There is something inherently spiritual about being in the vast African Savannah. Being surrounded by wild animals I felt an unfamiliar connection to the planet that – in my day-to-day city life – I had never felt.
I recently went on safari in Kenya and it was an unforgettable experience. Seeing all those majestic animals in their natural habitat was unlike anything I had ever seen before.
Being someone who doesn’t like the concept of zoos, I was thrilled at the opportunity to watch these animals without having to feel bad about them being in cages. Yet, I couldn’t help but wonder whether everything was as picture-perfect as it was made out to be.
So, being the obsessive researcher that I am, I looked up articles about the impact that growing tourism has on east African countries. And indeed, the increase in safari tourism is a double-edged sword. What is more important; protecting wildlife or “developing” the local communities?
So, after some basic research, this is what I found out…
Reportedly, Maasai Mara has been cursed for decades with low-revenue, high-volume tourism. Some would argue that there has been little benefit for the local communities.
In the 80s there were maybe half a dozen lodges and camps in the Mara, whereas recent estimates state that there are more than 25 permanent lodges and well over 3,000 beds. Many would argue that the soaring number in visitors has led to increased damage to the roads and grasslands.
The rural population, the Maasai tribe, also changed their lifestyle. The once nomadic tribe left their tents and gravitated to longer-term settlements. As a result, the wild animals that live around the reserve are now competing for habitat with Maasai livestock. Since they don’t move as much and since their population has been growing, the Maasai people require larger pieces of arable land.
When I sat down with Daniel, a Maasai who has lived around the reserve his entire life, he told me that their tribe lives in harmony with the animals. This had been the way of the Maasai people ever since their inception, however, when a wild animal threatens their livestock, they have the right to kill the animal.
According to almost all censuses, the number of wild animals in the Mara has declined since the late 80s. To give a few examples, giraffe numbers went down by 95 percent between 1989 and 2003, warthogs by 80 percent, and impalas by 67 percent. Yet, this is mainly because of poaching and not tourism.
Instead, I had the feeling that the local populations and the country’s government have been more concerned in recent years to stop poachers. They are aware that safari tourism is a major part of their economy. And since one needs these wild animals to attract tourists, the government has a strong incentive to protect them.
New censuses proof this too. Since 2003 the number of wild animals in the area have gone up again. Especially the number of elephants has been rising. For years, due to the ivory trade, the number of wild elephants had been declining rapidly. But, thankfully, more and more people are now opposed to ivory. Furthermore, many local NGOs devote all their time to saving these animals.
Tourism has led to “development” in the area
As for the Maasai people, the increase in tourism has also brought economic benefits. Most camps in the area are owned by locals. The money that they make from tourists goes into building schools, hospitals, and local jobs.
The new lifestyle has indeed led to a decrease in nomadic movement, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Sure, globalization and tourism has led to a change in lifestyle for the local tribes, but is this necessarily a bad thing? (Ooooh controversial opinion. Bring on the commentary!)
I spoke to several local Maasai people and they explained that the reason why they don’t move as much and as far anymore, is mainly because their children are in school. To make sure that they can finish their education without much disruption, the families only move around within the area.
I would say that the “modernization” of the area is not necessarily a bad thing. Isn’t it interesting that we call African countries “underdeveloped” because they don’t live western lifestyles? Yet somehow, we go to Africa expecting to encounter crude tribes that live in primitive homes made out of mud and straw who hunt wild animals. (Sorry! Here I go again with my socioeconomic analysis)
To quote an article in The Guardian, “the Maasai are sometimes seen as a cool tribal accessory – welcome on any fashion shoot in Africa, as long as they never embrace the modern world.” This quote struck me. It carries so much truth and also a substantial paradox.
Any type of tourism can result in a burden for the local communities and flora and fauna, but it isn’t always all bad. Ok, call me biased (I work in tourism, my family has always worked in tourism, and I live for traveling), but I do see the benefit in safaris in Kenya. I am not going to deny that there are dangers, but I would still recommend going if you ever get the chance.
What’s the verdict?
It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and in my case, it only made me appreciate nature and wild animals more. At a certain point, the distance between our car and two male lions was a mere 2 meters. Staring them straight into their eyes, I could feel my heartbeat speed up. Partially out of excitement and partially out of fear.
In the background, there was a large herd of zebras who were anxiously watching the lions. Yet, the lions did not attack. Instead, they just laid down beneath a tree for an afternoon nap. Meanwhile, the zebras in the background continued grazing. Witnessing this, the meaning of the Circle of Life started to become clear to me. (Cue Lion King intro…)
My verdict? Go! Just make sure that before you go, you spend some time researching the big game companies that offer safari tours. Try to learn about their conservation credentials and operational philosophy before you decide to book a tour. Also, be aware that the more expensive tours don’t necessarily mean that the local tribesmen and women benefit more. Unfortunately, corrupt organizations and local governments can in certain cases take the largest part of the share.
Sure, safaris have an up and downside to them, but as far as I’m concerned, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. Of course, this is only my opinion. I would love to hear your take on the whole situation. Leave a comment below!