In this exclusive interview, Chris Roche from Wilderness Safaris answers questions which Safaritalk members have submitted regarding their new Odzala-Kokoua National Park developments. (Congo). Is this somewhere you'd consider going?
Chris Roche, right, bird book in hand. Fraser Gear general manager at Odzala, (center) and
Karl Diakite, a guide for us in Odzala. (Photo Credit, Tim Jackson – Africa Geographic)
Chris Roche started out in the ecotourism industry in the mid-1990s. After a brief stint at Cape Town’s ‘The World of Birds’ he moved on to the greater Kruger area where he cut his teeth as a guide and guide trainer and assessor for well-known ecotourism operator, CC Africa (now &Beyond). He stayed with CC Africa for close to 8 years in various roles ranging from group ecologist to field communications manager and sat on the company’s conservation committee. From CC Africa he moved to Wilderness in February 2005 where he has since been employed. He has filled various roles in the Johannesburg office in both the creative and sustainability teams, (principally biodiversity conservation) as well as working with the Wilderness Trust. He has traveled widely in Africa, (west, central, east and southern), and to its associated islands, has a Masters degree in springbok ecology, (following an Honours degree that evaluated conservation consciousness as related to the Knysna elephants), is widely published in both academic and popular media and is the co-author of a popular book of guiding stories.
For more information on the new Odzala camps, please visit the website here: www.odzala-kokoua.com
How did you embark in this region? Do members of your team have familiarity with the area? Have personal trips made to Congo offered inspiration? Are you partnering with interests already established in the area? This seems like a bold initiative so I am interested in what sparked it.
The origins of our Congo development stretch back to 2006 when we hosted the Leadership for Conservation Africa, (LCA), conference at our Pafuri Camp in the north of Kruger. LCA is an initiative to bring together protected area agencies from African countries, business and philanthropists, (see: www.lcafrica.org). Delegates from the Republic of Congo attended this conference and then returned with the LCA in late 2008 to broach the subject of Wilderness Safaris involvement in the country. Given that we wanted to extend our model of using ecotourism to support conservation and community from the savannah into tropical rainforest, (and had twice previously investigated opportunities in Gabon, as well as Cote d’Ivoire in the Upper Guinea forests), we needed little encouragement to offer our pro bono input into the feasibility of ecotourism development in the country. Two of us subsequently visited the area in February 2009 and following this put together a business plan that we believed could be used by any operator such as ourselves, or independently by the Congolese government, to development light impact pioneering ecotourism in the region.
At this stage we had decided that whether or not we ultimately expressed formal interest in being involved as the ecotourism operator that we would offer our expertise pro bono since we believed it was a project worth doing and could make a difference to the area and hopefully ultimately the region. Fortunately a German philanthropist connected to the LCA agreed with that sentiment and provided funding for feasibility studies and then infrastructure establishment. We formally agreed in late 2010, (after a number of weeks/months spent on the ground assisting in community assessments around the park and a kind of sensitisation process to establish attitudes towards tourism and how to manage expectations), to enter into a joint venture to develop three camps and operate and market them under the Wilderness banner.
Boating up the river, Odzala
What made you choose Odzala-Kokoua National Park?
Odzala-Kokoua is undoubtedly one of the rainforest gems of west-central Africa. It is one of the largest parks, harbours globally significant populations of megafauna like forest elephant and forest buffalo, very high densities of lowland gorillas, perhaps the region’s most important spotted hyaena population, until recently harboured west-central Africa’s only lion, (they are currently presumed extinct), and is the most important forest block in west-central Africa for primates, hosting some 11 diurnal species and a further 6 nocturnal species. It includes a remnant of savannah within a mosaic of diverse forest types and is crossed by two navigable rivers, the Mambili and the Lekoli. We are thus able to expose people to a diversity of habitats, experiences and species within a relatively small area.
Although in line with your overall philosophy of preservation, these camps take you into a new habitat of the rainforest. What are some of the challenges this new venture presents?
