Ethan Kinsey is a 3rd generation Tanzanian, born and raised in a village near Arusha. His passion for nature started at an early age, playing in rivers and forests behind his home, and traveling with his parents to remote parts of Tanzania, where, while his father was visiting farmers he would explore the bush with his mother, an avid birder and plant collector. He doesn’t remember his first safari because he was too young but his parents' enthusiasm for the outdoors certainly rubbed off on him! After completing a Bachelor of Science at Ithaca College and a guiding course in South Africa, Ethan returned to Tanzania at the beginning of 2004. He managed Mwagusi Safari Camp in Ruaha National Park, where he also helped train guides. After two and a half years he moved back north to Arusha and began managing, guiding and leading walks at Suyan Camp in the Serengeti. He now works as a private guide throughout East Africa including guiding trips to Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In addition to his private guiding, Ethan is currently pursuing a Masters degree in Biodiversity Conservation & Management through the University of London. Ethan rarely gives up an opportunity to be in the bush, whether birding, guiding, teaching, studying, or assisting in research.
Questions and Answers
When and why did you become a guide?
I began guiding 11 years ago in Ruaha National Park when I was a camp manager at Mwagusi Safari Camp. I had grown up loving wildlife and the outdoors so it was just one of those things that fell into place and one thing led to the next.
What is your most memorable experience as a guide?
There was one particular season that I guided in Piyaya, bordering the Serengeti, just a unique and beautiful place. It was a particularly wet year, and the wildebeest migration was thick on the plains. It was also the second year that wild dogs had reappeared in the Serengeti ecosystem. I was guiding and managing a camp only a few miles from where they would appear daily. We would be up and out before dawn to get to a good lookout spot for the first light where we’d have coffee and scan for movement. The Thomson's gazelle were always the first to run, followed by the wildebeest and we’d make a dash to catch up with the hunt. Following the dogs at 40mph over the plains hunting wildebeest and gazelle was one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve had. On some days we would watch the wildebeest calving in the morning and you would see the dogs taking them down in the evening- a fascinating micro-window into the circle of life.
What moment were you most thrilled to have helped a client experience?
I think the biggest thrill these days comes when I head away from the crowds, turn the radio off, and slow down. It is thrilling to apply gut feelings, skill, and experience to find animals, and when you are rewarded it is usually not a wildlife sighting but a wildlife experience. It can be as simple as listening to an impala alarm call and finding the cause or being convinced that there has to be something over the next ridge.
Top 3 favorite properties:
1- My simple mobile camp because there’s nothing to distract you from nature and I can put where clients can have great experience
2- I love Sayari Camp in the Serengei outside of the migration season.
3- Mikeno Lodge in Virunga is an exciting place to be at the moment and such a different habitat compared to other East African properties.
Top 3 favorite national parks:
There is so much variety and you have to be able to appreciate every national park for what makes it special. You can’t compare the Namib desert to the Serengeti ecosystem, or Ruaha, or any of those to Virunga. Each one is incredible and unique.
What is your favorite trip?
My favorite trip is with people who are keen to learn about everything and explore. It has a walking component, a wilderness component, and a great wildlife component. You stay longer in fewer places you can get more out of them. Of course if there’s enough time, you can combine it with DRC for gorillas and Nyiragongo.
Somewhere you have always wanted to take guests but never have?
What is on your bucket list?
I don’t have a bucket list - I want to experience everything along the way and I also really enjoy repeating experiences.
Two things you always tell your guests to bring when traveling?
1) Bring a decent pair of binoculars for everyone.
2) You would be surprised how cold it can feel so bring a warm fleece.
Two things you think guests should know about Africa?
1) It is highly unlikely for you to catch anything contagious.
2) In the event you do feel ill- rehydration salts do wonders.
Camera or binocular recommendations?
I highly recommend the Nikon Monarch or anything that is similar- 8x32, 8x42, 10x42 or 10x50. Bring a camera you know how to use.
Do you have a specialty?
I think maybe the opposite- I’m a generalist, which makes me very adaptable and comfortable in most situations.
Despite his modesty we will tell you that Ethan is one of only a handful of private guides working in Virunga National Park in the DRC - we asked him a few specific questions about Africa's first National Park.
What makes Virunga such a special destination?
Virunga is an exciting place to visit right now because it is transformationing into a tourist destination. There's been some serious investment in accommodation, vehicles and the infrastructure around creating a tourist experience. The natural beauty is breathtaking, there is history, but also importantly tourist experience has not been totally separated from the conservation operations. This makes it particularly fun to guide, because in addition to seeing the gorillas, there's a ton of stuff to see and do that relates to the park's conservation operations.
For example- the Senkwekwe gorilla orphanage is a hundred yeards from Mikeno Lodge so you can go and hang out and watch the orphans play, you can take a look at the tracker dogs, or wander through the forest looking at the variety of monkeys around. While you are at the lodge you are actually meeting people who are working to make Virunga a better place. I don't know a lot of lodges where you might share a morning coffee with the director of a National Park, or bump into the tracker dog trainer or bush pilot for a beer in the evening. You could wake up in the morning with chimpanzee waking up in the trees outside your room , and then go trek for gorillas!
Finally, if you are concerned about conservation and where your money goes as a tourist- Virunga is the perfect place to travel. The lodges, camps and vehicles that I've been talking about are owned by the National Park, so all tourist revenue directly supports the park; the lodge staff, the rangers, the porters are all local Congolese so the communities are benefiting. I think because the tourist numbers are still small the impact is small, but with time it will be grow to be significant- already that tourist dollar is going further than it would in most places.
How do you think Virunga compares to Rwanda and Uganda for seeing Mountain Gorillas?
Well gorilla trekking in any of the three countries is bound to be a special experience, mountain gorillas are just such incredible animals and DRC, Rwanda and Uganda are where you can see them.
I think the important point to make is that a lot of people opt for the gorilla experience in DRC because the permits are cheaper - it is perceived as the "budget "place to go. In reality the experience is far more exclusive than in Rwanda or Uganda. In Virunga they only allow 6 people to the biggest gorilla group - most only take 4, compare to 8 per group in Rwanda and Uganda. This makes it a much more intimate experience.