Sustainable Travel In Africa and what it really means

Sustainable Travel is more than a simple effort to ensure that activities and facilities are conceived and constructed in a manner that limits environmental impact. Of course this is important, and is a basic prerequisite for acceptable standards of sustainability, but far more important are the conservation  aspects of eco tourism as a travel concept; and how these have evolved in East Africa as the quandary of reconciling human and wildlife interests have increasingly informed the debate.

Training and using community members to guide within their areas is a vital component of sustainable travel

The history of the  Serengeti National Park in Tanzania is an excellent example

The Serengeti National Park is not the oldest established national park in Africa, but it is one of the most important, and moreover one of the most progressive in its view of the coexistence of man and nature in a necessary partnership.

Colonial misuse of the continent’s wildlife resources, particularly the larger and more valuable species such as elephant, began to generate concern towards the end of the 19th century. The first orchestrated wildlife management legislation was implemented in the Cape, apparently as early as the 17th century, but more coherently during the early 19th century. It was not until 1900, however, that organized conferences attended by all the leading European powers were held to give specific thought to the role of wildlife in the development of the continent. This resulted in the high sounding Convention for the Preservation of Wild Animals, Birds and Fish in Africa, which in itself amounted to very little, but which did bring forward the inevitable day when orchestrated wildlife management would become a continent wide colonial preoccupation.

Pressure within the British Empire with regards to the many British overseas territories in Africa began to yield results with the formation of the Society for the Preservation of Fauna of the Empire (SPFE) – otherwise known as the Penitent Butchers Club thanks to the fact that its membership comprised mostly ex-hunters. Legislation proved to be overly complex, however, and difficult to enforce, with the result that hunting by both whites and blacks continued largely as it had before.

The 1930s saw something of a sea change with the wider circulation of automobiles and aircraft in Africa and the generally increased accessibility of the main wildlife areas. The British assumption of Tanganyika as a mandated territory in the aftermath of WWI placed responsibility for the preservation of the Serengeti/Mara Ecosystem with a new, British colonial government, and less directly with Whitehall itself.

The major conundrum confronting the British was what to do with the Masai

It is not a widely appreciated fact of the British Empire, but natives rights and concerns were pivotal to colonial planning. Legislation to this effect was often enacted to the detriment of white settlers and often against vehement protest from white landowners and local settler legislatures.  Such was the case with the process of deciding appropriate boundaries for the Serengeti National Park, which was established by official proclamation in 1951 after some thirty years of unofficial management and protection. Most white stakeholders, and indeed conservationists, bitterly opposed the inclusion on any level of the human factor in planning the perimeters of future national parks. The protection of wildlife was to be conducted, as it was in most African colonies, upon the basis of a complete exclusion of local people.

Onto the stage at this time stepped one of the most enigmatic and divisive personalities to ever contribute to the African conservation debate. Within the Serengeti context that debate, particularly in official circles,  had by mid-century begun to focus  increasingly on the rights of the pastoral Masai in relation to the range required by the great wildebeest migration. The Migration was then already recognized as a vital component of the overall ecosystem, and moreover one of the last substantive natural migrations  in the world still functioning within an uninhibited range. Director of the Frankfurt Zoological Society Bernhard Grzimek, who with his son Michael produced the iconic documentary film and book Serengeti Shall Not Die, brought with him into the discussion an implacable opposition to any human influence in the range of the migration at all. He argued vehemently against a generally poor official understanding of the phenomenon that it was necessary for the range of the Migration to be protected on every level if the basic essence of the Serengeti/Mara ecosystem was to be preserved. To achieve this it was necessary in his opinion to make absolutely no accommodation to human pressure. Population growth at that time was to great for a long term balance to be conceivable.

Afro-pessimism in conservation

Bernhard Grzimek was fairly typical of European conservationists during that vital phase of the late 1950s and early 1960s when so much conservation policy was being born. In light of the fact that Africa was imminently about to come under indigenous black government, a tremendous degree of pessimism affected the views of men like Grzimek regarding the future of African wildlife. Their determined concentration on the preservation of wildlife to the detriment of surrounding human populations informed the opinions of a generation of conservations to follow. He however failed in the end to influence the more sanguine decision of the colonial authorities who ultimately made the necessary accommodation that more-or-less defines the conservation area that is the family of parks and conservancies of the Serengeti/Mara Ecosystem today.

The Grzimek father and son team were nonetheless invited to conduct the first aerial survey of the Migration in order to establish its scope. This was done, albeit rather incompletely, but with the result that the range of the Migration was more completely mapped  and understood than it had been hitherto. And although not directly as a consequence of Grzimek’s work, proposals by the colonial authorities to halve the size of the Serengeti National Park in order to increase the pastoral range of Masai were shelved, and instead the Ngorongoro Crater Reserve was created.

The new Serengeti

The Ngorongoro Crater Reserve (NCR) has in itself had a long and difficult gestation, but nonetheless the foundations were laid with a groundbreaking decision to place around the core protected area of the Serengeti National Park a series of buffer zones. These, like the Ngorongoro Crater Reserve itself, allow for limited human commerce in order to soften the sharp line of delineation between human and animal ranges. This, it was hoped at the time, would allow for a period of reflection before more definitive solutions could be found…or perhaps to defer the difficult decision for future black governments to deal with.

Either way the configuration of the Serengeti/Mara Ecosystem is now largely mixed use. The Ngorongoro Crater Reserve is augmented by the Maswa, Grumeti and Ikorongo Game Reserves – as distinct from nation parks – and the Illiondo Game Control Area. These are all essential zones of human and animal interaction, and although success has been mixed and patchy, the next vital step in this concept of wildlife management is to introduce to local people genuine and sustainable revenue streams that will offer an alternative to direct exploitation as a way to gain sustenance  from the close proximity of such large numbers of wild animals.

Get the local people involved

This brings us back to Eco Travel, and what it means. To us the most important aspect of being part of this movement is to bring local people into the picture. Obviously this cannot be achieved overnight, as many of the tribesmen associated with these game control areas lack sophistication, and indeed any real understanding of tourism. The closest point of contact many have is their experience as poachers. This immediately introduces the possibility of utilizing indigenous hunting skills and methodology for guiding purposes, and with very limited adjustment, this is beginning to work very well.

Community guides offer a very elemental and hands-on approach to guiding. They may lack the flash and artifice of khaki clad driver/guides who populate the main strata of the East African guiding fraternity, but their knowledge is authentic and their identification with specific environments complete.

In addition to this, part community ownership and a wide net of employment opportunities are essential to develop the concept of eco tourism into a working partnership between outside capital and inside local knowledge. As population pressures at the edges of the Serengeti/Mara Ecosystem continue to grow, this is the only practical solution for the long term. It is incumbent on travelers to this region to ensure as much as is possible that all aspects of their itinerary comply. This may not always be easy, but it is the future…and a future is what we need in Wild Africa!