Greatly enthused by the successful hosting of the FIFA World Cup last year, South African Tourism (SAT) has recorded a 15.1 per cent spurt in tourist arrivals into the country in 2010, taking the total arrivals to an impressive 8.1 million.

This number is naturally being celebrated at Indaba, Africa's largest trade and tourism show, hosted by SAT, that is currently taking place in Durban.

At a press meet for international journalists that was anchored by CNN's celebrated journalist Richard Quest, a panel from SAT and related agencies explained to the media the country's plans to take the total tourist arrivals figure from 8.1 to 15 million by 2020. To meet such a goal any country would have to think of a mix of unique strategies and the panel members explained how they would design a package for tourists that would include, apart from South Africa's celebrated wildlife, an experience of its culture, history and the like.

But in an otherwise brilliantly managed session, it was galling to hear Mr Quest's several taunts on how SAT needs to get beyond the “Leo the lion” mode of tourism. So, when it was my turn to ask a question on South Africa's strategy for the Indian market, which is growing at an impressive pace, besides a question on the visa hassles and the limitations of direct flights only out of the single Indian city of Mumbai, I had to ask the anchor to stop trivialising South Africa's fascinating wildlife. Even though India and South Africa's wildlife are similar in many ways, one of the main reasons Indians are venturing to African destinations are the game drives and wonderful safaris on offer. The four of us from India, invited for the Indaba by SAT, spent two wonderful days at the Thanda Game Reserve in the Kwa-Zulu Natal region, about three hours drive from Durban.

Enchanting, mesmerising

Located over an expansive 15,000 hectares, this privately owned property offers an experience that will remain in the mind and heart for long years. In India, we too have an extraordinary wealth of wildlife but the shameful manner in which we have not only neglected it but also allowed it to be poached — particularly our tigers — is shocking.

With private operators coming into the picture, we are now beginning to get our act together in offering visitors a responsible experience of our unmatched wildlife. Education, awareness and sensitivity are slowly but surely seeping into the organisation of game drives in our wildlife resorts and people are learning to respect the animal habitats, refraining from littering, shouting, playing music and the like.

You have to step out from the mundane world of human beings and step into a forest or wildlife reserve to be stunned by its sheer perfection and humbled by the majestic beauty and power of the life that inhabits these regions. Anybody visiting Africa, of course, wants to see more than “Leo, the lion”; the quest is obviously for the big five — lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos and cape buffaloes.

Unbelievably lucky, on our very first afternoon foray into the reserve, driven by the very capable ranger Grace Kemp — half South African, half British — we sighted two lions, a lioness, two cheetas, a herd of around 110 Cape buffaloes, a large herd of zebras, several giraffes, and many impalas and nyalas, the last two belonging to the antelope family.

Just as in the Taj Safari lodges in Bandhavgarh or Panna in Madhya Pradesh, on this property too it is common to find the animals, including the big cats, walk in quite close to your room during the nights. For this reason, guests at Thanda are not allowed to walk alone in the dark.

Even though we had had our fill of sighting three siblings — two lions and one lioness — the previous evening, nothing prepared us for what we saw, right from our breakfast area in the resort, the next morning — two lions casually walking along the nearby slopes. Where else in the world can you see lions walk by as you dig into your eggs?

Responsible tourism

What strikes one about South Africa is the responsible and ecologically sensitive tourism it promotes, with deep respect for the natural habitat and the animals' absolute right to what is their home.

At the reserves, the animals get priority; Ms Kemp would halt her canter so that we could get our heart's fill of the animals spotted, whether a lion, elephants, white rhinos or giraffes.

But when a giraffe stopped at a distance and studied us curiously, she soon pulled back, saying: “Okay, the fellow wants to cross the road and we have to give him the opportunity to do so without blocking his way for too long.”

With equal respect, she, a South African white, would relate the folk-tales and beliefs of the Zulus, the natural inhabitants of this region. One of her stories was about how the Zulus bury their dead near their homes so that the spirits can stay with the family.

But when a person working far away dies and it's too expensive to bring his body home, a branch from a particular thorny bush is carried to the place of burial, and on the way back a constant conversation is carried on with the branch, which is supposed to have on it the spirit of the departed soul.

This is offered to a goat on return home, and if it is eaten, all is well. If not, the messenger has done something wrong and has to repeat the process till the goat accepts the offering.

No doubt, it's easier for us in India with our different castes and tribes, each replete with a variety of traditions and customs, to understand and respect such a custom.

But we also have to contend with our reluctance or apathy about conserving a vanishing way of life as we chase lifestyles alien to us, that may also involve encroaching on the habitats of our animals and paying a price, as happened in Mumbai, not so long ago.

Apart from investing great care and resources in conserving Africa's threatened  ecosystems, endangered species and the biodiversity of its wilderness, there is a concerted effort to take care of the local communities that inhabit the areas in and around the game reserves.  Foundations are set up to take care of their health, education and livelihood.

I will soon leave this land of immense natural beauty and exotic wildlife, not forgetting my promise to a colleague back home to “blow a kiss to all the beautiful animals there.” And will add, for good measure, several of my own. For when again will I be able to see ambling lions right from my breakfast table?

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