Ethics of Tourism
Repeated visits to the same wildlife park can be very rewarding. As we have found with the Maasai Mara. While most of what follows is about the Mara, this is just a case study.
Some days are incredibly quiet. Those are times when you learn to enjoy the silence broken by the chirping of numerous birds. The antelope, zebra, giraffe all watch you watching them and treat you to sudden displays of gambolling and necking. They decide to share their intimate moments with you – if you have the patience to stop and watch. The numerous tiny and huge birds all conspire to show you their incredible beauty.
Some days are filled with adrenalin rushes. The lions are on the prowl. The cheetah babies are at their playful best. The leopards show off their prowess in climbing trees. From an incredible dawn with a dozen lions at the water hole to a stunning dusk with the mating leopards, we have seen them all in the Mara.
At some time, by the law of averages, we were bound to witness and experience the unethical face of tourism in the Mara.
Last year we witnessed rows of game drive vehicles lining the Mara River. Thanks to radio communication and the mobile phone, tour operators know when there is a build up for the famous Mara River crossing during the Great Migration. There are laws … they have to keep a minimum distance from the river bank. Apart from anything else, its common sense. Wild animals shy away from man.
The wildebeest and zebra amassed in their thousands. Literally. And not one crossed. There was nowhere for them to step onto our side of the river. The vehicles had formed an impenetrable wall. The many hours since pre-dawn and all the energy that went into creating the momentum required for those thousands to take the plunge, risk their lives and cross went to nought. In a little less than half an hour we could not see a single animal. They had gone. To await another day. Or night.
This was not just a stray incident. Nor was it just disappointment for the thousands of tourists waiting for the “once in a lifetime” sighting. It was something far worse. It was interfering with the annual migration of a few thousand animals. You have actually messed with nature. Because of your ignorance, because you feel you need to get your money’s worth, because you are the client who asks for “a close encounter”. Because you want to give your client the thrill. Because you want to assure yourself of repeat bookings. Because you want that large tip. This is simply not forgivable.
That was last year. And then there was last week.
The internet is full of stunning images of cheetahs perched on game drive vehicles. And we got some too. But are those images really worth the price? For one thing, there is nothing remotely natural about a wild cheetah on the roof of a vehicle. Yes, the animal is looking for the highest vantage point to survey its surroundings. But that, in the Mara, is normally a termite mound. Cheetahs are not even known to climb trees, though it does happen, rarely. But a vehicle?
While you are oohing and aahing about the sight, or even the experience, there is the other side of the story. What if there was some unforeseen incident? This is a wild animal. A predator that with one swipe of its paw can end your life. That is not a cute pussy cat. Its a cheetah! One of the most evolved hunters on earth. When this group were busy posing for photographs – with a child, no less! – they failed to see that not only were they endangering their own lives, but that of the cheetah too. How? For the simple reason that the laws of most countries state that if a wild animal “hurts” a human, the animal is killed. Even if its an accident, if its self defence, if its just simple animal instinct. What fairness is there in such a law – where an innocent animal is sentenced to death for just doing what it should – being itself?
Now, upto a (very nominal) point, one might even excuse the tourist who should have done his homework or was being plain stupid. But how do you excuse the guide who actually took their picture posing with the cheetah next to them?
The next morning this experience was repeated with a different animal,a different vehicle and a different guide – but the same human folly. Six month old lion cubs were frolicking with their mothers. Two adult lionesses. One cub reached into a vehicle and proceeded to drag out a bean bag. So far as the cub was concerned, it was curiosity and a game, perhaps. So far as the tourist was concerned, it was probably cute and funny. How does the guide explain his allowing the cub to get so close? What if the lioness decides that the cub has ventured too far out of his comfort zone and proceeds to act on her maternal instinct? Not only the lioness but her dependent cubs would all die.
On whose conscience do all these acts of stupidity and greed lie? Its always the animals that take the brunt and pay the price. Elephants, hippos, lions, … all shot because some human decided to break the law which was framed for his safety. Someone wanted that prize winning photograph. Someone wanted photographic proof of his “bravery”. And a lot of people driving those someones wanted to give their clients “value for money – the thrill of a lifetime” or a hefty tip.
It takes just the starting of the vehicle or the revving of the engine to discourage animals from getting too close.
For the ranger, guide, tour operator … It takes a real love for the animals to tell your client that rules exist and must be followed implicitly. Respect for local communities and their well being is critical to the continuance of this industry. It is as simple as that. Even if money is your only motivation, think ahead. If you keep disrupting the natural flow, if you keep taking chances, this wonderful resource is going to fold up and die. And your business and profits will die first.
For the tourist, it takes just a little while to try and learn about safety and bush discipline. To understand that you are not going to a zoo where sightings are assured. That the adventure lies in the uncertainty of actually getting to see the flora and fauna. It is also the choice of the tourist to go with an environmentally responsible tour operator. There are people who engage with local communities and the natural environment at a deep, meaningful level. Find them. You can choose to pay a higher price and go with the conservancy operators. You can choose to rough it and go with the campers. And there are all those in between. Don’t let your budget decide the the ethical standards of your tour operator. There is no correlation between the two. They are not mutually exclusive!
As we said in the beginning, while this whole post has been about the Mara and nature tourism, all the issues are equally relevant to cultural tourism too. Or to adventure tourism. Or just a visit to your neighbour. Its all about respecting your host. Its about following rules. Its about using your common sense.
