Jay CabozBy Jay Caboz|March 24, 2021|14 Minutes|In Entrepreneur

Entrepreneur

How Kim Kardashian loses out on air to a tortoise

Covid-19 has brought a strange new industry to the fore - the business of beaming images of wild African animals to the other side of the world. Forget about Netflix and settle down to an armchair safari.  

Deep in the African bush a leopard tortoise is acting quite strangely. It’s a hot Saturday afternoon in the Tswalu Kalahari Reserve, in South Africa’s Northern Cape Province. The leopard tortoise spends most of its life munching leaves – a picture of passivity. But on this day it’s chasing a pack of aggressive wild dogs.

It’s a bizarre scene and even game ranger Mauritz Senekal, a veteran of the bush, can’t believe his eyes. The lumbering lone tortoise marches into the pack of Wild Dog like a trojan and the yelping pack scatters. The tortoise plonks itself down in the shade where the Wild Dogs were sleeping – victorious. 

What makes this scene even more bizarre is that every cough and bark was watched by thousands of people many thousands of miles away in the four corners of the world. In the world of Covid-19 lockdowns live pictures from the bush have become box office material among people trying to remind themselves that nature and the world carry on far from the fear of the pandemic. 

This was a gap in the market spotted by entrepreneur Graham Wallington, the co-founder of WildEarth, that makes money by taking thousands of eyeballs around the world yearning for a virtual safari. 

“What I’ve always known is people love this concept of feeling like they are on a game drive in Africa, or on a bushwalk or on a scuba dive. What I found very surprising though was how that lockdown changed how people saw the world and television,” says Wallington. 

It meant the demand for the live streams from the bush has been unreal according to Wallington. In April – with the world in lockdown – they say 1.1 million unique viewers for our safaris alone, four to five times as many views as they had before.

“Literally overnight it went from everyone expecting a Kardashian style television experience. Suddenly overnight people wanted authenticity. People wanted the real deal…they wanted reality tv to mean reality.”

The business model is simple. You give a crew of two a camera and they send them into the wilderness to find game. Once they find animals and they stream the pictures onto a network. 

People can then pay to support the page, or companies can pay to sponsor their television channels.

There is a lot of competition for the wildlife streaming channel. On any given day, in the famous game parks of Africa, a handful of crews pick their way through the thick African bush in search of the big five and the odd leopard tortoise taking on wild dogs.

The scripts are raw and unwritten. The broadcast footage is then sent back to a control room, where a team of directors manage the feed you are watching. Viewers can even send through questions to the guides so they can answer out in the field and in real time.

“We’ve got six to eight streams coming in any given time, and only one is ever live on the channel. What we’ll sometimes do is produce two completely different shows from the same pool from a parallel studio.”

Wallington and his co-founder and wife Emily have been bringing nature to couches for almost 3 decades, having started off with building streamed waterhole cams in the 1990s in the early days of the internet. The live safaris have been featured on National Geographic, reports CNN.

At the time, the company generated 99% of its revenue from licencing the footage to the broadcaster who put it on their channel. Their primary viewership came out of the United States and the United Kingdom.

But the business model was flawed.

What Ive always known is people love this concept of feeling like they are on a game drive in Africa, or on a bushwalk or on a scuba dive. What I found very surprising though was how that lockdown changed how people saw the world and television. 

- Graham Wallington, the co-founder of WildEarth

“It wasn’t possible for us to get our product from Africa into our two prime markets in the United States and the United Kingdom…We could not deliver our live sunrise safari or our live sunset safari into either the United States or the United Kingdom’s prime time television. Prime time is about seven in the evening to about ten in the evening. The reality is the prime time to view wildlife in Africa is in the hour sort of after dawn or before sunset.”

So, the company shifted gear and pivoted to selling their footage direct-to-consumer whereby they generate revenue through advertising and sponsorship. Which is why you can now watch WildEarth directly on DSTV’s channel 183, which launched in August in the depths of the lockdown. Wallington says it has grown into a significant channel and performing extremely well, with double the reach of Sky News on DSTV in Africa. 

