It all began with a unique opportunity. A small group of like-minded South Africans could see that many guides at safari lodges lacked the specialist knowledge required to provide top-rate guiding for guests.
Much discussion and planning followed, and the result was the opening of the first EcoTraining facility in the Sabi Sands in 1993. This was even before the founding of the Field Guides’ Association of Southern Africa (FGASA).
EcoTraining began by offering safari guiding courses equivalent to today’s FGASA Level One.
Later it added an official guiding qualification. From a small niche company, EcoTraining has grown into a large company operating in South Africa, Botswana, Kenya and Uganda, and its courses have been adapted and used in Australia, India and Nepal.
Variety and flexibility
EcoTraining courses attract a wide mix of people of all ages and several nationalities.
A variety of courses are held at six camps at different times. These are a one-year course, with six starting dates during the year, a 55-day FGASA Level One course, and a general interest EcoQuest course, which has seven- and 14-day options.
“High demand and the growing need for staff in the safari industry necessitated the six starting dates for the one-year course,” explains Corné Schalkwyk, marketing manager for EcoTraining.
“EcoQuest was added for those who want to increase their knowledge and experience, but don’t want to be guides. It’s an in-depth safari experience, and daily lectures are given as well.”
Corné stresses that the camps are all different and have been chosen for the variety of experiences they offer. Some camps are in true wilderness areas, such as the 30 000ha section of Mashatu Game Reserve in Botswana, but others are in game reserves such as the 9 000ha Karongwe in Limpopo.
“This camp is small and many vehicles operate in the area, so it’s easy for finding game and to teach students vehicle and radio etiquette around sightings. In the Kruger National Park, we have 23 000ha, which means it’s harder work to find game, but it’s a biodiversity hotspot and so encourages students to use their knowledge to the full.
“Selati Game Reserve, at 33 000ha, has a combination of hunting and commercial tourism, so this teaches students the impact of hunting on conservation. If a participant can experience all of these camps, he or she can become a knowledgeable, well-rounded guide.”
Trail guiding is done in the great wilderness areas of Mashatu and Selati. There, guides have to work to find animals. Graduates are placed within the industry.
“We have a huge network of industry people who seek out our graduates,” says Corné.
“Many of the lodges interview students while they’re still being trained. We communicate with students and our lodge partners to do the best fit possible.”
EcoTraining graduates today make up 60% of the FGASA database.
“Lodges across Africa tell us what their needs are, and we also do on-site training for them. We’ve also trained students from Jordan, Uganda and Kenya, and we work in Asia and Australia, India and Nepal. Many guides we train return to their home countries and train other guides there.”
The company is currently considering offering a very basic course to make its training more accessible to South Africans.
“Some very diligent people can’t afford the course, and we’d like to change that,” says Corné.
“EcoTraining changes people to be more conservation-minded. The course shows how nature links together. People then understand the need for biodiversity, and they can become guardians of the environment.”
Paying it forward
Many graduates have sponsored community members living alongside wildlife areas to do the course.
“This does a huge amount of good for conservation, because you’re changing the minds of people living on the fringes of conservation areas,” says Corné.
Former cattle herder Norman Chauke underwent the training, and is now doing the same for others. In 2015, he became a senior tracker and trail guide; today he is a roaming instructor for EcoTraining, training students across all the camps.
“I never imagined this, even though I had imagined something better for myself [than I had before]. When you work hard, good things come to you,” he says.
Anna Katharina Zaaben from Germany has a completely different story to tell. She was head buyer for a large European retail chain, where she worked for 12 years. Her holidays were always in wild places, but Africa proved irresistible to her.
“From the first day here I loved it, and started planning how to get back,” she recalls.
A week after returning to Germany, she booked the EcoQuest course, and then booked the one-year course too.
“I didn’t want to go home, although everything in my life at home was happy. I resigned my job, sold my car and everything I had to pay for the course.
My aim is to be a trail guide and Africa is my home now.
My family can see just how happy I am here when they visit me.”
There are many others like Norman and Anna amongst EcoTraining’s graduates, and the company has helped to create careers, as well as play a key role in conserving biodiversity in Africa and elsewhere.