As the pilot tilted the nose downward to descend, the rough smears of greens, browns and blues became a metropolis of life. What looked like rocks became hippos heaving or a trail of migrating elephants, infants in tow. Hundreds of specks blown across the landscape became herds of darting impala. Finally the ground rushed to greet us. We bounced like a marble on the rock-and-dirt airstrip and rattled along in a clamor until, just when it seemed like the plane would burst into a heap of scraps and bolts, we came to a halt in a puffing cloud of dust.

Northern Botswana is one of the few landscapes in the world that retains its magnificent megafauna. To get there, I flew over the sprawling tract of land at the convergence of Namibia, Botswana, Angola, Zambia, and Zimbabwe that will, in three years, be designated a transfrontier park under an agreement the five countries recently signed. Until fifteen years ago, the land I was standing on had been largely the domain of poachers and big-game hunters. It is now used mostly for wildlife viewing, as part of the soon-to-be Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, whose Okavango Delta I had come to visit, along with South Africa’s Phinda Private Game Reserve.

The park will encompass an area roughly the size of Italy, and was planned with the help of nonprofits and NGOs to  promote sustainable tourism, bring much-needed jobs to the area, and protecting the land and wildlife. When completed, it will house the largest population of elephants on the planet.

Africa’s lucrative safari business has evolved to make conservation one of the continent’s bright spots, particularly in southern countries. Successful anti-poaching strategies and a transition from big game hunting to more live-animal viewing has allowed native species to thrive, and tour operators are learning that a healthy ecosystem can lure big-spending tourists. Governments, conservationists, and development specialists are now hoping to take full advantage of this lucky market niche, by working with these companies to set aside protected land like the Kavango-Zambezi park. “Tourism is a very, very important component of the overall conservation strategy in Africa,” explains Craig Sholley, senior director of the Africa Wildlife Foundation, an international conservation organization.

My first camp, a series of tents pitched near the Linyanti River, was one of a network run by an outfitter called Wilderness Safaris. Like other tour operators in Botswana, the company leases large tracts of public land from the government, in exchange for doing an astronomical amount of conservation work. I arrived just in time for dinner—baboon steaks and pap, a traditional dish of maize or cornmeal, cooked over an open fire. While sipping South African vintages with a handful of other guests, I admired southern-hemisphere constellations I had never glimpsed before, like Scorpio and the Southern Cross. And before bed, half a dozen staff members, all from a nearby village, sang in Setswana harmonies.

The next morning, I set off with my guide, Thuto Moutloatsi, a 29-year-old South African. We drove for hours through forests of wide-leafed mopane trees and then crossed the Kalahari sands, a sparse desert where the only visible life were steenboks, which looked sort of like miniature deer. By afternoon, we arrived at the Savuti Channel, a dry riverbed that hasn’t flowed since 1982, but is still packed with wildlife attracted to the wide-open grasses.

In a matter of minutes, I watched male giraffes fight for dominance and a mischievous, young elephant chase a couple of black-backed jackals for nothing more than amusement. An endangered kori bustard, the world’s heaviest flying bird, bobbed its head as it searched for ground-dwelling insects; and a warthog with a corkscrew tail chased his chosen mate in an attempt to mingle DNA. Later that night, we arrived at our next camp. I joined the other guests for a savory meal of vegetables and homemade bread, eaten alfresco amid the cacophony of the delta—the twitter of insects, the tink-tink-tink of bell frogs, the unnerving roar of elephants, and the sound of hippos grunting in the swamps.

I continued south over the next six days, hopping between Wilderness Safaris’ camps and lodges, which ranged from tents with cots and bucket showers to an exquisite wooden suite on stilts with floor-to-ceiling windows, a mosquito-netted canopy bed, and carved wooden sculptures. The days’ game drives and nature walks were punctuated by meals with fellow guests around campfires or long tables decked with candelabras. The dinner conversation each night was like a biology conference, as we all compared notes and described sightings with wide-eyed enthusiasm. My own best stories were about watching a pride of lions devour a zebra and seeing a leopard teach her two cubs to hunt by coaxing them to chase her long, flicking tail. One night, a Los Angeles lawyer who grew up in Botswana in the ’70s said that when she was a child, she and her family would wait in a Jeep at a watering hole for hours and see just a few impala. Things had clearly changed.

More responsible hunting practices and a shift to live-animal tourism have been key factors in the return of the wildlife, says Chris Roche, ecologist for Wilderness Safaris. “After twenty years of hunting, the game levels were so low it was not conducive to tourism,” he said. But the new approach is already working wonders. “In some places, we’ve only been in there for eight years, and we’re very shocked that they’re proving to be fantastic game-viewing locations.” The government’s anti-poaching efforts have also had an impact, as evidenced by the dramatic resurgence in Botswana’s elephant population. In the 1980s, poachers reduced the animal’s numbers to alarmingly low levels.

On my trip, I saw elephants everywhere: wading through the Linyanti, marching in lines across the road, lazily but methodically defoliating forests. While I sat in a specially designed, ground-level viewing room, they came so close that I could study the arc of their eyelashes, the maze of veins on their cabbage-leaf ears, the map of wrinkles on their skin.

Botswana now has the largest elephant population on the continent—more than 133,000, or 55 percent of southern Africa’s total population, according to a recent report by the World Conservation Union—and with the help of some neighboring countries, can claim them as one of conservation’s greatest triumphs. In fact, now they are so numerous that they are disturbing local communities, a problem that may be alleviated when they spread more widely throughout the new park.

