The opportunity to observe remarkable animals in their natural element was a precious treat for me on a recent trip to Namibia and Botswana. I stayed on a luxury cruise boat and every day the group set out for new adventures and new animal sightings. An evening safari though caught me by surprise both by the animals we saw and the poor behavior by fellow tourists. It worried me too that if some of the most environmentally conscious travelers could endorse questionable ethics, then what hope do we really have at preserving animals species not from poachers, but from ourselves.
Sunset was at least an hour away, maybe more as our boat skipped across the water over the few meters of river separating Namibia from Botswana. This part of the Chobe River enjoys a bizarre geography making political cooperation and resource sharing a necessity of daily life. I was excited though, as I had been the entire time on board the Zambezi Queen cruise ship. Excited not just to see some rare wildlife but to be in Africa itself.
By the second day we had become so used to seeing families of hippos nearby that they no longer evoked a second glance. Sad in a way, but predictable. I’ve never cared for birds personally, but even I was amazed by the rich variety of avian life the boat passed on the way to the Botswana arm of the river. After paying some fees, our boat was finally allowed onto their waters along with dozens of other watercraft.
I’m not sure where everyone came from. Sitting in the middle of the river on a boat it seemed as if the rest of the world was a million miles away. The only sounds at night were the grunts of seemingly always grumpy hippos and maybe an elephant call or two. But there on the Chobe River were hundreds of tourists, each eager to capture their own unique animal encounter.
There’s nothing wrong with that per se. The temperatures were pleasant, the sun was setting and I could understand why a lot of travelers wanted to embark on a waterborne safari. At first everything went fine, we approached shore to watch a family of baboons climb over each other and scamper through the treetops. An infant monkey played with his mother, receiving a chastising smack once in a while. But then, suddenly, our skipper pointed off in the distance as two young male elephants left the safe confines of the beach for the river.
Bisecting the river were marshlands; an island of reeds and dirt that is home to hundreds of hippos, buffalo and elephants. It hadn’t occurred to me before how they might have reached the vast island system, but apparently elephants are excellent swimmers. And so our boat raced over to the elephants to capture what for most of us was a once in a lifetime event.
So did every other boat on the water. Dozens swarmed the poor elephants at times blocking their progress across the river. Our guide got angry, saying that the other boats were too close and were interfering too much. That upset me, it also upset me that no one did or said anything to stop this reckless behavior. Our guide didn’t do anything and more importantly the tourists on the other boats didn’t do anything.
The elephants were fine, they ended up swimming to the island where they got into a squabble, but the tourists didn’t do them any harm. But I couldn’t help but think, if the guides and tourists on the river that evening represent the height of responsible tourism in Africa, which I think they come close to doing, then what hope is there really for the future preservation of African wildlife?
All over the continent animals are at extreme risk from development, poachers and even tourists. It’s ironic that even though tourists may have the best of intentions, their very presence may have permanently destructive effects on the stunning wildlife of Africa.
The rest of the safari was brilliant. As the sun set over the African wetlands we saw giraffes grazing on shore and even spied a crocodile or two. Still, I couldn’t help but think for how much longer these wonderful life experiences would be available to other people. Hopefully I’m wrong, but I’m worried that reckless tourism won’t help the African continent, it’ll strangle it.
What do you think? Are we as tourists doing more harm than good?