Winter 2020 | Dylan Smith

My winter with WildEarth

Looking back on the past few months, if someone had asked me a year ago what I’d be doing during winter 2020 I would have said garnering new research projects and providing logistical support for current research projects facilitated through the Tswalu Foundation. Little did I know that was all about to change in the time it took to answer a phone call. When our CEO, Arnold Meyer, called me and asked if I’d be able to assist with some guiding for Tswalu’s new collaboration with Wild Earth for a ‘week or two’, I gladly said ‘yes’. Fourteen weeks of twice-daily drives, technology challenges, fielding dozens of Instagram direct messages from new followers, and some incredible sightings later, I was wondering what on earth had just happened. Looking back over those weeks there are a few things that really struck me forcibly, both from a guiding and a personal perspective.

As a professional guide, your guests are with you for the duration of their stay. They depart, your next guests arrive, and this cycle is repeated for six to eight weeks until you take a break. Tswalu has the lowest guest footprint in South Africa, which means that each guide impacts between 10 to 30 guests during a work cycle, depending on the size of the party and duration of their stay. WildEarth drives were on another level completely! With nobody on the vehicle with me other than a cameraman, I was doing real-time drives for literally thousands of viewers across the globe. Having the ability (and privilege) of sharing the wonders of the southern Kalahari with such a widespread and demographically diverse audience was astounding! Winter is an amazing time to be on Tswalu, and the sightings were incredible, from elusive species like pangolin and aardvark to the big cats, meerkats and birds.

Probably my absolute highlight from all the virtual safari drives was the day we located a South African Shelduck nest after three weeks of searching. What made it all the more exciting was that the cameraman, David, was probably the very first person to film a female shelduck returning to the nest and then capture the first time the proud parents escorted their nine tiny ducklings across a dam two days later. Words can barely describe the elation I felt at being able to share this moment with our global audience.

Looking back on those 14 weeks, it became increasingly evident that virtual safaris had become a valuable tool for entertaining people who may never have the privilege of visiting South Africa, accessing a true wilderness experience or seeing wildlife in real life. More importantly, I came to realise that they are not just a temporary fix for safari lovers during lockdown but rather have immense value as a means of educating and influencing an infinite number of people of all ages from incredibly diverse backgrounds. The devastating impact of Covid-19 on wildlife tourism has meant the loss of countless jobs and led to increasing pressure on reserves, national parks and natural resources. I see the future of virtual safaris not as a substitute in any way for the real thing, but rather as complementing them by reaching those that may never experience the stunning diversity in nature and, in our case, this incredible place we call home – the southern Kalahari.

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