This is certainly true and the decision to proceed with the venture was one that was not taken lightly. We are not experts at operating in the rainforest but believe that we can bring some of our nearly 30 years’ experience of sustainable operating in 11 of Africa’s other biomes to bear here and offer a truly unique experience. The length of time taken in the feasibility and due diligence has meant that we have been able to develop a decent skill set for the rainforest and have learnt from some generous partners including Spanish primatologists Dr Magda Bermejo and German Illera, Dr Paul Telfer from WCS, and of course the African Parks Network. The main challenges have been logistical – aspects such as transport, imports, customs and language. Added to this is the confusion between the two Congos and stereotypes that exist about central and west-central Africa. This has been perhaps the most significant obstacle in terms of marketing.
How will the success, (or not) of this project influence decisions on future out of the way locations? Is the Congo project a forerunner of further such expansion into other less oft visited safari destinations? Indeed, how do you envisage the future of safari tourism? The safe and trusted model, ie maintaining the status quo, or gambling somewhat and appealing to the more adventurous safari goer?
This is an important question and one that underscores just how much is riding on this venture. We believe it is our responsibility to extend the successful savannah ecotourism model to less protected ecosystems in Africa. We want this to be successful to the point that others follow us into new biomes and habitats and that more exists to attract ecotourists to west-central Africa than just Odzala Wilderness Camps, (Congo), Sangha Lodge, (CAR), Loango, (Gabon), and Bom Bom, (Principe). We’d like to see ecotourism of this nature extend to the Upper Guinea forests as well… places like Tai in Cote d’Ivoire. Certainly ecotourism to destinations like the Sahara and Aïr and Ténéré in Niger would help protect the last surviving wild populations of addax. The same would apply to bonobo in Lomako, DRC, or Hirola in the Tana River area in Kenya.
The bottom line however remains the important one. To be truly sustainable we believe these business ventures need to be profitable. Donor funding and aid cannot be seen as the answers to these challenges. It is relatively easy to get well-meaning foreign aid to finance the construction and development of a facility. It is far harder to develop supporting infrastructure, country marketing plans and structures, to finance establishment and operating costs in the initial period and so on. Thus… it is undoubtedly the safe and trusted model that the majority of our industry will stick to. If we can prove that a destination like Odzala can be run profitably then others will follow us. Until that time destinations like Odzala, Tai, Lomako, Aïr, Tana River etc will simply be seen as too risky.
Dana Allen - Gorilla in the Odzala forest
Following this question, how do you envisage safari tourism developing in the coming years? Wilderness is investing 10 million USD in Zim, so does that mean interest from travellers is being directed away from places like Bots for example?
It is important that we spread the load so to speak – not just in terms of potential impact, (think of various over-used parts of Africa that I won’t name here), but also in terms of potential benefit. Zimbabwe offers amazing experiences that are on a par with and can exceed those in Botswana. Obviously the political and economic challenges of the past decade have meant that people have avoided the country, yet we believe this is changing and we have seen over the past 18 months a significant increase in interest in the region and the occupancies that follow this.
In an ideal world we would really value seeing the increasing sophistication and discernment in ecotourists to a point where the rare, unusual and specialised, (think sitatunga in the Okavango, or bushy-tailed mongoose in the South Luangwa), are valued and appreciated at the same level the ‘big and hairy’ of the savannah ecosystem. If this were to happen it would certainly support the development and marketing of more off the beaten track destinations like Odzala and allow ecotourism to genuinely contribute to conservation in more than just accessible and iconic savannah ecosystems like the Mara/Serengeti, or Kruger or the Okavango. The obvious question here is how we achieve this? What comes first: the supply or demand?
What pre-existing tourist facilities were there in this park? (And if any, what was their status before you moved in and how do you see yourselves working with them?)
The ECOFAC programme, (a European Union funding and development programme), had developed a rustic tented camp called M’Boko which ran for a number of years before they wound down their involvement in Congo. By the time of our entry the camp was not operating and was partly derelict. We have assumed responsibility for refurbishment, operation and marketing of this camp. Thus we are the only current operator in the park, operating two Classic level camps and soon to add another at a more affordable rate which will include en suite mini-Meru tents at M’boko along the Lekeni River as well.
Dana Allen - Forest buffalo Lango Camp
You are building the wild of a special land, plants and animals: how is your design based on using as little of the land as practical?
