Willy Pabst is one of the most important German conservationists in Africa. But that was never important to him. His heart beats for Africa, for nature conservation and for the people. This year his Sango Nature Reserve turns 30 and he told us how Sango started, what it is today and how he is setting it up for the future.
Sango Private Game Reserve in south-eastern Zimbabwe is the realization of its German founder Willy Pabst’s vision. A pioneer of wildlife tourism in Zimbabwe, Willy seized the opportunity 30 years ago to set up a conservation company with an exclusive safari lodge to realize his dream of eco-conscious wildlife tourism. This model has been at the heart of Sango since 1993.
On Safari with Bobby Wilmot
However, Willy’s relationship with southern Africa began much earlier, in 1964, to be precise. “My girlfriend’s brother was an officer with the Hamburg shipping company, Deutsche Afrika-Linien, and he said, ‘Willy, don’t go anywhere else, only to South Africa.’ I took his advice and have never regretted it.” A 1965 safari with legendary British crocodile hunter Bobby Wilmot in Botswana’s Okavango Delta left the most lasting impression on Willy. “Bobby was looking for a young test team for his first photographic safari. That’s why my girlfriend, four friends, and I drove 700 miles through the desert from Johannesburg to the Okavango swamps with my Borgward Isabella car. The safari with Bobby was a key experience for me.”
Back home in Hamburg, Willy’s father, a tax lawyer, wasn’t at all pleased that Willy didn’t want to follow in his footsteps. “When my father sat in the study with his cigar and thick law books, I knew that wasn’t my world. So, when I arrived in South Africa, I jumped in at the deep end. Suddenly, I saw a completely different world. Thanks to Bobby Wilmot, I stumbled upon something overwhelming that has shaped me to this day. If you like, I was infected with the nature and wildlife virus that has never left me.”
How Sango came to be
It would be another 20 years before a move into wildlife tourism became a realistic option for Willy. “In the second half of the 1980s, we were back in the Okavango swamps,” Willy recalls. “We had an area of 2,000 square kilometers to ourselves and became immersed in the wildlife. We stalked animals, and things crawled over our hands that you probably wouldn’t touch with rubber gloves. We were so close to nature; it was just wonderful. That’s when I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got to do something like this.’”
After considering a concession in the Okavango swamps, which turned out to be unsuitable for business, “My then lawyer and later partner told me about this stunning piece of wilderness in Zimbabwe. ‘An old cattle ranch, but something you’ve always dreamed of.’” Two days later, the two men flew to Zimbabwe to take a closer look. They drove over the former Devuli cattle farm in an old BMW, and, for Willy, “it was love at first sight. That was the turning point.”
It was 1992, and shortly after his first visit, Willy made an offer that was accepted and bought the wilderness paradise known today as Sango. “My wife and I chartered a helicopter and flew over the area, and seeing it from the air only encouraged us more. That’s how we got Sango.”
There is no conservation without shared values with local communities, period.
Wilfried “Willy” Pabst
Exceptional hospitality and unspoiled nature
As well as bringing wildlife back to Sango, Willy built a thatched camp of small huts made from reed and straw, where he and his team lived for the first few weeks. Willy soon realized that by the time hut four was finished, the ants had already taken out hut one, “So, we decided to build the huts out of stone and timber. This idea eventually became Ingwe Lodge, with its four stunning villas: Suni Villa, Syringa Villa, Baobab Villa, and Chinga Villa.
This was followed by Dadiso Camp and Expedition Camp, two award-winning luxury camps also set in Sango’s iconic Private Game Reserve. “Since then, we have indulged our guests with unspoiled nature coupled with exceptional hospitality that ensures low visitor density and minimal impact on the wildlife and nature,” explains Willy.
No conservation without local communities
While hospitality plays a significant role in Willy’s tourism concept, community partnerships, conservation funds, and organizations like the Perth-based SAVE African Rhino Foundation are key to Sango’s long-term conservation development goals. Willy explains, “By investing in key enablers through conservation, anti-poaching, education, and employment opportunities, we provide an alternative source of income for the people living in and around Sango.” Willy’s planning is a resounding success. While his team consisted of just a dozen people in 1993, 30 years later, it has grown to 150 employees, 95% of whom come from the local community. “This means we provide an income for almost 2,000 people. In this respect, we are also an economic factor.”
But even beyond that, support for the local villages is multifaceted, ranging from the provision of food and building materials to the supply of medicines to involvement in the maintenance and construction of schools and wells. “There is no conservation without shared value with local communities, period,” says Willy. “Living in harmony with our neighbors and supporting each other is extremely important to us.” Sango is fundamentally a nature reserve first and an eco-conscious wildlife lodge second. This idea is in Sango’s DNA. “We would never expand the economic track at the expense of nature,” explains Willy.
30 years of Sango – and the success story continues
In 2023, Sango will celebrate her 30th birthday. Ask Willy if he has any birthday wishes for his adult Sango offspring, and he doesn’t have to think twice: “Sango, I hope the old man can go on like this for at least another 20 years (laughs). Then I wish my Sango that one day my younger son will carry on successfully, with the advice and support of his older brother. And I wish for my Sango to expand as well. Because if we can expand our sustainable conservation footprint, I would be very, very happy.