Electric safari vehicles

A new breed of electric safari vehicle is gliding around the African savannahs, transforming the game drive experience and creating zero emissions as it does so.
When it comes to African safaris, driving is the main method of spotting wildlife, for obvious reasons. While walking safaris are an option in some reserves, the prospect of a close encounter with a pride of lions means that, in most places, it’s safer and often more practical to be aboard a 4x4.

Traditionally, these vehicles run on petrol or diesel, which produces pollution and noise. Much of Africa’s wildlife has become used to the sound of an engine idling while humans snap pics and gasp. But how much more pleasant if the safari vehicles emitted a purr rather than a roar, and what are the potential benefits for biodiversity? And how much better for the environment if safari vehicles didn’t also belch out toxic exhaust fumes and CO²?

Happily, electric vehicles are beginning to be used for safaris in Africa – here are a few of our favourite places.

Electric safaris in Botswana

Chobe Game Lodge in Botswana – where you can stay on our Windhoek to Victoria Falls holiday, amongst others – was quick off the mark. They launched the first electric game drive vehicle and electric-powered safari boat in Africa back in November 2014.

Currently, the lodge has four boats (including three that are solar powered) and four electric vehicles. As of 2021, the lodge estimates that from the start of its electric conversion project it has saved over 38,000kg of CO² emissions and nearly 15,000 litres of diesel across its fleet of jeeps and boats.

Electric safaris in South Africa

Makanyi Lodge in Timbavati Private Nature Reserve in South Africa has a converted Land Cruiser in operation. Meanwhile, at Cheetah Plains Lodge in the Sabi Sands Reserve (where you stay on our South Africa and Mauritius holiday) the owner has converted vehicles to their own specification, so that they’re not only electric, but as luxurious as a Range Rover, with bolstered suspensions, super comfortable bucket seats and USB chargers – a task that cost around $100,000.

Electric safaris in Kenya

In March 2019, the first electric safari vehicle was introduced in East Africa. It currently purrs its way around Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya, owned by Lewa Wilderness Lodge. That was also the year that Asilia Ol Pejeta Bush Camp introduced the first electric car to their fleet. If you visit, keep your eyes peeled for rare Grèvy’s zebra and the last northern white rhinos on the planet. To top things off, the whole camp largely runs on solar power too.

The environmental benefits of electric safaris

Zero emissions

With climate change an undeniable global crisis, shifting from fossil fuel powered vehicles to electric powered vehicles, which emit no pollution and can be solar charged, is a sensible and environmentally responsible step. It’s also the final piece of the sustainable jigsaw for many lodges, which already use solar power and have strict environmental policies in place but have traditionally run diesel-powered game drives.

Recycling on a grand scale

There are no mass-produced electric safari vehicles on the market at the moment, so typically, standard vehicles such as Land Rovers or Toyota Land Cruisers are converted for electric power and are not hybrid. This is recycling on a grand scale, reusing the materials and resources of an existing vehicle, and simply removing the standard aspirated motor and replacing it with an electric motor, speed drive and batteries. Various companies are already doing this, and in Kenya, Swedish start-up Opibus is expanding from converting safari vehicles to electrifying Nairobi’s matatu minibuses.

Mikael Gange, co-founder of Opibus, says it costs around US$37,000 to retrofit a safari vehicle. If the lodge that owns it already runs off solar power, it’s then simple to install a vehicle charging point, otherwise solar panels are also needed to replenish the battery.

“Running costs are between 80 and 90 percent cheaper than with a diesel engine,” says Mikael. “Within five years you have recouped your investment.”

Light & efficient vehicles

In terms of performance, if you listen to those companies that are converting and using electric safari vehicles, it’s 100 percent good news. A vehicle fitted with a 55kWh battery has a range of between 150km and 200km off a single charge, depending on the terrain and how loaded it is. As the average game drive is only 30-40km, this is more than enough power and range. Tests of converted Land Cruisers have found them capable of driving on sand, across riverbeds and over exceptionally rough terrain too.

“When I explain how powerful an electric vehicle is people are often surprised,” says Mikael. “It has lots of power and torque and, compared to a diesel engine which can weigh 150kg, an electric one is only 42kg, so the whole vehicle is lighter and more efficient.

“A safari vehicle is the perfect application too, since it travels at low speed, but the terrain demands a lot of torque. This is exactly what an electric motor can provide. Safari vehicles travel 100km a day tops, with the start and end point back at the lodge, so that’s another reason why it makes sense to use electric vehicles. They provide the possibility for some conservancies to significantly reduce their carbon output.”

And as the technology improves over the coming years, so will the vehicles’ performance in rough conditions.

Increased biodiversity

It’s hoped that a greater take-up of electric safari vehicles will have positive effects on biodiversity in African parks. Noise pollution can affect breeding and other behaviours, so with more peace and quiet comes the promise of less stressed wildlife.
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The costs of going electric

Electrification does come with wider sustainability issues. The Global Battery Alliance, part of the World Economic Forum, warns that the large batteries used in electric vehicles are not manufactured without costs to people and the environment.

The extraction of raw materials used in batteries can come at a significant social and environmental toll, including the use of unsafe and child labour to extract the cobalt used in them, while battery production itself carries a large carbon footprint. The Alliance makes solid suggestions for the improvement of the battery value chain which – if implemented – will further boost the environmental benefits of electric vehicles.

Simon Mills from our safari specialist Native Escapes explains some of the other issues around widespread take-up of electric safari vehicles: “It’s an interesting one – I don’t think widespread use is too far off. The main issues are that the vehicles need to be pretty powerful to navigate some of the roads, trails and off-road areas, and many electric vehicles are not quite capable for bush work yet. Also, the charging points required for all vehicles are horrendously expensive, so a lot of private owners can’t afford it – just yet. But I think they will come as technology develops.”
Photo credits: [Page banner: David Clode] [Intro: flowcomm] [Environmental benefits: Weldon Kennedy] [Costs of going electric: Jeremy T. Hetzel]