Nine people went on Paignton Zoo’s Great Big Safari to Zimbabwe in November. The trip was organised as a fundraiser and as a chance to see conservation at first hand. Seven of the paying guests in our party had been involved, one way or another, in acquiring a Great Big Rhino in the grand charity auction on 3rd November, so you can imagine that rhinos were a bit of a theme. But there was a lot more to the trip.

The bare statistics are pretty impressive: 39 mammal species seen; 260 birds; 30 species of reptiles and amphibians; innumerable invertebrates, most of which tried to eat us or share our food and drink; 450 litres of tonic water consumed, safely diluted with gin or other toxins; and the creation of a new phrase for the English language- ‘Zambezi time’ - this being any time after 0930 at which a bottle of Zambezi lager might be consumed. 

Highlights of the trip must include the extremely close encounter with members of the pride of lions formerly ‘governed’ by the late, great, Cecil, including seven of his nieces and nephews; the spitting cobra that paid a visit to one of our rooms at Camp Amalinda; the beauty of the Victoria Falls, even at a time of low water flow; and the venues, sunsets, and harvest moons appreciated at so many diverse sundowner sessions. It was very hot (which may explain the tonic water…), except for one spectacular thunderstorm at Hwange National Park and, after four drought years, the country desperately needs the rains to start soon and go on long and heavy.

Happily, all the party (of whom one member was 21 an extremely long time ago) had very close encounters with both species of African rhinos; black rhinos at the Stanley & Livingstone private reserve at Victoria Falls, white rhinos in the Matopos National Park. The latter were while we were on foot and at less than 20 metres range; If we had tried that with the former the encounter would probably have been fatal, so it’s quite a good idea to learn how to tell the two apart!

We were treated to in-depth discussion with many people directly involved in rhino conservation in Zimbabwe such as Verity Bowman (Dambari Wildlife Trust), John Burton (Matobo Rhino Trust) and Charles Brightman of the Victoria Falls Anti-Poaching Unit. We stayed in great lodges but also visited local villages and traders and had a good look at the sharp end of life in a country with less than 30% of people in full-time employment. 

We had, I think, a broad and balanced view of the issues of nature conservation and animal welfare – issues which are seen very differently in Zimbabwe compared with the West. Wildlife must, and can, pay its way and Zimbabwe needs it to do so. Blessed with abundant natural beauty and diversity but with an appalling international image, it is also important that myths about the country are busted. It is open for business, and it still has an infrastructure that is the envy of most of sub-Saharan Africa. It is completely safe, despite (or because of?) the ridiculously-frequent police road checks, and its people, of all shades of colour and politics, are friendly, passionate, thoughtful and desperate for their country to lose its pariah status. The single best thing we can all do to help is to go visit.

Simon Tonge - Executive Director, Paignton Zoo

elephants on safari


Quotes Loads to see and do, for a full day out. Quotes