Opibus ROAM

Silent safaris: Are electric game drive vehicles worth it?

written by
James Niarra Travel crop
James Whiteman

The shift to decarbonize transport and electric vehicles has taken enormous steps around the world over the last few years with almost every major manufacturer pledging to phase out internal combustion engines (ICE) in favour of EVs and hydrogen fuel cells. This is also true in the travel world with many of our partners on the ground upgrading to hybrid or all-electric vehicles for tours and transfers.

In wilder settings, game drives remain central to safaris and for many clambering into an old Land Rover or Toyota Land Cruiser, diesel engine rumbling into life with the sunrise, is all part of the experience. Here too, this is changing as many pioneering camps and lodges make the jump to electrification.

Yet there are many arguments both for and against EVs, some specific to the safari context, and some universal. So, is it worth it?

Carbon

Reduced carbon emissions are an obvious benefit of switching to EVs, however, as with all things to do with sustainability, it isn’t necessarily that simple.

A common point in the ‘cons’ column is that the production of a new EV and its mineral-hungry battery pack emits more carbon than a new ICE vehicle. And this is true. Numbers vary enormously depending on the manufacturer and region – for a rough idea, an average mid-size European ICE car creates around 6 metric tonnes of CO2 in production, a battery pack another 4-5 tonnes on top of that.

Another valid argument against is questioning how the electricity that charges a vehicle is generated. If it all comes from coal-fired power plants, does it make sense to switch over?

The counter to the above is a term known as ‘lifetime emissions’. In short, the initially greater footprint of creating an EV vehicle is eventually dwarfed by the lifetime tailpipe emissions of an ICE. How long that takes does depend on the energy mix when charging. Again comparing an 'average' petrol-powered car with a fuel efficiency of 15km/L (33mpg US, 40mpg UK) to a Tesla Model 3, in an ideal scenario of 100% renewables, which is close to being achieved in Kenya, it can take just 13,000km to reach ‘carbon parity’. In the absolute worst-case generation – almost all coal like in South Africa – it will take 9 times that distance, but it will still happen. Consider the true footprint of ‘well to wheel’ of fuel extraction, refining and transportation and it may happen even sooner.

But what if it’s a choice between replacing a venerable safari vehicle that’s already been built versus buying a new EV? Well here too, even without the impact of producing a new vehicle, the emissions of big old engines designed in a time of looser regulations would still overtake the EV within tens of thousands of kilometers. And when you consider the increasing availability of conversion kits and specialists, such as Nairobi's Roam and Electric Classic Cars, who retrofit existing chassis, often recycling the batteries and powertrains from scrapped EVs, the case for switching grows stronger still. As a real-world example, our friends at Asilia tested a converted EV for a year at Ol Pejeta in Kenya, driving some 10,035km and charging by solar. This saved around 4500kg of carbon emissions – equivalent to the average battery pack mentioned above – as well as $2200 in diesel and $1000 on servicing.

Then there are the emissions beyond carbon. Other pollutants emitted from ICE engines include nitrous oxide, other damaging hydrocarbons and oil leaks released into wilderness areas. We don’t suggest standing behind a 30-year-old diesel vehicle.

Cost

One of the major barriers to more widespread EV adoption is a simple one – they are more expensive. And the cost of installing safe, reliable charging systems in often remote areas can be considerable. The switch to electric vehicles requires a big investment which is why so few camps have them.

Progress is being made here as the cost of battery packs has dropped dramatically from $1200 per kWh in 2010 to around $130 in 2021, while also becoming more advanced and reliable. Recently launched commercial-grade electric vehicles, such as Rivian’s RT1, Ford’s F-150 Lightning or Munro’s Mk_1 are getting into the same ballpark as a brand new Series 70 Toyota Land Cruiser or Land Rover Defender.

Chargers have also become more affordable, for example, a Tesla Wall Connector starts from $350. For on-grid properties, this means they can charge relatively cheaply overnight. Off-grid properties have more infrastructure to consider, but a growing number are installing solar panel arrays and smart battery systems to allow their entire operation to run off renewables. The savings here quickly add up, which we’ll look at in a case study below, and the cost of upgrading or converting existing vehicles can be worth the investment purely in terms of a reduced fuel bill. With fewer moving parts (simplified or removed gearboxes, no belts, no timing chains, etc) and no oil changes, less maintenance is required, a big concern for many safari outfits running decades-old fleets.

