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Crowds, Cameras & Carnage: Over-tourism

This piece isn't pleasant to read, but it is important.

Crowds, Cameras & Carnage: Over-tourism
This piece about Over-tourism first appeared in a Dispatch, the updates sent to all Society members. You can join for free here.


It was less than five minutes drive past the gate that we first saw her. The other safari vehicle stopped by the side of the road, tourists hanging out the top, was the dead giveaway that there was something there to see.

And there was, a beautiful female cheetah lying in the long grass.

They are an odd but beautiful animal, a combination of both feline and canine characteristics. They live far out on a thin branch of the evolutionary tree. They aren’t too dissimilar from greyhounds in their look. They have non-retractable claws which help them gain traction at high speeds. It’s much like an Olympic sprinter wearing spiked shoes. This is also a canine characteristic. And yet, they still have a cat-like behaviour and grace that belies their true nature and place.

This particular cheetah we saw was very lazy. Our guide thought that she may be pregnant, welcome news for a critically endangered species. A cheetah’s life is tough and only 7,000 or so remain. If she could raise even one cub to adulthood that would help the species take a few steps away from extinction. With those numbers, every animal counts.

Barely in the national park and we have already come across an amazing animal sighting. This is what people have travelled thousands of miles to experience. Yet only a few hundred metres further we run into the other side of the Serengeti: Roadworks and traffic jams. Over 350,000 people visiting each year creates corrugation on the dirt roads, and they have sent in a team to grade them. This road work continues for many kilometres. The crew is attempting to get the road fixed in time for the upcoming high season. Queues of impatient tourists peer from the top of their vehicles, waiting for their turn to use the single lane road. Work like this is happening throughout the entire national park.

The general perception of the Serengeti is that of a wild haven where the animals roam free and nature lives untamed. Yet, the Serengeti isn’t the untouched wilderness that people expect it to be. It does have vast savannah and thousands of square kilometres of wild space. The great migration of wildebeest moves through here, darkening the plains with over 2 million animals. And yet, behind all of this ‘natural environment’ presented to visitors is the machinery of man. The very act of observing this area, changes the area. That’s not always a bad thing. This delicate ecosystem, approximately the size of Belgium, needs careful management in order to keep things alive. We mean ‘alive’ quite literally. This is the spiritual home of “The Lion King” and the tourists come here to experience this reality, whilst simultaneously living in a different one. They stay at lodges whose very presence requires constant management, upkeep and staffing. They travel on roads that don’t exist naturally and eat food that doesn’t grow nearby. They have their safety ensured by security personnel who patrol the park, keeping an eye out for poachers and illegal activity. Most reputable tour companies have a mechanic stationed nearby for quick callouts or even vehicle replacements. All this activity hums out of sight below the surface, much like the subterranean crew tunnels of Disney World.

Visit in the high season and you can watch a never-ending procession of cars gather around lions. Each tourist lines up to snap their photos before moving on to the next highlight. All these people jostling for position need to be fed, transported and entertained. All of these tourists have paid thousands of dollars and demand their lion photographs and a completed ‘Big Five’ sighting. The act of providing this is what destroys the ‘wildness’ of the Serengeti. And yet without it, the monetary value of keeping an area like this wild doesn’t exist. Tourists wouldn’t come and park fees wouldn’t be collected and without the money to protect the area, the animals will once again be targets for poaching. If the tourist industry collapsed in Tanzania the cattle grazers would move back in to feed on the rich grasslands of the park. The native animals would lose out in the inevitable competition. Families no longer provided for by the benefits of tourism would instead grow crops, raise cattle or look for game meat, all furthering endangering the populations of wild animals. It’s a catch-22. By managing the park, you keep it alive. By creating an artificial environment, you manage to save the natural environment. It is no longer an untouched wilderness, but it is now a protected version of what used to be.

Outside these park boundaries the animals face difficult odds, usually falling victim to traffic accidents, animal wildlife conflict and other hazards. And so, the park managers have the impossible job of attempting to balance the park between the needs of the tourists and that of the ecosystem. The park fees have risen significantly in price over the past 10 years. This is designed to attract less tourism overall but a higher-end version. It’s similar to what Botswana and Zambia have implemented with their safari industries but it is a risk. As part of a larger fight to save the animals of the Serengeti, do you risk killing off Tanzania’s golden goose?

This balance is a constant battle. And, it’s a battle that isn’t always fair.

Five days later we are exiting the park, heading down the same road as before. Ahead there is a crowd of vehicles stopped on the road, people out of their vehicles. People outside the vehicle in a national park can’t be good.

And it isn’t.

A dead cheetah lies on the road. It was the same cheetah we saw only a few days earlier. The almost-formed body of a cheetah cub, ejected at force from its mother, lays nearby. Our guide was correct, she was pregnant.


Our guide radioed it through.

Later, as we stopped at the park gates to exit, he informed the park guards of everything he had seen. To their credit, we very quickly saw a result. A driver had been stopped at the exit, the blood still on his bumper. He was driving a refrigerated supply truck, bringing food to the lodges. It should have been an easily avoidable accident, as cheetahs are skittish by nature and not one to stare down a car coming towards it. To be honest, that’s more like leopard behaviour. It is an inevitable result of the amount of traffic in the park and tight deadlines. The driver faced some hefty fines for his dangerous driving.

Fines won’t bring back precious members of an endangered species. The tourists on scene at the site were understandably upset and angry, but yet it is the truck bringing them food that has killed it. With tourists coming, money comes which aids in conservation. But, when people come, the problems of people come too. That’s when the decisions get serious.

To save the natural wonder that is the Serengeti, you ultimately must decide how much damage to it you can tolerate in the process.

There isn’t a silver bullet solution, and dealing with over-tourism is something that places like Iceland and Thailand are also grappling with. With Africa however, the stakes seem even more knife edged.

There are a few things that can help reduce the impact on the environment.

First thing is to simply encourage the spread of tourists out to other destinations. We need to encourage visitors to look past the famous to instead visit the best fit for them. It’s a tough sell, for people often want to go somewhere ‘reliable’, somewhere they have heard of. But, just because it is well known doesn’t mean it is the best, or the best option for you. Even in Tanzania, there are numerous parks outside that northern circuit the Serengeti fits in that deliver incredible animal experiences.

Secondly, travelling outside the high season is also to be encouraged. The animals aren’t seasonal, and so by spreading the visitation out across many months the impact is lessened. Plus, the experience is greatly improved for the person without the crowds.

Thirdly, there needs to be a conscious decision as to who operators work with and the standards they are willing to accept. If we really want to show people the magic of Africa then we should be as focused on what our partners do, to ensure the magic continues for the guests of tomorrow.

Finally, there needs to be a shift from the current model of ‘tick the box’ tourism to something a bit more in-depth. A trip without seeing the Big Five is not a failed trip. A trip rushing around in order to see the Big Five, at the exclusions of intimate encounters and numerous other animal species, is a failed trip. As with anything, ‘less at quality’ is almost always better than ‘more at less’.

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Travel isn’t what is used to be. It used to be undertaken with a sense of adventure and discovery. As the world shrunk, so did our imaginations and over time, manufactured experiences, sponsored travel lists and mass tourism have slowly extinguished that magic. Amazing destinations, catering to the crowds, have become overwhelmed shadows of their former selves.

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