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The Guiding Industry in Zimbabwe

Text of a talk given by John Laing to ZPGA members, 11th November, 2022

Who is a “guide” in Zimbabwe?

First off, what sort of “guide” am I discussing? Sometimes I hear visitors to Zimbabwe refer to the taxi driver who collected them from the International Airport and drove them to their accommodation as a “guide”. For the most part in Zimbabwe we would refer to that person as a transfer driver. A number of years ago it became obvious that that those persons offering transfer services were capable of much more than just driving, and let’s face it, those offering transfer services in many instances were a visitor’s first interaction with a Zimbabwean.

There needed to be a certification, a standard that the Transfer or Tour Guides could aspire to. The Zimbabwe Tourism Authority began to offer what is known as a “Tour Guides” license. Before long the certification extended into the Zimbabwe Monuments, areas such as the Victoria Falls Rainforest, Matopos, Great Zimbabwe as well as our National Museums. Many, if not all Tour Guides refer to themselves as a “Guide”.

We often refer to those people that take us in a vehicle up to animals in a National Park as a Ranger though sometimes we hear reference to guides or “Learner Professional Guides”. So let us make these corrections quickly. In Zimbabwe every person who conducts visitors “for reward in the Parks estate” is required to be a licensed guide. There are three main licensing categories:

  • Learner Professional Hunter/Guide
  • Professional Guide
  • Professional Hunter

These days we are cautious about the sensitivities surrounding the hunting versus photographic sectors and it might sound odd to refer to “Learner Professional Hunters” but legally speaking all Learners are known as LPHs. The second issue is that many of the LPHs have been “learners” for over 15 years. They really are not still “learners” but in fact very knowledgeable and capable guides of driving safaris – but they are still categorised as LPHs.

Zimbabwean Guides – International Standing?

I am pretty sure everyone has heard somewhere along the line that Zimbabwe has the “best guides in Africa if not the world”. When you hear these comments being made, they are generally referring to those guides who have obtained a license through our Licensing authority, National Parks. This is a controversial statement because there are many guides throughout Africa who are fantastic, passionate, charismatic people with an incredible wealth of knowledge. How would we be able to measure ourselves against them?

I do think, however, that it is more correct to say the Zimbabwean Professional Hunter/Guides training and certification program is the most robust in Africa, if not the world because it tests every facet of a person seeking to become a guide, grooming him or her in such a way that they earn the title “professional”. Zimbabwe has achieved, over the years, the well-deserved reputation of producing some of the most professional, hardworking, ethical and experienced hunters and guides on the continent. This has been achieved through stringent training and examination systems which have been put in place and improved upon the over the years in order to streamline and regulate the flow of candidates into the industry.

An important aspect of this training is the vital “hands on” apprenticeship, of an absolute minimum of two years in length (but which is often double that or more). Here an apprentice is attached to a safari company under the tutorship of resident professionals, ensuring that each candidate is exposed to all the knowledge, wisdom, training, tutorage, and examinations needed to succeed in a highly demanding and frequently dangerous industry.

 So where did this all begin?

Since 1980 and the cessation of the Bush War, Zimbabwe has been through major changes in philosophy and development within the tourism industry. In 1980 there were only seven licensed Professional Guides in Zimbabwe, compared to 94 registered Professional Hunters. Hunting had dominated the wildlife industry, as had the hunting orientated Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe (S.O.A.Z.) by virtue of the numbers of individuals who were often members of both organisations.

The Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management, as the licensing body, produced a policy document in January 1983 outlining their concerns about the rapid increase in companies wishing to undertake various ‘bush or river’ tourist operations but who were employing unqualified guides and hunters to do so. There simply had not been the demand before 1980, even though the Parks Act (1975) and Regulations included the licensing of individuals employed in these roles. At that time, the Zimbabwe Tourist Development Corporation (Z.T.D.C.) were also part of the overall ruling body as they oversaw the licensing of Tour Guides as well as Special Interest Guides. There was a rapidly growing need to produce guides in the various categories.

In 1980 the licensing of Professional Hunters (PH’s) was already established, although less stringent requirements were in place. Briefly the method of testing prior to June 1979 was a verbal one and in rare cases a written test on:

(1) The law pertaining to hunting

(2) Basic First Aid

(3) Rowland Ward’s methods of measuring and field preparation of trophies

Generally speaking, candidates were well established, well known in the industry and of good reputation.