Another way the company makes money is by selling membership to superfans that in return get special access to bushfire chats; have their name on a game drive vehicle for a day; stand chances of winning bush experiences and get to watch the service ad -free.

“We lost a major client with National Geographic in 2019. When we lost them, we really needed that audience to help. We launched a fund drive on IndieGoGo and raised nearly R5 million in less than a week,” says Wallington.

Finally they have also managed to sell in China, where, Wallington says the time zones are a lot more conducive to watching the animals of the African bush. 

“Our game is about delivering live television shows to our broadcasters. That requirement needs to be delivered with reliable live shows to our broadcasters that can’t accept even frame drops.”

“We are using a lot of different technologies to overcome different problems. All of them are ultimately about maintaining a high integrity, high-definition, packet stream from some very remote locations. From IP streaming to power supply there are a lot of components.”

But, ironically, Covid-19 – that led so many eyeballs to the bush, could also deliver the game industry a punch in the gut. Tight regulations on travel mean the heart of the whole game industry is under threat. 

People aren’t being allowed to make it in person to the game reserves leading to a huge loss of revenue which puts a question mark over their long-term survival. The tourism industry is as big as the Big 5 when it comes to the economy. It employs 24 million people in Africa, about twice the population of Rwanda. The tourism industry not only protects the wildlife but also ensures money is poured into the infrastructure needed to support the wild animal population. 

But for now, entrepreneurs can still make a healthy living streaming to the world the gallantry of a lone leopard tortoise in a valiant battle against a pack of wild dogs. 

According to Robinson, travellers’ mindsets are shifting.

“Looking forward into 2021, I think future travellers will be delicately trading their quality of experience with the choice of absolute safety and sanitisation. This pandemic has highlighted our trade off of quality versus quantity – a human connected experience versus absolute certainty that we stay healthy. The tourism industry’s challenge will be to manage that trade off in a way that the traveller feels safe enough with the environment to feel comfortable to then choose their experience within that environment.”

One way lodges are trying to survive, is to attract more South Africans to lodges. Robinson says they are trying to connect guests with small group virtual chats that gives guests real-time interaction with the rangers or offering virtual experiences as well as hosting talks and seminars on their website.

“All these have been very well received, we have received so much positive feedback and we’re privileged to be able to connect with our guests through technology during this time. So, although it has been quieter at our lodges, things still continue to be busy with lots of virtual experiences keeping the team here busy, as well as people around the world happy,” said Robinson.

But despite the optimism no one knows when this Covid-19 pandemic is going to recede. For South Africa’s world famous tourism industry it’s going to be a struggle – unlike in the bush where not even the fittest will survive.   

&Beyond 

Luxury lodge chain &Beyond is one of the hosts of live tours with WildEarth at their Ngala reserve on the borders of the Kruger National Park. 

The resort is one of many reserves battling to survive during the travel bans due to Covid-19.  Nicole Robinson, Chief Marketing Officer at &Beyond, says that one of the hardest hit areas in the sector is conservation and community development work.

“For us, revenue generated from guests staying in our lodges is a crucial part of our Impact Model – which operates around Care of the Land, Care of the Wildlife and Care of the People. So, we know first-hand the challenges facing environmental preservation efforts at this time,” she says.

“Even during these times, there are things we can be certain of – our communities living around our bases of operation still need support, and the wildlife that live inside our reserves still need protection.”

EMBED: https://youtu.be/7STs9YegSS0

Take a virtual walk on the beach right now!

If you’ve ever fancied a walk on the beach but didn’t know where to go in South Africa to do it, why not try taking a walk using Google street view.

Whether you want to take a stroll on the Sea Point Promenade or to tackle the legendary Otter Trail, there are many options. This is thanks to a 2017 partnership between travel company Drive South Africa and Google Street View that captured over 170 trails in South Africa.