As per our usual approach, (predicated on minimising environmental impact), we are building on raised decks and using canvas, local timber and other products such as woven raffia panels, (bought from all the villages on the western side of the park), and bamboo, (reaped from waste generated from a road building project along the western side of the park). This avoids compaction of the soil, use of materials such as concrete that are difficult to remove and so on. Over the past three years we have decommissioned three camps in our group, (a result of site relocations or changed lease terms), and in all three cases we have been able to entirely rehabilitate the site to the extent that you would not be able to tell that a camp had previously existed there. We build all our camps with this in mind.
Is the camp to be fenced?
No we do not fence our camps.
In an effort to keep the area as natural as possible, how are you going to maintain the lodge’s landscaped gardens? How are you going to incorporate the surrounding flora to create a relaxing atmosphere, whilst retaining a wilderness feel?
As per our usual approach we do not introduce landscaped gardens. Rather the camp is moulded to fit the forest. As such at Ngaga Camp the understory is entirely marantaceae and we did not clear any trees. The site was chosen for its ability to harbour a camp with as little impact as possible and the marantaceae has astounded us with its capacity for rapid growth and re-establishment after initial cutting back to allow for construction. At Lango Camp the same applies. The camp has been built in gallery forest at the edge of Lango Bai and is also raised above the ground and the fringing vegetation. In both case the ‘garden’ is the spectacular natural ecosystem that surrounds you.
How easy has the process been from the initial idea, to selecting 2 locations, through the EIA process etc? How supportive has the Govt been?
See question one. It has been a long process with our direct involvement since late 2008. Selecting camp locations was relatively easy after we had comprehensively assessed the natural resources and features that we wanted to share with our guests, and the seasonal aspects of these features. The EIA process was a sensible one and the government has been very supportive. The hard part has been the logistics.
What lessons have been learnt from other camps, that you have put into practice with these two?
The team that has been involved in building this camp have been directly involved in building and opening probably 7 or 8 camps and have brought all those lessons and learnings to bear on this project. This has been combined with the lessons learnt by the group over 30 years of operating in remote and pristine ecosystems. The most pertinent things are site selection and modern means of using renewable energy to generate power, and also to process human waste. We have a comprehensive minimum standards document that we use to plan, design and develop all our camps and also to carry out bi-annual assessments that identify areas for improvement in camp design and operations, whether this be simple aspects such as implementing impermeable bases for fuel storage to avoid soil contamination, or large challenges such as the use of fossil fuel in generating energy for camp operations such as lighting, freezers, fans and so on.
What are the green credentials of each camp, in terms of water supply and waste disposal, (grey and black water), electricity generation, impact on the environment, delivery of food and drink supplies and so on?
The credentials are pretty good but can improve and are expected to as we find our feet. Energy is solar generated. Grey and black water is handled through composting toilets and septic tanks dependent on location, (water table etc taken into consideration). Waste is all separated and non-biodegradable removed and wherever possible recycled, (this latter element is hard to achieve in Congo and faced with the logistics). Building materials are natural and local, camp design and structure takes location, vegetation, drainage etc into account and so on. An area where we want to improve is in supply lines. This is not achievable at present but is a future target. See below question for more.
Dana Allen - Grey-cheeked Mangabey, Odzala Forest.
How much local produce will you be using in your menus, and how are you engaging local communities to help with the running of the camps? How much employment will they provide to local Congo people?
I’ll separate this question into two answers. The first concerns employment and operations, the second menus and food. Employment is aimed at being 100% local in time, but the absence of ecotourism and hospitality skills are a challenge that needs to be overcome before this happens. Accordingly at this point we have 5 French-speaking ex-pats as the camp managers and specialist guides. These staff come from Switzerland, Cote d’Ivoire, France and South Africa. The remainder of the staff are all local… gorilla trackers, kitchen staff, housekeeping etc. We have been through comprehensive training of local staff since February this year and obviously will continue this as we operate. During the construction phase we also employed local people, a crew of 16 men. Some building materials have also been purchased from local communities. This has included woven raffia palm panels for the thatching of all buildings at both Ngaga and Lango Camps as well as bamboo that would have been destroyed in a road building project along the western boundary of the park and which we bought from local communities. Across the countries where we operate we employ around 1900 people in our camps. As a result of a PhD study of the socio-economic impact of our operations on rural communities we know that more than 85% of our camp staff are local people from neighbouring communities, some 65% of them had never been employed before and each supports on average 7.5 dependents in their communities. We want to ensure that the positive soci-economic impacts of our Odzala camps are equal to or exceed this benchmark.
