Reflections on an Ecotourism Experience

I have visited four African countries since the early 80’s; two self-arranged visits and two commercial tours. My recent tour in Kenya raised serious issues for me. Several variables could have made the difference that affected me: different countries and national policies, changes over time, travelling companions, tour guides and companies. I also have ecotourism experiences from North and South America and Australia for perspective.

My current impression is that, in some countries and with some tour companies and guides, African animals and ecosystems are being sacrificed to the demands of insensitive tourists. I am not alone in my concern; attempted solutions date back at least to the 1980’s. Some research is underway and results suggest that ecotourism could provide as much income from some areas as could farming or other land uses. It also has been suggested that without changes, the natural riches on which ecotourism is based could be pushed past their ‘tipping point’ in as little as five years.

The “no off-road driving” rule was put in place too late. Roads and tracks had already patterned the plain like the hide of a reticulated giraffe. A web of roads and tracks had already cut a net of very small ‘mesh size’ into all environments penetrable by 4X4’s.

Found Something

Found Something

Game Drive

Game Drive

The guideline for a reasonable “stand-off” distance requires constant surveillance to be effective. Guides are under frequent pressure from tourists to “get a little closer, my lens is too short”. In one instance, a cheetah with six kits was discovered. Requests to “get closer” were flying. The cheetah led her litter off across the plain. She needed to hide them so that she could hunt to supply the heavy nutrient and energy demands of lactation. The tourists were not yet satisfied; the guide was encouraged to “head her off”. The truck radio crackled, the handheld radio queried other party members. The driver got ahead of the cheetah and so did several other trucks loaded with tourists. They did not violate the required standoff; they were there first and the cat cortege approached the trucks. But the trucks became a ‘blockade’ across the path of the female and her litter. Another detour required to avoid tourist trucks. More delay before energy refueling.

Line up for Viewing

Line up for Viewing

Only on-site wardens who must dash across the plain from one cluster of trucks to the next can enforce both the “stand-off” guidelines and the unstated “reasonable viewing time”. “Tickets” are resented and the tour companies pay the fines for errant drivers who are led astray trying to satisfy unthinking guests.

Lioness from tourist truck

Lioness from tourist truck

The root of the issue is: how can some income be derived from natural assets, such as wildlife, and how can some of that income be made to stay in the local area and made to flow to the people on the land? And, how can both be done without damaging the natural riches of the land? Without a workable solution, both national and multi-national corporations will transform the natural assets of the land into something else with immediate, marketable, economic value.

National government policies can contribute to the solutions. Politically, this requires that the policies produce economic yield in the near term. Basic to such policy development is a solid conviction, by the public, of the long-term value of renewable natural riches such as unharvested natural ecosystems. Botswana shows some examples; even outside formal parks, high value for natural riches is embodied in government regulation.

Government policies need to ensure viable futures for the ecosystems that produce and maintain those natural riches. Great effect can be attained through education and support of the tour guides. Rigorous, comprehensive training courses and exams can supply guides who are knowledgeable beyond just identification of species and who are adept at interacting with touring guests – even unthinking and demanding individuals.

If well-trained and capable guides are to enact thoughtful guidelines for interacting with the natural riches of the land, they will need strong support from the government agency that produces those guidelines. Support that is demonstrated to be reliable and capable of overpowering the economic forces imported by the tour companies.

Well-trained guides are not just drivers. It is possible that the two roles need to be given separate responsibilities. Drivers could be in charge of getting guests from airports and urban hotels to natural areas and from lodge to lodge. Drivers should not be substituted for properly trained guides. Guides could be in charge when the guests are taken into natural areas and into contact with wildlife and other natural riches.

Problems with present practices may relate to historical evolution of ‘ecotours’ from motorized big game ‘safaris’. Company names and a continuing focus on ‘the big five’ in some ecotours suggest this conflicting history. ‘Safari’ traditions of luxurious treatment of tourists, and definition of luxury in terms of the cultures of the guests (western/northern luxury) are continued. Prohibition of walking by guests along with assumptions that many other luxuries are vital to the guests have combined into a business approach that threatens the natural riches on which the ‘industry’ depends.

There are some beginnings of other methods such as the walking tours offered by Base Camp Maasai Mara at their new Wilderness Camp. Small groups of guests can gain a non-motorized, slower, and in-depth experience, on foot under the guidance of an armed and experienced guide. A similar experience is offered by the rangers of Kruger National Park in South Africa and is fully booked many months ahead. The risk is not as great as the tour companies’ fear of liability. I have worked all night in the bush for more than a week with an armed guide for security and lions and elephants for companions; liability issues support mechanization of ecotourism.

Ecotours are part of a bigger issue; how can Africa sustain its natural riches while moving into the developing global economy? As part of that problem, how much of ‘western’ culture and consumerism should be imported in the process and how will that affect the natural riches?

It seems clear that the unique natural riches of many African nations have very high value; tourists can’t find such riches anywhere else and there clearly is a market. But are the costs, to local people and their nations, of maintaining these natural riches being offset by economic flow into the hands of these local people and local governments? If not, is the maintenance of these natural riches being assured by the companies and individuals who are receiving the economic flow? If groups who are benefiting economically from these natural riches are not paying for the maintenance of the resources, but instead, are ‘externalizing’ those costs, the costs are not paid by the company but, instead, fall to local people on the land. They lose money and they lose food and other resources. It should be expected that wild species and natural spaces would be lost; they will be replaced by other land uses that promise to fill the resource needs of the people in the short term.

Conservation administrators and biologists have created a tension between two opposing philosophies. One group advocates allowing local people to encroach on parks and protected areas to gain resources. The other view advocates creation and protection of parks and reserves that are inviolate; where resource use by locals is ‘poaching’. Without careful regulation, the former could have result in loss of natural riches. The latter approach externalizes significant costs of maintaining a park simply because none of the parks are big enough to contain the entire array of resources needed by the large animals protected by the park. Consequently, people on the land outside the parks suffer losses to the ‘marauding’ animals when they seek resources outside the park and when they follow normal large-scale movements in response to water availability. It is now well-recognized by landscape ecologists the resources outside formal parks’ boundaries are essential to sustain the wildlife populations that use the parks as core areas of their complete range.

Ecotourism was supposed to be some help in providing direct economic flow to these local folks to offset their costs, financial and other, for keeping wildlife populations healthy.

To some degree ecotourism has done so. Many guides and drivers came from outlying villages and areas and gain income and status from the business. How much of the economic flow to these guides and drivers gets back to the people directly affected by the wildlife is unclear.

Overseas touring companies often work with local companies that arrange logistics, provide driver/guides, and organize tours for the overseas companies. However, dealers selling the common touring trucks and many other sources of supplies and services needed by these local companies are usually located in big towns and cities. Consequently, these companies commonly work from those centres. How much of their economic flow passes to, or even close to, the people on the land who are directly affected by the wildlife and other resource issues?

Much of the wealth generated by ecotours is exported to the country where the tour company is headquartered, although many of these companies are very generous to local folk.

The economic flow path back to the people on the land is unlikely to be put in place by the business of ecotourism without local government intervention to guarantee that flow.

Meanwhile, the business practice and economic risks of overseas companies filter down with aggressive support from their guests to result in driver/guides pursuing the animals with greater aggression than the guides believe is appropriate. All together, ecotourism, perhaps especially phototourism, is reducing the quality of many habitats for and, quite possibly, the survival success of the animal populations. It would not be the first time that western businesses have, by their business practices, reduced wild populations to threatened status or worse.

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