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.