The drive from the gate to the lodge may be less than 6 miles, but it yields elephant, baboons and even a solitary tortoise, pulling its head back into its shell as the Land Rover passes.
CHOBE NATIONAL PARK, Botswana The drive from the gate to the lodge may be less than 6 miles, but it yields elephant, baboons and even a solitary tortoise, pulling its head back into its shell as the Land Rover passes.
Botswana's Chobe National Park has one of the highest densities of elephant on the planet -- so many that they are gradually turning to forest to savannah -- but officials want to avoid being similarly overrun by tourists.
"We aim for something more exclusive," says Johan Bruwer, manager of the Chobe Safari Lodge, which charges $320 to $400 a night per person and once played host to actor Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor on their second honeymoon.
Set along the Chobe riverfront, where crocodile and hippo are regular visitors, the lodge is one of the oldest in the vast reserve -- as well as the most expensive -- and targets wealthy visitors from the United States and Europe.
And while other nearby lodges, outside the confines of the park, but still visited by wildlife, may be cheaper, they say they still aim for "low density, high yield" tourism aimed at boosting revenues while maintaining the environment and keeping the park unspoiled.
While some lodges offer camping and figure on backpacker coach or bus tours, visitors say they also like Botswana -- the world's biggest diamond producer, where the water is drinkable and the police unarmed -- for its "Africa-lite" feel.
"It is more clean," said retired tourist Ilonr Bormann, from Locarno in Switzerland, who spends part of the year living in South Africa. "There is much less crime."
There are now a string of lodges near Chobe in the nearby town of Kasane, close to Botswana's northern border where Zimbabwe, Zambia and Namibia meet.
Although some worry about overcrowding most tourists say the atmosphere is more relaxed and the park less crowded than similar venues in South Africa or Kenya.
"This is a nicer experience," retired Arizona airline pilot Robert Ceske told Reuters on a tourist boat wending its way through the Chobe waterways, past dozens of elephants and hippo as well as the occasional crocodile.
"We've been to the Kruger National Park in South Africa. This is better than bouncing around on the road -- although you get more of a chance to see big cats there."
As Botswana struggles to diversify its economy away from its diamond wealth, which has given it one of the highest gross domestic product per head figures in Africa but has done little to cut unemployment, tourism is seen as a key sector.
The industry is tightly controlled. Lodges must be owned by Botswana citizens, cannot use foreign guides or drivers and each expatriate must have a local counterpart being trained to do their job.
Some lodge owners worry that the number of tourists is rising too fast, with day trippers coming from their hotels near the Victoria Falls in Zambia and Zimbabwe a particular concern.
"I think we need to get them out," said lodge owner Jonathan Gibson. "If they're coming into the park, they should have to spend a night in Botswana."
But while there are worries about the environmental impact of more tourists, it is the animals themselves that are causing the damage. Estimates of the number of elephants in Chobe vary, but all agree there are too many there and across the country.
"They are turning a lot of the forest into savannah," said Bruwer as he drove past dozens of trees destroyed by elephants in their never-ending search for food.
Some of the elephants have crossed the Chobe river to Caprivi, where they have clashed with locals and are blamed for destroying crops. Some environmentalists feel that culling may be the only long-term solution.
Even an anthrax outbreak in late 2004 had little impact on the population, despite closing part of the park and leaving hundreds of elephant and buffalo dead. With the corpses buried and not burned, there are fears the disease could return.
Although anthrax can be easily treated with antibiotics in humans, lodge owners fear a more prolonged outbreak could devastate tourism, still not fully recovered since the Sept. 11 2001 attacks scared U.S. tourists away.
"With the stigma attached to anthrax in the United States, if they hear the word, they just hit the road," Bruwer said.
Look for May's ENN Special Report: Eco-Travel and Adventure (Online May 1).