Mark Thornton Safaris was one of the finalists in the Conserving the Natural World category of the 2017 National Geographic World Legacy Awards hosted at ITB Berlin in March 2017.
“This guide-owned outfitter offers expeditions and walking safaris into some of Tanzania’s most remote wilderness. Conserving wildlife habitat by giving local communities a viable stake in tourism and incentives to preserve land is central to their vision. Conservation efforts and partnerships focus in the Simanjiro Grazing Easement on the Maasai Steppe, a critical wet season migration area and wildebeest calving ground, as well as an important grazing area for Maasai cattle. ” National Geographic
For this interview, which is part of a series with all the finalists for this year’s National Geographic World Legacy Awards, Anula Galewska speaks with Mark Thornton, Owner, Director and Guide at Thornton Safaris.
ANULA: Why did you enter this award?
MARK: I believe that what we do is worthy of recognition in terms of its conservation value and positive influence on local communities. I also wanted to highlight the value in truly low impact safaris which leave no trace. I have found that while many large lodges and luxury camps do some superb work for conservation, they often have an inherently large footprint on the land. The lowest impact is best accomplished by not putting any permanent infrastructure in pristine wilderness. This is why we do lightweight, highly mobile camps and this is what keeps these areas wild.
ANULA: What positive impacts have your efforts to be a sustainable tourism business had on the communities and region where you operate?
MARK: There are many and various positive impacts of our efforts, and those of our colleagues, on the local communities in Maasailand. Primarily, our goal is to give them the support and tools to manage their land effectively. There is a meaningful financial gain for local communities, and overall, several communities have gained enormously from these efforts by having extensive and critical grasslands preserved for their cattle and for wildlife.
ANULA: How do you engage with the local community to ensure they have a positive opinion of your business working in the area they live?
MARK: This is done with respect and with a long term presence, to build trust and to ensure commitment on both sides. We are part of a broader team of local Tanzanians who spend the necessary time to work through the various challenges that the community faces and we stress that the land is theirs, not ours, and it is up to them to decide how to use it. We are there to assist if they want it.
ANULA: How do you communicate to guests about your responsible tourism practices?
MARK: Instead of glossy brochures, we take our guests to the wilderness to see the challenges first-hand and to meet the local people. We camp together in the bush; we walk together in the bush; and they see for themselves the difference between a lightweight, mobile walking safari and a luxury lodge in a high density tourism zone. We sit around the fire together and debate issues. In the end, our guests return home educated and savvy about what responsible tourism is really meant to be.
ANULA: How do you make sure your staff care about your efforts and support them?
MARK: We are a small team that has been together for many years. I’ve worked with some for twenty years. Some are Maasai, others are from other parts of the country. Together, we have seen land disappear, witnessed droughts, or have seen animals poached. Whether a Maasai with his cattle or as a guide taking a tourist on a bushwalk, it is in our collective interest to have the land effectively managed. They, and we, care about the issues because we all live here in Tanzania and it affects all of us. Furthermore, many of our team live and work in Maasailand, so they are directly affected by our efforts.
ANULA: What’s the best lesson you have learned over the years of developing a successful sustainable tourism business?
MARK: Bigger is not always better. Focus on one area passionately (for us Tanzania). Exclusivity and experience is worth more than luxurious bells and whistles (so say our guests!). Invest in, pay well, and support your team and local communities. Conservation requires constant innovation and creativity. Sorry… that is more than one answer!
This article is part of the interview series with the National Geographic World Legacy Awards 2017 winners and finalists, with whom we explore the best practices in sustainable tourism communications and stakeholders’ engagement.