By Andy Silber
Ecotourism in Tanzania
I’m just back from a 2 week safari in Tanzania with my extended family. My mother, 2 brothers and our families made up half of an armada of Toyota Land Cruisers driving across the national parks of northern Tanzania. Safari is the Swahili word for long journey and anything that starts and ends with a 20-hour plane flight with a seven-year old counts. The first safari was in 1836 led by William Cornwallis Harris, though our trek was a bit shorter than his. Both trips did include shooting the animals, though our group didn’t eat what we shot, only shared the video and photos via Facebook and YouTube.
I used to think of ecotourism as a modern invention, but now I understand that the safari is the original ecotourism. We witnessed the tail end of the great migration of well over a million wildebeests, plus zebras and antelope. This migration is supported by an enormous amount of protected land: about one-quarter of Tanzania and 8% of Kenya. The land is not protected just because the people there love wilderness and animals; it’s protected because the safaris are the cornerstone of their economies. Whether it’s the high fees the government collects (about $50 US per person per day in Tanzania) or the overpriced trinkets we buy from the Maasai or the countless jobs as guides, cooks, and other support services, these parks bring a level of relative prosperity to a wide swath of the population in a sustainable fashion.
A good example of the jobs created is the driver/guides in our tour. These 5 men are well trained, fluent in English, and can spot a jaguar sleeping in a tree while driving a Land Cruiser down a bumpy dirt road at 40 km/h. They also provided us with a fairly honest view of the situation in Tanzania, which I greatly appreciated. These are good middle-class jobs, which pay enough for them to send their kids to a good private school (the government schools are thought to be pretty worthless).
The pressures to develop the land are enormous. There are tales of gold and other mineral deposits inside the parks. Corruption is common place and the people in power know that any mineral development in the area includes kickbacks to them. The Chinese are interested in investing in mining to feed their industrial development. Without the safaris it is hard to imagine that the land would remain protected and the great migration continue.
It was also interesting to see the small things at the lodges. Of the 5 places we stayed, 3 were seriously off-the-grid. Water was from a well (except in one case where the well came up dry the water is trucked in). Leaky toilets were commonplace and blamed on bad plumbing made in China (one lodge had high quality Spanish toilets). Four out of five establishments heated water primarily with solar power (the 5th used wood). One disappointment was that there was very little solar photovoltaic, instead the lodges relied on diesel generators. The power demands were kept quite low: mainly lighting and the recharging of a large number of cameras and cell phones. I was surprised at how many of these lodges had limited WiFi, though the speeds where slow and spotty.
I’m not saying that these tours have no impact. There’s the fuel to fly half-way around the world, and gas for the trucks and generators. Still, it’s hard to imagine how such a beautiful, unique and critical habitat would be protected otherwise. And seeing these animals in their natural setting has an impact on those of us viewing it that is incalculable, especially for the 13 kids on our trip.