I have a long-running competition with a group of widely travelled friends: to spot the worst case of environmentally irresponsible wildlife tourism.
The winner, so far, is a cameraman who saw more than 70 safari vehicles crowded around a single pride of lions in East Africa.
It’s depressing, but a good way of venting our frustrations at the lack of control around wildlife in many parts of the world. Sometimes it makes us want to ban wildlife tourism altogether.
But the recent troubles in Kenya show just how wrong that would be. In 2007 Kenya earned over $1 billion from tourism. But the riots and ethnic violence that exploded after Christmas scared away almost all foreign holidaymakers and, consequently, earnings for the first quarter of 2008 dropped by more than half.
Worst hit is the Masai Mara Game Reserve – the country’s best-known and most-visited wildlife area. Gate receipts have plummeted by as much as 80%, and this is disrupting the delicate balance between predators and the Maasai people living next door.
The Maasai live high on an escarpment above the reserve, where zebras, gazelles and other wildlife mingle with their cows, goats and sheep to graze. At night, lions and leopards come to feed on wild and domestic animals alike and, understandably, this causes resentment among the Maasai.
In recent years tourist dollars have been used to make compensation payments for lost livestock; this has successfully prevented the tribesmen from killing the big cats in retaliation. But with insufficient money coming in, there are no compensation payments. The fear now is that the Maasai might take the matter into their own hands.
Cutbacks in anti-poaching patrols have also come at a time when demand from the homeless for relatively cheap hippo and buffalo bushmeat is at an all-time high. Essential improvements to the reserve have also halted.
One pride of lions surrounded by 70 safari vehicles is wildlife tourism out of control but, in a world where wildlife is expected to pay for itself, an absence of safari vehicles around a pride could be just as bad.
Mark Carwardine is a wildlife photographer and broadcaster
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