As far as food/menus are concerned… this is a slightly more complicated question to answer at this point. There is the medium term goal and the short term reality. One of challenges is the logistics of supply. High end guests require high end meals and reliable and high quality supply of certain items can be a challenge. This is of course one of the factors that drives the move towards local supply but in the case of Congo this challenge is manifold on both a local and national level. Beef is a rarity in the country. As is lamb. Aside from bushmeat, goats and chickens are the main sources of domestic protein but even these are difficult to obtain regularly. Fish is an option, but again reliability of supply and quality is complex. As long ago as mid-2011 we began discussions with villages on the western boundary of the park to begin a kind of market garden to provide a reliable supply of fresh food stuffs and this is still in process. Cassava and other local staples will be incorporated into the menu. We feel it is important to represent local culture in as many areas as possible, whether this be camp design, food, dance, music, language, activities or art and craft.
OPERATIONS & MARKETING
Is access expected to be through Congo or through Gabon and what do you expect people to combine trips here with? Presumably you have some things already lined up?
Access is through Brazzaville in Congo. The new Maya Maya Airport is modern and efficient. The majority of our guests will then fly in a Cessna Caravan to Odzala. Brazzaville is connected to Paris, Johannesburg, Nairobi , Kigali and Addis Ababa meaning that Congo can be combined regionally with southern and east Africa. Of course local connections are possible too… either to Libreville in Gabon or Bangui in Central African Republic. The obvious itinerary combinations with Odzala are Nouabale-Ndoki National Park in Congo and Dzangha-Sangha in neighbouring CAR. Nouabale-Ndoki has more rustic accommodation that is run by WCS but includes established tourism products at Mbeli Bai and Mondika. Currently the only functioning accommodation in Dzangha-Sangha is Sangha lodge run by Rod Cassidy and we have had a lot of interest in combining Sangha and Odzala. Air access is possible between Odzala and Ouesso in Congo using our plane, from Ouesso to Bayanga, (immigration and airstrip for Sangha), requires a CAR-registered plane. A Caravan that services Sangha Lodge is available for this portion.
Loango in Gabon is undergoing refurbishment as far as we are aware and is a potential combination, as is Bom Bom on Principe. We are excited about the Rwandair flights between Brazzaville and Kigali since this opens up interesting possibilities for equatorial primate safaris that give access to lowland and mountain gorillas, central and eastern chimpanzees, and probably nearly 30 other different primate species. The ability to combine Odzala with traditional safaris in southern or east Africa is also an attractive one.
Botswana: you have integrated the means of transport to the camps into your operations with Sefofane. Will you do something similar in Congo?
Yes. Flying is integral to the operation. The distance from Brazzaville by road of some 800km can currently take 12-14 hours depending on conditions. As such we have a Wilderness Air, (the former Sefofane), Cessna Caravan on the ground in Brazzaville which ferries our guests to and from Odzala with great views of Stanley Pool in the Congo River, as well as the Bateke Plateau and then the tropical rainforest that covers the north of the country.
Do you envision a similar time frame to Botswana or other locations for when this venture becomes profitable? (Game Warden) In light of the following comment "In the current trading environment it is necessary to do more with less and so we have re-aligned the business for lower demand.", (Source) how do the two new camps fit into the portfolio, and when do you expect to break even?
Opening remote camps in a country without an existing tourism profile is a radically different proposition to opening a camp in an existing established and well known tourism circuit. The business model is thus very different and does not bear comparison in commercial terms to something in Botswana, or in fact any of the other countries we currently operate in. Time frames for break even and profitability are easily quadruple, (or more), what we might want to achieve in Botswana with the profitability correspondingly perhaps 4 times less than a similar product in Botswana. We definitely didn’t decide to take this project on based on the financial models. We did believe however that is was a necessary project and that we could make a difference.
What makes you think the Congo will work?
We believe that the world is increasingly conscious about the value of natural ecosystems and biodiversity, even more so the role of forests in carbon sequestration and thus mitigating global warming. We also believe that as the world gets smaller, (so to speak), that people are more and more interested in travelling to previously far off and inaccessible, even unthinkable places, and enjoying unique experiences. We also believe that the Congolese government is a serious and committed partner and that in the various partners we have in different aspects of this project that we have a team that can succeed. We don’t of course believe that suddenly the volumes of ecotourists that visit savannah regions in southern and east Africa will be matched by those that travel to Africa’s rainforests. On the contrary we believe that this is a niche market and product and expectations of all parties have to be tempered accordingly. However we have to start somewhere and someone had to take the risk in making this happen.
Dana Allen - Viewing gorilla in the Odzala Forest
What do you envisage the client base for these 2 camps to be?
Experienced, repeat Africa travellers who i) are interested in primates and great apes, ii) want to travel to a new and exciting destination, iii) have an understanding of the values of ecosystems and biodiversity, iv) have seen mountain gorillas and want to experience lowland gorillas in an intact and pristine ecosystem with a whole host of other charismatic mega-fauna like forest elephant, forest buffalo and bongo, as well as the cryptic and mysterious like potto, angwantibo, water chevrotain, golden cat and so on.
What is your expected occupancy rate in the first year of opening?
Forward occupancies have exceeded expectations with only a handful of seats left, (literally less than 10 spaces) on the departures in our first three months. We then close for November to take stock and re-plan for the 2013 season which will begin in May 2013 and thereafter run for 12 months of the year. We have been pleasantly surprised.
How will you promote these camps?
Through normal channels such as the travel trade as well, of course, through media and PR. Both sectors have expressed considerable interest.
In general, not pertaining to Congo necessarily, where do you see the low to mid-budget traveller who is a keen nature enthusiast fitting into your offerings?
This is a common question directed towards Wilderness in the context of the perception that we only operate high end camps that are beyond the reach of the ordinary traveller. While the majority of our camps certainly do fall into this category and are an important part of our low volume, low impact, high benefit model, we do operate a number of camps that are accessible to the mid-range of the market. These include a number of camps in Namibia, Malawi and South Africa, as well as a couple of others in Zambia that are not marketed as Wilderness Safaris but which are nonetheless operated by us in and around the concessions where we have other camps that are branded Wilderness Safaris. This is likely to be the case in Odzala as well where Lango Camp and Ngaga Camp will be marketed under the Wilderness Collection brand, (see: www.wilderness-collection.com), but where M’Boko Camp will be refurbished and will offer two accommodation alternatives for self-drive tourists as well as guests on organised overland driven tours. These options are likely to consist of comfortable en-suite mini-Meru tents and a camp site. Another option is our mobile safaris, Wilderness Explorations: www.wilderness-explorations.com.
Dana Allen - Forest Elephant
What are the instances of poaching in these 2 parks, and how do you see your presence as being a deterrent?
The current surge in ivory poaching in Africa has extended even to this region and Odzala-Kokoua NP has not been entirely unscathed with a number of elephant carcasses reported in remote areas of the park over the last 12 months. Other forms of poaching – primarily using snares and/or firearms – do exist and are targeted at species such as the various forest duiker as well as primates. The presence of African Parks, (see: www.african-parks.org), in Odzala has seen a massive reduction in illegal resource exploitation as a result of regular patrols, road blocks, ambushes and development of informer networks. For our part, our presence has certainly contributed to this as a result of more eyes and ears on the ground. Our main impact to date has probably been in preventing illegal fishing along the Lekoli River.
What plans have you got to incorporate the Congo venture into the work of the Wilderness Wildlife Trust/Children of the Wilderness?
We certainly want to introduce both of these elements into our operations in Odzala and it is logical to do so. We will be partnering with an independent but related community development organisation in terms of community engagement with both of our aims education, capacity building and even infrastructure development. We anticipate that our involvement in this instance will be focused primarily on hosting CITW programmes in our camps so that appropriately aged children from the surrounding communities are able to experience wildlife and wilderness areas from a different perspective, but also so that they participate in life skills programmes and so on. As far as the Trust is concerned we have already begun an investigation in this regard and intend working with both African Parks and WCS so as to avoid overlap and duplication in our work and also to support each other. The primary needs in this regard relate to great ape research, (western lowland gorillas, central chimpanzees and the overlap between the species), law enforcement and ivory poaching investigations, the local impacts of bushmeat hunting, comprehensive biodiversity inventory surveys into orders like Lepidoptera and Chiroptera and so on.
All images courtesy and copyright Wilderness Safaris and the respective credited photographers.
The views expressed therein are solely those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of Safaritalk.