Graceful, sensitive, and socially complex, elephants are the park’s calling card. At one point, I was so engrossed watching a large female with her infant, I didn’t even notice the signs   of her hostility. After spotting us, she flapped her ears, which sounded like sails beating in the wind. Then she stomped back and forth and charged, raising her trunk to the sky with an ear-shattering call. Terrifying, sure, but also thrilling.

After Botswana, I flew down to Phinda Private Game Reserve, South Africa, to see another example of successful eco tourism. Phinda is the flagship reserve of CC Africa, Wilderness Safaris’ fiercest competitor in the eco-safari market, but also its greatest ally in conservation. Both companies maintain a similar approach to the safari business, emphasizing low-impact use of land, direct conservation work, and community involvement.

While Wilderness leases large tracts of land from the government, CC Africa has resuscitated a smaller piece of private land. When the company bought the 50,000 acres sixteen years ago, it had been degraded by big-game-hunting operations, cattle ranches, and pineapple farms. Since then, the company’s conservationists and scientists have worked to restore the land to its natural splendor and reintroduce indigenous species. Eventually, CC Africa hopes to buy more land and connect it with the Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park  (an UNESCO World Heritage Site) to make a wildlife corridor. Though they estimate it could take 100 years to get back to its natural state, I discovered many signs of hope.

Seven different ecosystems, from sand forest to broadleaf woodland, were in various states of thriving. Stunning creatures had returned to the area, including yellow-fronted canaries and  cheetahs. I watched one of the cats wake from a snooze in tall grass, stretch with feline grace, and saunter off. Some species have been purposefully reintroduced and are closely monitored and studied.

My last day on the continent, I set out to catch a glimpse of the elusive black rhino, a highly endangered species that the reserve is working hard to revive. According to conservation group Save the Rhino Trust, the species was hunted relentlessly in the nineteenth century and even more so between 1970 and 1992, when populations fell by 96 percent. Now scientists estimate that fewer than 4,000 remain. Poachers, too, remain a threat, collecting rhino horns to use as daggers in Yemen and  medicine in Asia. Phinda has introduced a population of about twenty that is now thriving, and just a few weeks before my visit, the reserve’s first baby black rhino was born. Guests at Phinda can opt to follow the program’s rhino trackers in the field, and a portion of the fee goes directly to the conservation effort. Though the black rhinos suffered greater population losses than elephants ever did, I wondered if they too might one day flourish as the elephants now do in Botswana.

Simon Naylor, Phinda’s environmental manager, and my guide for the outing, speaks Zulu and can communicate with the trackers, Thomas and Bheki. Every day, the pair, dressed in army-green pants and caps, travels the reserve on foot, looking for rhinos and taking notes.

We all clambered into a Range Rover and departed from the lodge early, at about 6am. Naylor navigated the reserve’s tangle of rough roads as Thomas and Bheki looked for tracks and other signs of the rhinos’ presence. Meanwhile, Naylor briefed me on safety. Black rhinos are some of the most dangerous creatures in the bush. Only about five feet tall, they can weigh up to 3,000 pounds and are more aggressive than other species of rhino. You have to stay downwind of black rhinos; they chase humans at the slightest whiff. If chased, Naylor instructed me to hide behind a tree, because black rhinos see and hear poorly. If, however, I were to surprise one in the grasses, I was advised to dive to the ground, cover my head, and try my best to punch the snout. “There is a chance we’ll get chased, but, well ... hopefully not,” said Naylor, finally, as he stopped the truck in an area of mixed savannah.

I wondered how I could have possibly thought this was a good idea. Nonetheless, I followed Thomas and Bheki as they tiptoed through the brush, exchanging elaborate hand signals like a pitcher and catcher. I anxiously wondered what they meant: Sleeping rhino around the corner? Rhino at two o’clock? You run that way, I’ll run this way? At first I felt like a tank stumbling loudly through the foliage. Soon, though, I learned to move quietly so my pants didn’t swish and my toes didn’t disturb the branches. Every noise was strange, like the nyalas’ and monkeys’ alarm calls, which mean a predator is near. At one point, I heard a whumph, a snort-like sound that Naylor informed me minutes later, when we found a few fresh leopard tracks and scat, was likely a surprised cat trying to scare us off.

For hours, we ducked under branches, moved quickly through tall grasses where lions could have been hiding, and trained our senses on the signs of the animal world. I learned to identify the different tracks—rhino, porcupine, impala, leopard—and to manage my fear of a landscape I had only experienced from the safety of a truck. The skills that have allowed me to survive in the Western world were utterly useless, which was terrifying but also liberating.

After hours stalking through the bush, we still hadn’t found the elusive rhino. Thomas told us the rhino we were tracking had covered ground quickly all morning, patrolling his territory, and was now likely snoozing somewhere in deep grass. That meant we could easily (and, perhaps, disastrously) surprise him. But we didn’t see the rhino. I was partly disappointed, partly relieved, and partly delighted that we had been outsmarted by the prehistoric beast on his home turf. He would remain sketched only in my imagination, and I loved knowing that I was irrelevant to him. But then, if tourists like me weren’t around, he might not be either.

Story by Kate Siber. This article originally appeared in Plenty in November 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

Animal attractions
Explore a new predator-ridden savannah, stalk the elusive black rhino, dodge a charging elephant -- eco-tourism in southern Africa is one wild ride.