It’s worth noting that context is key. Generating power independently may not be possible and relying on the grid and public infrastructure in certain areas where load-shedding is common isn’t feasible. Unfortunately for many camps and lodges, this will be the barrier to entry.

Operation

Range anxiety and the time to charge compared to refueling are other factors holding up adoption for many people. A big range needs big batteries which means more expense, more resources, plus the inconvenience of long charging times.

In the safari context, these are less pressing concerns. Game drives are slow speed and generally a relatively short distance, offroad, with lots of stopping and starting, often up and down challenging inclines. Far from ideal for ICE engines which are most efficient when cruising, but perfect conditions for an EV with high torque electric motors. And with drives traditionally in the early morning and late afternoon, vehicles can sit and charge in the midday sun if there's solar.

Experience

Another huge advantage of EVs on safari is their near silence (a converted Land Rover will never be squeak free!), making for a more immersive wildlife experience and letting trackers use their ears and noses better to find animals while on the move. Guides can glide forward or back for the best photographic angle without starting the engine in a belch of sound and smoke whenever you need to move.

Emboo River

One of our favourite sustainability trailblazers is Emboo River in Kenya’s Maasai Mara. Four tired, 30 year old Land Cruisers were restored and converted by Nairobi-based Roam who also installed solar panels and a ‘power house’ container containing batteries and inverters to run the camp and store power overnight.

With this smart system, they can charge day or night for a range of 120-250km, far more than the average 40km Mara game drive.

From Emboo’s cofounder and CEO, Valery Super, “The vehicles are solar powered, silent, have no exhaust fumes and do not disturb wildlife, letting you enjoy safaris while listening to the sounds of nature and inhaling the scents of the savannah. And sighting opportunities increase because guides can now use all their senses. Recently, guests went on a game drive when the guide heard a soft roar in the distance. The sound would normally not be heard over a standard engine. The guide drove towards the sound and found a leopard with cubs in the bushes.”

“While Emboo River's upfront investment was higher, its operational costs are much lower and this makes it a business savvy decision, on top of being the right thing to do for our community and ecosystem. Plus we do not need fuel and the maintenance is minimal. The recent fuel situation in Kenya has led to high prices and shortages of fuel at stations so lodges with old ICE vehicles or with generators powering their fridges and lights are experiencing their own range anxiety.”

For some stats, their own estimates for savings are around $60,000 a year in fuel costs alone. Emissions of the old ICE engines were 350g of CO2 per kilometer, whereas the entire 13-year lifespan emissions of the EV conversion (including production, use and recycling) will be around 70g/km. Roam's conversions start at less than $40,000.

And they’re making a wider impact – Kenya aims to shift all vehicles in the park to electric as part of their plan to make the Maasai Mara carbon neutral by 2030, with Emboo actively supporting other properties to make the transition.

“Soon the only roar you will hear during your safaris is that of a lion, and not of an engine.”
Valery Super, CEO and cofounder of Emboo River

Another African trailblazer is Zambia and Malawi’s Green Safaris whose MD Vincent Kouwenhouven has been a keen advocate and investor in e-vehicles since he built an EV in his garage in Holland a number of years ago. They now operate converted Land Cruises – along with e-bikes and an e-boat – across their lodges with solar panels providing 80% of power, saving over 29,000 litres of diesel a year (and around 95 metric tonnes of well to wheel carbon emissions).

They are huge proponents of the ‘silent safari concept.

“The Silent Safari is an overt symbol of Green Safaris’ overarching strategic goal to be a wholly sustainable operator. The company is committed to reducing its carbon footprint, and moreover to offer the best in guest experience, whilst being a catalyst for sustainable community and conservation enhancement.”

“We had an unbelievable safari experience in our vehicle with a cheetah and her kill. To start the engine and just glide away slowly and silently from her with no reaction from her was an experience I’ll never forget. The wild dogs in South Luangwa and lions of Busanga Plains were similarly unphased”.

Electric safari vehicles are not a one size fits all solution and of course the biggest source of carbon emissions on any safari are the international flights (which is why Niarra offset all our trips), plus true sustainability is about more than carbon. But in many cases and contexts it can make complete sense both in terms of sustainability and financially. And it makes the actual experience of a safari more engaging and less impactful on some of the world's most precious ecosystems. We’re keen to see how the industry develops over the coming years and are excited to support lodges and camps that are innovating and leading the way.

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