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Mutori: Exploring Zimbabwe’s safari industry


Wildlife ... A family on a photographic safari in Hwange National Partk

17/11/2015 00:00:00
by David Mutori
 
Zimbabwe's safari industry ... David Mutori
 
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THE polarised responses to the death of Cecil the lion exposed the huge differences in Zimbabweans’ understanding of the safari industry and its components.

While the majority of Zimbabweans did not understand why there was such a huge fuss about a lion, insults and occasional threats were hurled amongst safari industry insiders. Within the industry, there were those who condemned the accused hunting safari operator and those who were quick to defend him. One’s views were mainly dependent on which part of Zimbabwe’s safari industry one belonged to.

It is normal for the safari industry to be described as a sub-sector that is distinct from the conventional hotel and catering operations provided by the likes of Meikles and the Holiday Inn, which are mostly based in towns and cities and whose focus is to provide accommodation, food, and drink and conference facilities.

Safari operations are generally smaller, and based in remote locations with the main focus being to provide tourists with a complete wildlife experience. Most safari operations are located in very remote locations and a lot of tourists have to get there using charter aeroplanes that land on small airstrips. A few tourists use 4x4 vehicles to access safari areas. The majority of safari operators charge for their services as a package rather than the usual bed and breakfast (B&B) like hotels.

There are some groups that are well represented in Zimbabwe’s safari industry. A significant number of owner-operators are veterans of the 1970s bush war. This is probably due to the fact that their experience in the bush prepared them for the isolated existence of safari operations. Some elite schools in Zimbabwe also have a significant number of their alumni in the safari industry. It is however, unclear whether these schools have curriculum that prepares students for careers in the safari industry.

Within the safari industry, there are two main sub-groups that are quite different from each other and are occasionally in conflict. The two sections are hunting safaris (consumptive) and photographic safaris (non-consumptive).

The heartbeat of both groups are professionals called Professional Hunters and Guides (PHs). Both safari sub-sectors have interests in animals. Both claim to contribute towards conservation by generating revenue that is paid to National Parks so that they can look after the animals and the parks. Beyond that however, the two groups have potentially conflicting interests.



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Photographic safari operators bring their guests into lodges and camps that are mostly located in remote parts of the country. The guests spend a few days going on game drives, walking safaris, birding etc. They take beautiful photographs and videos and return to their home countries with memories.

The photographic safari experience is greatly enhanced if guests see rare, unique and occasionally famous animals. Well known animals which are sometimes named (like Cecil) are very popular. Zimbabwe’s national parks have a few of these ‘celebrity animals’. As an example, Mana Pools has an elephant called Boswell that is known for its unique ability to stand on its hind legs to try and reach high tree branches for food.

Most tourists who have been to Mana Pools know about Boswell. In some cases, the tourists try to keep abreast of how Boswell is after they have returned to their home countries. It is common for visitors to seek to try and find Boswell. There is a lot of coverage on Boswell on the internet. In other words Boswell is great for photographic safaris when he is alive.

Cecil and Jericho were well known celebrity lions in Hwange National Park. Thousands of tourists had an interest in knowing how these lions were doing, their prides, kids etc. It was not unusual for tourists to ask if they had a good chance of seeing Cecil and Jericho during their safari. Cecil was a lot more valuable to the photographic safaris based in Hwange National park alive.

Hunting safari guests on the other hand visit hunting safari camps with the intention of tracking and shooting specific animals mostly with the view to take trophies back to their home countries. They pay a price for shooting the animal they are targeting. The fees for each animal are set by National Parks and Wildlife Authority each year and can run into tens of thousands of dollars for some animals depending on how rare, how protected and how much hunters value such a trophy.

Trophy hunters are known to value shooting of rare, unique and occasionally famous animals. There are some standards and ethical codes regarding which animals can be hunted. These ethics can be very difficult to police. Hunting areas are normally owned; they are either government, communal areas or private areas.

That photographic safaris (and therefore their guests) want to see famous animals alive while hunting safari guests wanting to shoot famous and unique animals has been a huge source of conflict in the safari industry.

The vast majority of guests going on safari go for photographic safaris however the small number who visit for hunting safaris are known to bring more money per guest due to the high levels of fees that they have to pay for trophy hunting. Generally the two sides of the safari industry keep a distance from each other.

Wildlife that is in a hunting area is known to behave differently at the sight of people as opposed to in a photographic safari area. Animals in hunting areas are jittery and often run away when they sense the presence of people.

Animals in photographic safari areas are generally relaxed in front of people. It is therefore very possible that Cecil (who was used to photographic safari guests) would not have been alarmed by the presence of the hunters who took his life away.

David Mutori is a former chief operating officer for a group of luxury safari camps and Zambezi white water rafting guide. He writes in his own capacity on topical structural issues that affect the development of Zimbabwe. Mutori can be contacted by email on mutorid@gmail.com or Twitter on @DavidMutori


 
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