(CNN) – The leopard is elusive, as are often the leopards. Expert safari guide James Hendry maneuvers his short-wheeled Land Rover through a section of knotty grass to get a line of sight.
The big cat is walking right next to the vehicle and in a bush where it has stored a killed impala.
“We managed to come right with our kitty cats!” said Hendry, in this classic whisper from David Attenborough.
Cameraman Owen Davis, perched in the back seat, passes his lens towards Hendry as he explains the facts and answers questions from children around the world.
“Hello Oscar. Yeah, I think it’s cool too. It’s really cool,” he said into the camera.
People have watched online safaris from around the world.
Brent Swails / CNN
Sabi Sands Game Reserve, a slice of the South African bush on the border of Kruger National Park, is generally populated by well-paid tourists.
But at the time of Covid-19, Hendry and his cameraman were among the last people left here.
They are one of four live guide teams from WildEarth, a virtual safari company, broadcasting interactive safaris twice a day to homes and apartments around the world.
With locks still in place around the world and out-of-school children, people are looking for distraction and comfort. Hendry believes that WildEarth’s live safaris can provide healing and community.
“You know, our whole species has been infected or affected by something,” he says. “And there is a huge sense of solidarity. Nature does just what it wants. Nature will continue.”
Lifeguards for the lonely
The images are broadcast using a microwave transmitter a few kilometers from the WildEarth control room.
David McKenzie / CNN
Hendry is staying with the leopards for now, their signal radiating from the rear of the Land Rover from a white microwave antenna to the WildEarth control room a few miles away.
In an earth-colored building, little more than a large hangar, a studio team of three checks the streaming signal, switches between the four live streams transmitted by the guide teams and answers questions from their audience.
“Six-year-old Jameson in the United States,” says director of WildEarth in the ear of a guide, “Why do birds cry when they aren’t prey?”
A team of three people in the studio manages the live streams and answers questions from the audience.
David McKenzie / CNN
Animals like leopards sometimes attack birds, so they prefer to sound the alarm in case, explains the virtual guide to Jameson.
WildEarth has been offering safaris like this for over 10 years in one form or another, but these days there are so many questions that his team can’t answer them all. Since the start of the pandemic, the audience has increased fivefold.
“Particularly in locking, this has become incredibly popular,” said Graham Wallington, co-founder and CEO of WildEarth. “We have so many messages from people who say it’s a lifeline, that they’re so lonely and need the connection.”
Wallington has had a career bringing living nature to people. In the late 1990s, before the Internet bubble burst, it started with live cameras in the bushes and over the years it expanded the genre with live safaris, live TV shows for channels like National Geographic and even live underwater safaris.
What attracts virtual tourists, he says, is often not technology, which has become easier over time, but the connection with guides and animal stories.
Problem with humans
Safari operators also assist in the conservation of animals.
Courtesy of WildEarth
But a virtual connection doesn’t pay reserve bills like Sabi Sands. It needs physical tourists and their money to survive during this pandemic.
“Tourism keeps rhinos alive, keeps elephants alive, keeps leopards alive. Tourism pays for that. No one else will,” said Japie van Niekerk, owner of Cheetah Plains, a reserve of luxury game within Sabi Sands.
He says it has taken years to build trust with the communities surrounding the reserve and if his business cannot pay staff salaries or make conservation financially profitable, then that trust will be lost.
Leopards, lions, elephants and wild dogs are among the animals that inhabit the game reserves.
Courtesy of Andrew Khosa
Cheetah Plains still manages to pay its staff, but around three thousand people are employed in Sabi Sands, mainly in local communities.
Safari companies and reserves don’t just close their stores at the time of Covid-19. They must continue their anti-poaching patrols and other conservation efforts.
“Animals have no locks; they must always be protected,” says van Niekerk. “They must be protected from humans.”
In Africa, nearly eight million tourism jobs could be lost due to Covid-19, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. Even if the pandemic subsides, the safari industry may face significant challenges for years to come.
Safari companies plan to offer paid virtual tours.
Courtesy of WildEarth
“There are so many variables that need to open to allow travelers to return. And out of sight, it’s a very scary thing,” said Nicole Robertson, director of marketing for & Beyond, one the most successful luxury safaris in the world. businesses.
With flight, visa and health restrictions still in place, his company is planning a 12 to 15 month income crisis.
To try to keep conservation and its products in mind, & Beyond has teamed up with WildEarth to allow people and potential future customers to witness the splendor of Ngala, its concession within the park’s borders. national Kruger.
But Wallington fears that the recognition of the brand is not enough and his team wishes to further develop its product, by monetizing virtual safaris. He is considering a family in New York or London booking their own guide for a special visit.
If people pay thousands to come in person, then maybe they would pay a fraction to do it à la carte.
“We need to understand how we can create private online safari experiences that can generate income for people and make this whole conservation engine work,” he says.