Professional Guides (PG) were rare, and essentially followed a similar testing except for the killing of dangerous game. Alan Elliot, Garth Thompson and Tim Paxton were three of the earliest licensed PG’s.

Alan Elliot, one of the first Professional Guides

After 1979, the licensing became far more formal, and candidates wishing to write the exams had to register with the Tourist Board, in terms of the Development of Tourism Act.

Garth Thompson’s classic Guide

The first written exams for Hunters and Guides were held by National Parks in January 1981, and the second in January of 1982. Several senior parks officers had devised a syllabus, and this was set for the next two years until it was changed after discussion with members from the Z.P.H.A. and S.O.A.Z. to include more relevant topics:

1. The Law – 90 minute exam.

2. The Firearms Act

3. The Control of Goods/Import and Export (General Regs.)

4. Animal Health Act

5. Trapping of Animals Act

6. Rowland Ward – 60 minute exam.

7. Basic First Aid-  60 minute exam.

Candidates had to produce evidence of experience, including names of clients and sometimes attend a proficiency test to assess their ability in the field. Of course, this was all at the expense of the candidate, and dependent on Parks supplying names for which the warden was available and where animals could be purchased for their test!

Jane Hunt, first woman to qualify as a Professional Guide (in 1995)

Candidates had to pay for the test animals killed and all the expenses of getting to the area, setting up a camp and all ancillary costs too.

Guiding in Zimbabwe in the 2000s

Elsewhere I cover the step-by-step process involved in becoming a Professional Guide or hunter in Zimbabwe. (“Qualifying as a Professional Guide in Zimbabwe”)

Despite the costs involved, the guiding fraternity has continued to grow and mature, gaining an international reputation for excellence. Other countries in the region have evolved their own standards and protocols for the qualifications for their guides and some believe it was the Zimbabwean example that drove this. Zambia had already had a system in place, thanks to Norman Carr who had established walking safaris in the 60’s, but this had its’ limitations in the Zimbabwean context.

Norman Carr and his scout Rice Time

South Africa developed a very technical system under the auspices of the Field Guides Association of South Africa (FGASA) which has several levels of qualification. It was devised primarily for lodge guiding and has become a very successful system, and in part has been adopted by Botswana as well as East Africa.

Zimbabwean guides still enjoy the best field experience in my opinion, and with the vastly improved qualifying protocols and mirrored hunter-guide objectives, it can only remain the best. The gradual change in attitude of hunters to guiding has reached its zenith, and inaugural proficiency tests reflect this very important transition. It has taken decades to achieve this level of understanding between the two groups and is a reflection of the quality of the individuals leading the industry now.  

The present number of Learners in Zimbabwe who will never, or very likely never, actually progress beyond holding a Learners’ license is in the 1000’s, in fact it has surpassed 5,000! Most regrettably it has become just a matter of writing and passing the examinations without any chance of gaining actual experience in the field to test the candidate’s aptitude for a future in the guiding/hunting industry.

It is a sad fact that many fine men and women will not have the opportunity to qualify and become employed. Academic though this brief has been, I believe it to be important and of interest to all of us involved in this wonderful and exciting industry to know the details of what is involved.

Those of us who made it our life’s work and raised families during our careers have seen massive changes in the foreign visitors and hunting clientele and in their expectations, as well as massive changes in the country and the state of our parks and private land where we operate and of course have had to withstand innumerable trying and unimaginable difficulties but have taken it all and kept going.

Some have left the country to continue guiding as best as they can in foreign lands and kept the home fires burning that way. Zimbabwe still has the best environment for young guides despite the lure of tales of the massive herds in East Africa, and the Congo forests and the mystique of Ethiopia’s highlands. It is surely the most exciting way of life a person can enjoy and the industry needs guides in the field.

Guiding does not change in principle, and one needs to be something of a social chameleon to exist nowadays. Extreme opinions have no place without the risk of causing offense to some foreign clients, and woe betide any recklessness on the social media platforms! A shame, but it’s a fact of life.

Visitors come on safari with a mind full of expectations, and the guide is there to manage these expectations to the best of his/her ability. Dealing with wildlife is a small factor in the whole picture.

John Laing

Chairperson of ZPGA

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