In Search of Nature's Last Shangri-La and the Commodification of Our Planet.
An alarming amount of my current life choices can be traced back to a defining hour and a half of my childhood. In the spring of 1994, my dad brought my sister and me to see The Lion King in cinemas. A bookworm and an outdoorsy kid, I was already infatuated by nature, but there was something about the way Disney conveyed the African Serengeti that ignited fire-crackers in my mind. I was six years old. I caught four additional showings during the film’s theatrical run. Each time, I became more enthralled by that wild utopia nestled at the heart of earth’s most mysterious continent. I had to make it to Tanzania. This was an obsession that would define remainder of my childhood. Not to mention, tip over into my adult life.
Of course, when I finally reached the Serengeti—sixteen and a half years later—the dust-baked crucible of the savannah was nothing like Mufasa’s kingdom. The plains were cross-hatched with jeep paths. Humans, notably absent from the Disney film, could be spotted every 500 meters or so. But by then an obsession had been kindled. Over the past few years, I’ve spent dozens of months and thousands of dollars, shillings, and rupees in pursuit of that natural Shangri-La. I’m 25 years old now, and floating indefinitely around central Asia. I’m paying the bills through writing, and I’m writing because I’m inspired by our planet. My only future goal is to keep exploring. And the more I flit between countries, the more I realize how deeply embedded in human nature this sentiment really is.
Since Sir William Cornwall Harris, an English artist and hunter, embarked on what’s considered the first modern safari style expedition in 1836 (the word safari is a Kiswahili one, meaning long journey) the mode of tourism has exploded in popularity—particularly among those from the western world. It’s spawned its own genre of literature (see: Graham Greene, Ernest Hemmingway, or Jules Verne), cinema (see: Out of Africa) and even fashion (it even inspired its own term, 'safari chic', perhaps best exemplified by popular mall-brand Banana Republic.) And then, of course, there are the hundreds of thousands of tourists that flock to East Africa each year, pouring millions of dollars into local economies. Is it surprising that these traditionally poor countries and their peoples have swarmed to promote and capitalize on their vast natural wealth?
Be it by elephant, horse, or camel back; foot-path, jeep, or canoe, there isn’t a continent that doesn’t offer its own version of the safari. The Arctic houses its polar bears; the Indian subcontinent, its Bengal tiger. And as our developing world drives more and more of these species toward extinction, the prestige of spotting these creatures in their shrinking natural habitats becomes a more alluring quest. Demand goes up. Prices spike. And with large sums of money able to be made in a limited amount of time, it’s no surprise that ethics often slip by the wayside.
It’s worth mentioning that I saw no immediately problematic practices during my long overdue visit to the Serengeti. But gravitate away from the safari heartland—where the few eyes governing the bloated industry are their most present—and the ethics of nature tourism rapidly drop off. It only took two hours in central Thailand’s Khao Yai National Park to be driven away by the Coke-bottle choked rivers. The night before writing this, I visited a turtle egg-laying site off Sri Lanka’s southern coast. After paying 1000 rupees to enter the flashlight free zone, I witnessed a laser-show of auto-focus assist beams as tourists did their best to snap photos of the loan green turtle, paralyzed by the prospect of protecting her half-laid eggs.
A few weeks earlier, a geologist friend echoed my sentiment in a post on Facebook: “I'm pretty against tourism involving hands on interaction with confined wildlife. Poor conditions and health concerns, the reduction from a living thing to a photographic prop…” he captioned the quintessential image of himself riding an elephant in Thailand. He went on to promote a particular company he’d taken the time to research to the point of being convinced to make an exception to his boycott. I was on my third trip through Asia and had made it through Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos while practicing similar restraint. I finally caved in Nepal where I was told the only way to get close to the one-horned Indian rhinoceros was on the back of a similarly titanic animal. I assumed the Royal Chitwan National Park’s status as a UNESCO natural heritage site would have put enough policy in place to allow for a guilt-free ride. Hours later, while dismounting my elephant, I snagged my camera bag on the mahout’s pointed staff and looked back to see a labyrinth of scars etched into the animal’s forehead. It took two days before I could edit my photos of the trip with a clear head. But once I pulled up the images on my laptop, there was no evidence of the brutality that had allowed me to enter deep into the north-Indian jungle. My eyes had been distracted by any subtle movement on the horizon. The blast of the bull-elephant at sunset, a fishing-eagle unzips the surface of a lake—it’s so easy to let our conscious fall by the wayside when seduced by the thought of something exotic and new.
As I write this, a browser window sits open on my desktop with quotes on a flight to Madagascar. Biodiversity is still my number-one incentive for travelling. By now I wish I could say I’ve identified the perfect method of weeding out the ethical companies from the unethical ones. But too often the nature-tourism industry is over-cast in shades of gray.
Would Rwanda’s dwindling mountain gorilla population still exist in the wild, sheltered from the region’s many civil wars, if it wasn’t for tourists paying 500-plus dollars for an hour with one of our closest ancestors? Probably not. But that doesn’t change the fact that countless gorillas have been slaughtered in protest against the very industry that’s supposed to defend their lives.
In many ways, the arguments for and against wildlife tourism overlap with those against popular travel writing. Glossies like National Geographic receive constant criticism for manipulating other lives in the name of education. They commodify what few refuges from the commercial world still exist in a rapidly shrinking planet. And there’s a deeply-seeded colonial sentiment in our endless hunger to explore and expose the world. I’ve fallen into these traps many times as both a tourist and travel writer. Still, I’d rather strive to become more informed through trial and error than give up the pursuit entirely. Sometimes all it takes is the tinniest glimpse of nature’s wonders, even in the most questionable expeditions, to tip the scales and promote a new generation of self-conscious tourists. After all, it only took an animated pride of lions to convince one six year-old to commit his life to exploring the world.