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Exclusive interivew: Singita founder Luke Bailes on protecting mountain gorillas in Rwanda

Conservation crusader Luke Bailes – Singita’s founder and executive chairman of 15 uber-luxury safari lodges across Africa – represents a modernist wave of African philanthropists who operate under a new paradigm to safeguard the future of the planet. Bailes talks to Kimberly Rosbe about opening Singita’s new property in Rwanda, protecting mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park and preserving Africa’s future.

Kimberly Rosbe: Tell us about the genesis of your newest property in Rwanda, Singita Kwitonda Lodge and Kataza House.  I understand that President Paul Kagame personally invited Singita to build a lodge in his country and even lent you his helicopter to survey possible sites?

Luke Bailes: It was a five-year journey that started when we received a phone call requesting I attend a meeting with President Kagame. His Excellency voiced expectations of Singita creating an exceptional hospitality experience to complement the unique gorillas and wildlife of his country. We were honoured. Together we made it happen, becoming part of Rwanda’s extraordinary story. Rwanda is one of the cleanest countries in the world – friendly and welcoming. And above all else, it epitomises efficiency. These virtues are also synonymous with the Singita way. From the beginning we felt a spirit of partnership working in Rwanda. 

Luke Bailes at Singita Volcanoes National Park
Luke Bailes at Singita Volcanoes National Park
Singita Kataza House firepit
Singita Kataza House © CrookesAndJackson

Saving endangered mountain gorillas

Kimberly: When did you first see the rare mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park?

Luke: I first trekked approximately 13 years ago in Rwanda – with high expectations. The encounter left a deep impression that I have never forgotten.

Kimberly:  Singita’s low-impact model succeeds in increasing animal populations in the areas it champions. What in particular about the plight of Rwanda’s mountain gorillas captivated your attention?

Luke: The population is limited to approximately 1,000 gorillas and the constraint is insufficient habitat. They are exceptionally vulnerable as it’s such a small area. They’re also susceptible to disease, which could decimate the population.

Exterior of Singita Kwitonda Lodge
Exterior of Singita Kwitonda Lodge © CrookesAndJackson

Kimberly: How is Rwanda’s venture uniquely situated to embellish Singita’s visionary ‘100-year purpose’?

Luke: Singita’s 100-year purpose is to protect and preserve large areas of African wilderness for future generations. In August 2019, Singita stepped into the next chapter by opening its first non-safari property, Singita Kwitonda, on the edge of Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park (VNP). Much of the forest around VNP has been levelled to make way for agriculture and we believe reforesting this particular area is imperative.

Kimberly: Can you elaborate on Akarabo Nursery’s ambitious goals?

Luke: Named Akarabo (meaning ‘little flower’ in Kinyarwanda) our on-site nursery at Singita Kwitonda was born from our commitment to help reforest, rehabilitate and increase the natural habitat of Rwanda’s endangered mountain gorillas. Initially, 60,000 saplings were bought from local growers and earmarked for the land the lodge sits on. This number quickly grew to 250,000 saplings before the lodge opened.

Singita Kwitonda Lodge Suite
Singita Kwitonda Lodge Suite

Transforming luxury 

Kimberly: Singita is often credited with transforming high-end safari tourism by challenging historic notions of luxury. What does luxury mean to you?

Luke: The biggest luxuries in a modern world are time, silence, pristine spaces and disconnecting from technology to have quality time with friends and family. The tangible connection between healing, nature and wellness is also a luxury. This is the idea behind Singita’s Private Villa Collection and Singita Kataza House, which offers groups the ultimate personalised retreat on the Kwitonda grounds.

As a conservation brand, Singita differentiates itself in a philosophical way. People feel privileged to stay in unpopulated, untouched wilderness areas and they choose to stay with us because our lodges and camps have a reputation for being rare and authentic, while embodying a philosophy of sensitivity. Our lodges touch guests on every level – spiritual, emotional and physical. We see that guests leave a Singita safari being transformed for a lifetime, having made a contribution to the legacy of Africa.

Baby gorilla in Rwanda
Baby gorilla in Rwanda

Changing Africa’s future

Kimberly: Singita’s raisons d’être initiatives tend to profoundly impact guests. Do you find an increasing awareness and philanthropic trend among luxury travellers in Africa, and are you encouraged by the collective force driving change?

Luke: Yes, there is a growing trend towards giving back. Our planet is facing a crisis. It is pleasing to read that Bill Gates is changing course and is highlighting climate change as a key issue. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos stated that he was committing $10 billion to combat climate change through a global initiative. BlackRock, the world’s largest investment firm, will put sustainability at the centre of its investment strategy going forward, according to CEO Larry Fink.

These are wonderful signs that the world is taking note and changing. I believe the hotel industry has a significant duty to lead by example, create awareness and send the right message.

Singita Kwitonda Lodge Bar
Singita Kwitonda Lodge Bar

Kimberly: Moving forward, your strategy for long-term sustainability requires partnering with donors who share your mission.  Do dire predictions of Africa’s exploding population propel you and these investors to accelerate land acquisition before pristine wilderness and its animals are gone forever?

Luke: Yes, I’m desperately worried about diminishing wild spaces and the human-wildlife conflict due to rapid population growth. We are in a dire situation that looks increasingly bleak. In Africa, we’ve lost 60 per cent of our animals in 40 years, and it has been forecast that 1 million species could face extinction in the next 20 years.

Singita uses its platform to affect change in conservation, especially at a time like this when the global pandemic threatens decades of conservation work. Singita attracts purpose-aligned guests and donors whose generosity complements the expertise of its independent funds and trusts. The company’s partner not-for-profits – namely The Malilangwe Trust (Zimbabwe), Grumeti Fund (Tanzania) and Singita Lowveld Trust (South Africa) – are really the unsung heroes, implementing successful conservation projects on the ground for wildlife and local communities.

This article originally appeared in volume 38 of Signature Luxury Travel & Style magazine. To subscribe to the latest issue, click here.

All images © Singita