Safari Tourism - the journey through the endless plains
On a warm February night, shortly before Valentine’s Day that I wasn’t so sure I would live to see, I was laying in my tent on the endless Serengeti plains, and I was desperate to go to the bathroom. Night had fallen; only here and there I could make out the brisk flashes of a torch and the remains of a campfire I had been enjoying an hour earlier. The rest of my travelling companions were slowly settling down to sleep in their tents, their voices getting swallowed up by the sounds that prevented me from leaving the safety of my sleeping bag. Three lions, only twenty feet away, right by the bathrooms, were making their presence known to us with their loud roars. I was certain I was going to get eaten alive if I’d attempt to leave my polyester sanctuary. And I wasn’t ready for that yet - I still had one more day of my safari expedition left to live through.
When I was leaving for Africa, I knew I would go on a safari. It was one of those experiences everyone recommended as ‘unforgettable’, ‘astonishing’ or even downright ‘life changing’. Nonetheless, I was eager not only to participate in a weekend excursion, but also to see how contemporary safari tourism in Tanzania, home to the famous Serengeti, Ngorongoro and Manyara, tied in with the sustainable utilisation of wildlife and balancing out ethical concerns around human development.
Globally, the most compelling reason for pursuing tourism as a development tool is its alleged positive contribution to the local or national economy (Sharpley and Telfer, 2002). But how are the tourists to know which safari company to choose from amongst dozens? How to ensure the highest benefit to the local communities? How to avoid overcrowding in national parks, endangering the very thing we are wishing to see thrive?
As Smith and Duffy (2003) state, Africa is estimated to have received around US$10 billion worth of the US$476 billion global tourism industry (WTO, 2001). Much of this has been associated with wildlife tourism, where many of the African countries rely on visitors coming specifically to see endangered species in their natural habitat. Tourists, often seeking an authentic experience, are motivated by notions of exotic encounters, a sense of a ‘real Africa’ and the friendliness of the local people. Developing states, which contain natural areas of appeal, have thus come to recognise the crucial role of wildlife in the economic profitability of tourism, often turning to long-term planning for conservation (Smith and Duffy, 2003). Throughout the world, the establishment of protected areas has become the most widely accepted means of biodiversity conservation (Sekhar, 2003) and yet the success of these endeavours continues to be controversial and inconsistent (Novelli and Scarth, 2007), as their effective management is often a challenge.
Safari excursions in Tanzania have their own particular appeal. Popular destinations include Mount Meru, Mount Kilimanjaro and the Manyara or Tarangire National Parks. Moreover, Tanzania is home to some stunning UNESCO sites: the Ngorongoro, inhabited by the Masaai people, and the Serengeti, home to the ‘big five’ game, which extends into south-western Kenya and witnesses the Great Migration. Despite the fact that wildlife protection has been the prerogative of the government since the colonial times, recent years have witnessed an increased involvement of the local communities in conservation efforts (tanzaniatourism.com) It is particularly visible in the Ngorongoro area, where the local Masaai people aim to live in accordance with the surrounding wildlife.
Two days into my own safari excursion, on that fateful night which found me debating the possibility of getting eaten by one of the ‘big five’ on the endless Serengeti plains, I had only gained a small glimpse into how beneficial responsible safari tourism was to the conservation efforts. Waking up at five am to the sun rising above the edge of Ngorongoro or spotting a leopard in the endless sea of yellowing grass was only one part of the incredible experience. The other, more paramount, was being able to see a Tanzanian, such as our incredibly knowledgeable guide Melchior, discuss his heritage and the history of the national parks. I could notice his pride when he pointed out one of the few remaining black rhinos in the distance or when he spotted an old elephant bull, returning to the Ngorongoro crater to wait out the remains of his life. During the four days we spent together in the truck, he was constantly educating us about the behaviour of the animals as well as about their impact on the local Masaai communities.
By looking at the dynamics of tourism, conservation and development, it could be argued that protected areas can be perceived as the engines for sustainable development (IUCN, 2002). Ensuring the cooperation of the local communities could address not only the issues of poaching, but also those of social inequality and poverty. Arguably, international and national approaches to conservation ought to harmonise with social needs (Borrini-Feyerabend et al., 2004), safeguarding sustainable development of both the wildlife and the local communities.
Despite these noble notions, a visible conflict of ideas emerges. As it has been argued by Tourism Concern (2005), the creation of protected areas and the development of tourism usually imply a change in the use of the place, leading to the displacement of people or limitations placed upon their livelihoods. How can it thus be ensured that the communities, whose engagement in the conservation efforts is so crucial, do not suffer from the attempt to preserve wildlife? Is it enough to seek out a responsible safari company dedicated to maintaining wildlife conservation efforts? Can a balance be struck where both sides benefit?
The question of whether environmental care and sustainable development are compatible has been the subject of many debates. Nevertheless, it ought to be remembered that tourism can not only be utilised as means for obtaining peripheral development (Christaller, 1963). More importantly, it is a tool for educating people, locals and tourists alike, about the importance of preserving what remaining wildlife we have left. Even if there’s a chance it will eat us at night.
By Paula Adamek