I agree with Doppa. These guys are only fit for zoo jobs or may be not even that. There should be new rulespassed regarding the proximity of viewing the migration from. A responsible team should formed to run through an orientation of the tourists alongwith the guide regarding the ethics of nature and confiscation of passports incase of violation.
Why can’t people respect the natural phenomenon and not tamper with it.is it that difficult to understand and respect the concept of giving space. All those violating the rules should be collected and locked in a room for atleast two days so as to make them realise their mistake.
During our visits to the Mara, I have seen unscrupulous tour guides, prompted by irresponsible tourists get too close to wildlife, just to get the thrill. Most of these vehicles have their company contacts on them. I have often wondered why the authorities do not take suitable steps. Blocking the wildebeests on river banks has become common sight….even lodge vehicle guides aggressively block the path for closer look. Another serious issue is that of grazing cows, goats and sheep inside the Mara. It has become a menace. The cattle, armed with men and dogs, graze in the Mara all night long Soon there will not be any grass left for the wildebeests to come over from Serengeti.
Aparajita, I understand that there are approved corridors and time frames to allow grazing of cattle across the Mara. This is because the Mara land belongs to the Maasai. It is not government or private property. As long as these boundaries of space and time are adhered to strictly there will be no danger of overgrazing. The Maasai and the wildebeest have coexisted peacefully for many centuries now. The problems are those of more recent origin … Bad tourism practices being one of the foremost. Overpopulation. Encroachment by builders and horror of horrors indiscriminate highways and high speed traffic.
Thanks S&S for sharing your experience. It takes me back a 30 years, when I used to visit the back waters of the Kabini river to a place called Mastigudi, where the popular Khedda operations used to take place. The forest guide that used to accompany us was always very friendly and along with the driver would tease the elephants so that I could get some action photos. I have shot a few photos of the elephants charging at us. Back home in Bangalore
We would down a couple of beers narrating the adventure. How wonderful? I have also heard a few stories on people being tossed up by the owners of the jungle.
This went on for a few years and I remember the days when I could even get out of the vehicle to get ground level photos. I had always shared my favourite XXXrum with the guards.
My last visit to the same place a few years was very different. I had to access the forest only through the Jungle lodges. The first elephant sighted was a good hundred yards away and the driver did not make any attempt to get closer. The days had changed. The guides were well versed with English and would brief the tourists with safety aspects of the rounds and would constantly remind the tourists to keep silent and respect the privacy of the original owners of the jungle. It took me a while to understand the importance of the changed conditions. I had the fortune of meeting some of the old timers who were not too comfortable with the present set of regulations.
Knowing the attitude of my people who would not easily accept any change, I felt very proud of the authorities responsible, who despite the political interference could stick to their guns.
I saw a definite change in the attitude and behaviour of the tourists. Gone were the days of teasing the animals and the risks involved by getting too close to the game.
My understanding is that the responsibility lies more with the authorities than the tourists. If things can change in India, it should not be a problem in a place where the tourists keep the lives of the locals going. However, the guards may have to be very strict in following the rules and regulations of the safari. Interestingly I showed the photo of the Cheeta to one of my colleagues and her reaction was that of a typical tourist, “Wow” I would love to visit this place. Where on earth could you pose with a wild Cheeta? She could not believe the risks involved
I only hope the guard keeps his job to feed his family. I am sure he would not do it again unless he is a part of existing culture.
It would a easier task to train a few minds than many.
An easier option is not necessarily the only or best option. It is also not the easiest option. You have to realize that the paying tourist feeds the guide. And not just the guide. The paying tourist feeds the conservation,projects, the veterinary projects, the anti poaching squad. They also pay to ensure that the land survives “development” and “civilisation”. The need to earn the money – hook or crook – is far higher than the long term view one can take when one’s children are close to starvation, have no clean drinking water and are dying of diseases. There has to be a responsibility the tourists need to take on. Like they take responsibility for not littering the streets so they can enjoy clean and healthy surroundings. They do not just say “we pay municipality tax” and continue chucking thrash on the road! Do they? They have to look beyond “posing with cheetahs”. If that is what you want from your holiday go the taxidermy section of your local museum. Or any such museum in the world! It may be cheaper! The cheetah is already dead. You cannot hurt it any more. And you are a whole lot likely to come out alive and in one piece. And though there is that much less money for the bush, jungle, ocean, river, desert and mountain, there is also that much less risk of callous or plain thoughtless damage doers. Our natural heritage can no longer afford this … They are almost beyond tipping point. Being ignored by man gives them a better chance of survival than being mindlessly messed with.
Liked the write up very much. It is certainly thought provoking. But how does one solve the problem practically. How does one go about limting the number of tourists? For example , every tourist to Mara wants to be present during the Migration as that is a sight to behold. Perhaps the entry of a group during the migration or crossing at the river can be limited to a couple of hours. More easily said than done. But what is the other choice.
The subject of the later part of the article is easier to handle. The erring tour guides and operators must be banned entry to all wild life sanctuaries in the region atleast if not in the whole of Africa. They can be given jobs in Zoos of the world!
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The choice is limited to one … Self discipline. That is the only fair and workable method of preserving this fantastic heritage. And others too. All the rest will be unviable in the long term. Or more likely, in the short term, too.