

Going off-grid

Self-sufficiency and the need to harmonise with nature is never more apparent when driven by Masuzyo to one of six satellite bushcamps Mfuwe maintains. Bushcamps are smaller, quite often tented camps, that are more exclusive and thoroughly open to the wildest animal encounters.

The three-hour drive is punctuated by sightings of painted dogs and elegant Thornicroft’s giraffe, a species in peril and requiring the protection from poaching that national parks battle to provide. 

Bilimungwe Bushcamp is utterly remote. Lying between several waterholes under the shade of a mahogany tree it has four luxurious thatched chalets on raised platforms. The immersion is total. Elephant, baboon, warthog, hippo and kudu, come and go. To maintain self-sufficiency and create less impact on the local wildlife they run off-grid and with solar-heated power and borehole water, while furnishings are sculpted in-situ from deadwood. 

“Animals were here first. We cannot change their environment but have to be part of it and share with them,” says Manager, Alex Stewart, as I enjoy my sunset gin and tonic with the same relish as the nearby elephants slurping olive-green water from the bushcamp’s private lagoon.

Book it with... African Pride

11 nights full-board in Zambia is from £6,975pp including flights with Emirates, three nights in Ila Safari Lodge and five at one or more of Bushcamp Company's camps, plus all transfers, game viewing throughout and park fees.