Staring Socially Conscious Travel in the Face, er, Trunk

Sitting in a workshop at last year’s Women in Travel Summit (WITS) about socially-conscious travel, I never imagined less than a year later I would be face to face with an elephant.

“Did we sign a waiver for this?” I asked my companions as the bull elephant snorted a little and pawed the ground. I know what that means when a bull at home does it, and I suddenly felt a little nervous.

The elephant was so close to the van we could hear him breathe, and for a second I wondered how much effort it would take for him to flip our pop-roofed safari van on its side. Then, bored with us, he relieved himself (one and two), backed away, then scratched his belly before letting it all just hang out. And we giggled like twelve-year olds.

Just hanging out. As cool as it was to see the other big five animals — the leopard, lions, and buffalo — the elephants were my favourite. I could watch them all day.

Coming nose to trunk with an elephant was one of the highlights of our safari, but also one of the moments where I realized how wild the frontier still is for safari tourism in East Africa.

Some of the rules of the Mara include not leaving the road, not feeding the animals, standing on your vehicle, making loud noises or going within 25m of the animals.

This is a place where common sense is your waiver. Of course, there are rules in the Masai Mara. We saw them posted the following day when we stopped for lunch near a park gate, and our guide casually mentioned some of them over the course of our three days together. We also learned they are generally enforced, though we weren’t sure by whom. More on that later.

I guess when you can hear hippos grunting outside your bedroom, they expect people will steer clear and realize they are on the animal’s turf. Yet, as we lobbied for position to see a leopard on the second morning of our safari, it was clear how damaging these tours are to the natural order.

Safari vehicles among a herd of buffalo.

Barring you are not an animal rights activist, animal tourism is a catch 22. Proponents will say it’s important for people to get close to wildlife to appreciate it more and recognize the need for conservation and protection. Undeniably, the communities benefit economically, but at the same time, the activity is destroying the habitat and disrupting animal behaviour.

Everything from migration paths to grazing grounds, to hunting and caring for the young is being upended by noisy people like me who “just want to see the animals”.

Despite efforts to protect them, as the savannah is eroded, plant life destroyed by increased vehicle traffic and species’ natural behaviour disrupted, many of the animal populations continue to decline due to tourism.

We visited the Masai Mara in low season before the rains started, but there were still plenty of vehicles criss-crossing the savannah in search of photo opportunities. At most though, we saw sixteen vehicles at a time compared to 300 cited in a story last year.

There are local wildebeest that don’t migrate to Tanzania and hang around the Mara year-round. We only saw a few.

The Mara Conservancy manages the park in partnership with the local county government. According to their website, the public/private collaboration with the local Maasai people and conservation professionals “improves the conversation and management of one of the most visited and well-known protected areas in the world.”

Hey baby baboon!

It’s the Conservancy rangers that watch for guides straying off the designated routes. They have the power to fine on the spot or can report back to the county gate, which then levies the fine on leaving the park. Or so we experienced anyway.

The fines are meant to deter guides from getting too close to the animals, but we witnessed enough to know that guides are also primarily motivated by money.

There is a pretty healthy correlation between seeing animals, tips and positive Trip Advisor reviews. The latter which probably keeps the guide employed.

If going off-road to find the big five and getting a little closer than they’re supposed too gets their guests a better photo, most guides are likely to risk it. According to the Conservancy website and various news articles, there aren’t enough rangers to adequately police the park anyway so the chance of being caught is slim.

This, despite the fact park fees are more than $100 USD per person per day. The county council collects 36% of tickets and 55% of non-ticketed sales (other fees charged to tourism operators) (Mara Conservancy) and while in other parts of the world, those fees would support local infrastructure and development… well, this is Kenya. And the fine our guide paid for being too close to the cheetahs? Who knows whose pocket it ended up in.

If screwing with the animals’ natural behaviour isn’t bad enough, our big five photos on Instagram are causing further destruction we didn’t even realize.

A story in this weekend’s Globe and Mail, “Think Before You Post”, noted how poachers are using geotags on social media to find hot spots for big ticket animals, like rhinos. This had never even crossed my mind as I uploaded my photos each day. We didn’t see a rhino as there are only 25-30 in the Mara, but poaching is still very much an issue police reserves deal with.

Not all poachers are after the big game. Some are caught hunting for food, while others are cattle rustlers stealing livestock from the local tribes and ranchers.

How successful efforts have been to spread the benefit from increased tourism to the local Maasai people is another question. We chose not to visit a Maasai village on our safari, and we heard different stories from Kenyans on the current state of relations between the local conservation agencies, government and the Maasai people. I’ll leave my thoughts on these kinds of tours for another time because this post is already quite long.

So, after all this where does this leave us? Google “Mara tourism” and you will find countless articles, both older and as recent as Friday, warning the influx of tourists is destroying the very thing people are going to see.

And it’s likely to only get worse. Africa remains a relatively untapped market for tourism, according to the UN World Tourism Organization and the local county government is moving ahead with a plan to try to double tourist numbers to region.

While emphasizing Maasai culture as a year-round attraction, it’s hard to think more people going to the Mara isn’t going to result in more people doing safaris. The plan still seems quite contrary to what the Kenya Association of Tourism Operators (KATO) is asking for — increased order and a restriction of vehicles and people.

Time will tell but one thing I know for a fact, if the government’s plan hinges on a paved road to Mara then they better get moving because there’s work to do. For now, I won’t hold my breath.

A group of lionesses on the hunt during an early morning game drive.

What Can You Do?

Interested in a safari but also conscious about the impact you’re having? Here are a few tips on what you can do to tread lighter.

Choose your tour operator carefully – Honestly, this was the hardest part of our planning our trip. There are so many companies, and it’s hard to know if what you’re booking is what you’re going to get. Read reviews and reach out to companies by email or WhatsApp. Condé Nast recommends asking operators how long they have been in business and what investments they make in the local community and environment. I also think it’s worth asking about their employment standards for guides.

Sun set on our evening game drive.

Consider conservation organizations – Tourism is not immune to greenwashing so if you’re unsure if the eco-friendly claims of a tour operator stand-up, look for a non-profit conversation organization instead. Some NGO’s operating in the animal conservation space also provide experiences to see animals in their natural habitat with the profits going back into preservation efforts. This is a very sustainable alternative to booking with a safari tour operator.

Educate yourself before you go – While our guide was alright, we got way too close to a few animals. By the end of the safari, I’d like to think we were more wiser and when other vehicles were on pursuit, we asked not too. While we would like to think all guides follow the rules, it will also take us, as travellers, to ask for this and accept we may need a bigger zoom lens opposed to a closer vantage point to get the photo.

The Mara River in low season. Rains are desperately needed.

Go in the low season – We had an awesome experience even though we maybe had to drive a little more to see some animals. You may still need to avoid rain since the road to Mara is sketchy (again, how is that road not paved?), but traveling offseason lessons the strain on the region and it’s inadequate infrastructure and spreads the wealth out keeping people employed. It also means less people in your pictures and is usually cheaper.

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