4 -min. read

Camilla Rhodes from Abercrombie & Kent gives us her considered insights following the first Conservation Lab.

The notion of an ‘un-conference’ unsettled me slightly.

I’m a new fish in the conservation pond, a minnow really, and I was acutely aware that swimming around me were some of the most influential minds in conservation today. What could I offer that would be new? How could I answer some previously unanswerable question?

But that is where the ‘un-conference’ was different. It was broken down, unscripted and largely unformatted, each participant encouraged to contribute and question, and was given plenty of opportunity to do so. With a guest list including agents, operators, conservationists, philanthropists, journalists and more, everyone had something to add and something to learn.

DICUSS topics were diverse, although sometimes I found a time clash in topics of interest. Whilst one could dash from ‘Gorongosa’ to ‘Serengeti’ with relative ease, it did mean possibly missing key parts of the dialogue taking place. I was most looking forward to discussions surrounding community engagement; not a new concept, in fact it is well entrenched in terms of understanding and achieving conservation success. Discussions were lively and engaging and I came away with a few key points, ideas and some further questions…


Africa let out a unified sigh last year as across the continent tourism plummeted. So what do you do when there is an Ebola outbreak, or a terrorism attack, and suddenly Africa is no longer top of the travel list? What happens to the initiatives that were dependent on funding from that tourism revenue? Community staff that no longer have work because the camps are empty?

The philanthropic/conservation initiatives that stem from tourism need to be modified and made more resilient and long-standing. Promises of financial incentives collapse when tourism struggles. Focus should be placed instead on education, health and developing sustainable enterprise.


Speaking generally and as someone newly within the travel philanthropy sector, I have observed huge disparity when it comes to authentic and responsible community engagement. The trend today is for each lodge or operator to have ‘their village’, a community they support and where international guests can visit to satiate their desire to ‘give back’. People are actively looking for avenues where they can make real tangible impacts, both for conservation and rural livelihoods. It is our responsibility as travel professionals, conservationists and philanthropists to create meaningful interactions for them that result in positive change, but do not exploit or promote unsustainable development. There are plenty of missed opportunities currently resulting in skin-deep interactions; travellers come but do not truly connect with the people and the challenges they face. A problem of today’s social media driven world where the online version of you is valued higher than the flesh and blood version. A smiling picture alongside some village children followed by #givingback is as deep as it goes in some places.

It is our job to educate travellers and give them the information and means to make informed decisions about who and how they support, and how to recognise those who aren’t doing it correctly. We both want the same thing after all; impact and results, transparent & efficient use of funding, initiatives that achieve desired goals & outcomes.


…ownership is key…Organisations must implement initiatives with the community and not for them.


There is a fine line to tread with community-led conservation. The impacts to communities need to be tangible and the understanding of benefits from protected areas & their wildlife inherent. But with development comes attraction, leading to the subsequent dilution of benefits and inevitably more strain on the very thing under protection. These kinds of quandaries keep my brain up at night. As stakeholders and facilitators of conservation and community development, we should ensure understanding within the partner communities – understanding of needs to protect wilderness & wildlife, understanding of potential benefits to be reaped from a positive partnership and understanding of negative outcomes from unsustainable growth and development. Once again it is for the community to ‘own’ this.


As each organisation largely works independently, peddling their own proverbial wheel towards a symbiosis of community & conservation, it’s possible this serves to create greater disparity. Communities proximate to protected areas and their wildlife may receive varying levels of support & engagement based on accessibility, necessity and who is engaging with them. This leads to a widening gap in perceived community benefits from protected areas, tourism ventures and ultimately wildlife too.

If we came together, pooling resources and expertise, casting our collective nets wider, could we ensure mutualistic community-conservation relationships with a more inclusive reach that do not compromise on depth of impact?

There is, undoubtedly, huge potential for tourism to drive positive change. Indeed, it is already happening, and the Conservation Lab was a great stage to bring together stakeholders in the industry to try to formulate and streamline a way forward. I have come away with a solid foundation of the road ahead. Admittedly, I do need to think a little more about the vehicle to use on such a road to ensure safe arrival at my conservation destination. However, the core ideas taken from this gathering, honed to my specific needs, will form the building blocks for such a vehicle and the framework will be a solid partnership and collaboration with other stakeholders. We must unite in our future efforts. It is time to move beyond selfish gains and marketing promotions, to forget about brand image for a second and work collectively. Perhaps if this approach had been taken 20 years ago our road ahead might not have quite so many hurdles?

Applications for the 2017 Conservation Lab (29 Apr – 1 May) are now open. If you’re a conservationist or travel expert interested in attending, apply here now.

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