An adult lion’s paw is bigger than your face. Heavy to lift, it drops quickly to the ground, coarse hairs slipping through your fingers if you release your grip - even a little. The lion is sleeping but a part of you struggles to believe it. Your senses are heightened, keenly looking for any signs of awakening. The experienced team moves slowly, but confidently, around the sleeping beast. Vitals are checked and measurements are taken. The collar is secured, an antidote is administered and it’s a scramble back to the safety of the Land Rover, banging shins on chipped steel.
The lion wakes, swaying as he stands, staring at you with yellow eyes. He turns and slowly pads into the thicket. He is gone. You exhale, seemingly for the first time, hearing crickets and bird song again. Everyone starts talking at once...
Lion collaring is one of the most exciting examples of ecological research techniques. Each collar is fitted with a GPS tracker, which enables research teams to build up an accurate understanding of the host lion’s movements. Similar collars are used on other key species like elephant, wild dog and sable, with the same aim. Other techniques include the use of camera traps, species observations, baseline biodiversity surveys, dung analysis and tree surveys - the list is almost endless.
They are all utilised by research programmes operated by international universities, research institutes, local conservation bodies and national parks boards. The researchers are a disparate mix of scientists, students, park rangers and volunteers. Whilst their backgrounds are varied, they are united by the drive to understand and document natural processes, interaction and populations. Simply put, they capture the knowledge that powers effective conservation planning and the protection of Africa’s natural heritage.
Research programmes operate throughout Africa, often in threatened habitats, but they are normally remote and not designed for visitors - conditions are just too basic. Because of this, there is normally a distance between the safari experience and the scientific work that underpins sustainable conservation.
However, things are fast changing. African travellers care more about protecting the incredible ecosystems in which they find such joy. They want to know more about the complexity of bush life and how that knowledge is gained. Safari companies are slowly responding to this demand, providing conservation presentations, access to monitoring data, or places on researcher-led game drives.
East Africa safari lodge chain Asilia Africa has gone even further and opened a seasonal camp (open from June to November each year), Usangu Expeditions Camp. It is designed to provide a research-integrated safari, making guests a key part of the ongoing research programmes that are critical to the protection and management of the Usangu Wetlands - part of East Africa’s most important remaining wilderness habitat.
The Usangu Wetlands is a 6,000 square kilometre (2,316 square mile) former hunting block that was incorporated into the Ruaha National Park in 2006 to form Tanzania’s largest protected area. Ruaha National Park is home to over 10% of Africa’s lion. It forms the boundary between the acacia savannah of East Africa and the miombo savannah of southern Africa. It is the vital link in the chain of unfenced habitat that still enables migratory movement from northern Mozambique through to Katavi and northern Zambia. Usangu is truly Africa’s last, accessible, intact savannah wilderness.
The importance of the Usangu Wetlands is globally recognised, but in a low-income country like Tanzania the land must pay for itself. For conservation areas that currently means income from tourism activities. If this cannot be generated, then the land will be used for alternative purposes (often agriculture), with long term negative effects on the region’s wildlife and natural balance. Securing access to the Usangu Wetlands was an incredible achievement for Asilia Africa, but it is only the beginning of a challenging story.
You cannot just declare an area open to visitors and expect to generate an income that will secure a sustainable future free from adverse development. You must understand what is there to be protected, observe the movement of water levels through the seasons, incorporating the findings into operational plans. Roads must be cut, minimising negative impact on the environment, whilst maximising access to the different habitats. The story of the place must be experienced to be shared. There are many wonderful and established African travel destinations and each must constantly work hard to attract its visitors.
This takes time, often years, especially when opening a former hunting block where the animals have learnt that mankind is to be feared. It takes money, remote is expensive and nobody else is footing the bill. And it is risky, because there is no guarantee that visitors will come, or that other operators will join you and share the burden of generating the required income. It is therefore unsurprising that few new natural areas are opening to travellers in Africa.
Asilia Africa decided not to wait before opening their luxury safari tents to visitors. Instead, they decided to invite their guests to become part of the story and to play their own small role in protecting one of Africa’s most import wilderness habits - even creating a Usangu Predator Hub to track contributions to various aspects of predator research. Four luxury en-suite tents are the most obvious reminder that your time here is part of a well-earned vacation, plus incredible guiding that both keeps you safe and commits to unforgettable wildlife encounters on land and on water.
Part of a genuine citizen science programme, you will be recording your sightings into a database that is slowly compiling a baseline audit of the wildlife of the Usangu Wetlands. You will learn how to place and operate a camera trap and then set up your own to capture nocturnal visitors to your tent. You will cut roads, thereby creating access for other visitors to experience this area. You will work with some of Tanzania’s brightest young researchers, learning their techniques and assisting them in their work. You will explore, encountering Africa’s most famous species like the head-shaking elephant and concealed leopard, as well as lesser-seen highlights like the African wild dog and the beautiful sable antelope.
What will it feel like to help protect part of Africa’s natural heritage? How will it feel as the dawn breaks on days in which you look a little deeper into the miombo woodland, wetland reeds and golden savannah grasses? How will it feel as you gather round the fire at day’s end, to eat and share stories with people you would never normally meet, and who have now become trusted friends?
Each person will feel something different, but all the time spent at Usangu Expeditions Camp will be unforgettable. Your contribution will be indispensable, increasing the capacity of the resident research team, generating import income and telling Usangu’s story to your network of friends and family.
If the research integrated safari model at Usangu Expeditions Camp is successful, it will not only help secure the future of the wetlands as a sustainably managed tourist destination but create a model capable of replication across Africa - wherever there are incredible habitats in need of protection. Although, you probably won’t be thinking about that as the bull elephant you have been tracking finally lopes into view. Lumbering purposefully closer to your vehicle, slowly shaking his head, dislodging ticks and dust onto the paintwork, then leaving, following ancient paths.
Ready to Start Planning your Usangu Expeditions Camp Experience?
Our Africa Safari Experts have first-hand travel experience and will help tailor-make a trip that will not only be right for you, but make you an active contributor to the conservation of wildlife: