The Impossible Ethical Bargain Behind African Safaris

The Impossible Ethical Bargain Behind African Safaris

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This is one of the most opulent airports in the  world: Seronera airstrip. It’s composed of one   small, unimpressive terminal; a seven-thousand  foot dirt runway; and yet it sees dozens of   flights per day and an average net worth of those  traveling through it higher than almost any other   in the world. That’s because this tiny airstrip  is the gateway to massive Serengeti National Park:   a safari destination so storied, so legendary  that it’s one of only a handful globally that   the average person might recognize by name.  For the fanciest few, their touchdown is met   with a heavily-modified Toyota Land Cruiser,  quickly whisking them away, across the savannah,   to the Four Seasons Safari Lodge—one of the most  expensive outposts of one of the most expensive   hotel chains. Rooms demand a minimum of $1,100  a night, and “minimum” is the key word there—in   peak season, during the great migration, the same  rooms will near $3,000, and the most expensive,   the three-bedroom Presidential Villa, demands  over $10,000 per night. With a pool, spa, gym,   multiple bars and restaurants, and plenty  of optional activities for an upcharge,   the lodge has everything you’d expect from  a hotel of its caliber, but perhaps not a   hotel here—hours away from anywhere, surrounded  on all sides by seemingly endless savannah.  

But zoom out just ever so slightly more  and it becomes clear that the Four Seasons   Serengeti is hardly alone. The national park  is home to over two-dozen five star hotels,   some of which best even the Four Seasons’ prices:  camps like the the One Nature Hotel Nyaruswiga,   for example, sell a night in their most  affordable luxury tents for at least $3,000.   Serengeti National Park has developed into  the destination for luxury safaris, and so the   remote stretch of savannah has become a bizarrely  busy hotspot for the world’s rich and famous.   And yet… zoom out once again, and it all starts to  seem even more ludicrous. The Serengeti is located   in Tanzania—a sub saharan African country that,  according to World Bank estimates, is the 30th   poorest in the world, on a GDP per capita basis.  Average income is $1,099 per year—almost exactly  

equal to the cheapest night in the cheapest  room at that Four Seasons. The region that   encompasses it, Mara, is even poorer than that  national average, despite tourism’s boost, so for   its residents, if they were to take a quick trip  into the park and up to the lodge, a salad at the   restaurant would equate to four and a half days of  income, a chicken sandwich about six, and a main   course would demand some eight days of labor.  This degree of difference just feels wrong.   There’s something about such a stark  degree of income inequality in such   close proximity that conjures up concerns of  exploitation. But beyond the emotions of it,   beyond the near-primal instincts of perceiving  rich people in poor places as wrong, is it?   Well, you probably already intuitively know  the broad upsides and downsides. For example,  

many who live in this remote region are now able  to earn a living serving as guides for the ultra   wealthy, touring their ancestral home turned  pristine, unpopulated wilderness. Of course,   that brings up the fact that they were kicked off  the land in the first place. But a land without   people, on the other hand, is of immeasurable  benefit to the animals. And for their part,   while the animals largely go free, they still  have the occasional safari party to navigate.   Human presence stresses elephants, getting too  near a feeding cheetah leads to the skittish cat   abandoning the kill, and normalizing the presence  of humans doesn’t serve any animal’s best interest   once it inadvertently wanders into a hunting  preserve. But ultimately, human presence is what   drives the revenue that makes the park possible  to begin with. And then the side-effect this  

creates is the country’s tourism industry, which  relies on the park to bring customers in. In this   system there are undeniable trade-offs. People  are kicked off their land; animals are poked,   prodded, and tamed for tourists; and the  seized areas are quietly developed into   nature theme parks managed by governments with  spotty track records. But this is what the rest of  

the world relies on to protect dwindling species  and shrinking natural wonders only left in Africa.   It’s certainly a compromise. In fact,  it's outright unfair for some. But   while it’s easy to recognize the moral  trade-off that undergirds photo safaris,   it’s tough to critically examine because, when  brought down to the individual level, it's such   a small downside for such a small upside—no single  person is making a meaningful difference, positive   or negative. It’s the phenomenon that does.  So, perhaps it's more useful to examine this   trade-off in starker form—a near-equivalent  where individuals make the same moral trade-off,   but with an enormous, life-or-death  difference: safari hunting. 

You can legally kill almost any animal in  Africa, for a price: zebras, giraffes, buffalos,   hippos, cheetahs, lions, elephants, and even the  critically endangered white rhino—of which only   6,000 exist—upon purchase of a $350,000  permit. Tanzania, one of the top trophy   hunting destinations, regulates and publishes  a remarkably-specific price-list for buying the   right to kill its wildlife: the ever-present otter  only costs some $170, the abundant yet enormous   hippo goes for $1,500, and then you get into  the rare species. Leopards fetch a $4,500 fee,   lions some $7,000, and the top price in Tanzania  is bestowed to the elephant: an endangered species   known for its highly valuable ivory tusks,  which justifies the $20,000 trophy hunting   fee to bag those with the largest tusks. Such  commodification of the world’s rarest and most   beloved species draws up immense emotion—it feels  like a failure of humanity. Historically, humans  

hunted these species into near non-existence,  then they stole their habitats to turn them into   farms and fields and cities, and then after all  that, after facing the precipice of extinction,   they put a price on their lives. Their protectors,  the authorities in charge of keeping them safe in   a world that structurally imperils them, have  signed off on their deaths, all to have them   skinned, stretched onto a mannequin, then  mounted above a Texan’s fireplace to serve   as a talking point at dinner parties, kicking  off the conversation about the time they went   on safari in the Serengeti. It feels… tragic.  However, in certain circumstances, tragedy can   minimize tragedy. You see, as unfortunate as it  may be, “pure” conservation can’t exist today.   Animals in Africa, or anywhere, cannot live  as they did in centuries past, because the   human population has exploded and spread to every  corner of the globe. Excluding the most barren,   dry, inhospitable reaches, essentially any land  has value in the human economic system—certainly   in a fertile, agriculturally-productive place like  Tanzania, there is always a way to turn a profit   off of any swath of open land, and therefore it’s  always under threat. In rural areas, agriculture  

is the driving force behind the destruction  of wilderness. Beyond just fields for farming,   there’s cattle grazing—letting livestock forage  for their food is cost efficient compared to   paying for feed, assuming the grazing land is  cheap enough. Inherently, almost any stretch   of land that can sustain wild animals can also  sustain cattle, and with virtually endless demand   for beef, there’s always incentive for farmers  to gobble up more land if the price is right.  So, nowadays, there’s no such thing as value-less  land, and correspondingly, there is no free land.   The problem that presents for animals is that,  uninhibited, essentially everything would be   turned into something—and any human use of  land presents an issue for wild animals as   even something as simple as cattle grazing leads  to diminished resources and disrupted ecosystems,   which makes it tougher and tougher for  already-endangered wild animals to survive.  

But animals don’t interact with our  economy—their habitats have tremendous,   existential value for them, just as ours do for  us, but they’re competing against a system in   which that value is not incorporated. Therefore,  when you distribute land through a capitalistic,   supply and demand driven model, you have to  work against that model to save these habitats.   That’s the role of conservation: you take land and  specify its use as disuse, but conservation has   a cost—not just to set up, but perhaps more  importantly, to enforce. Serengeti National   Park is massive—in fact, it’s larger than the  entire nation of Qatar. Without enforcement,  

it’d be very easy for a farmer to bring their  cattle in for illegal grazing and go undetected,   and that’s hardly the biggest threat.  Many of the animals, directly due to   their scarcity, are worth eye-popping amounts.  For example, a single rhino horn is estimated   to sell for $100,000 to $300,000 on the black  market, where in countries like China and Vietnam,   the crushed up form of it is perceived to be a  powerful tool as a traditional medicine. Back   in Tanzania, with its average annual income of  $1,100, that’s a truly life-changing sum of money,   so there’s enormous incentive to illegally  hunt and dehorn the animal. While that’s the   most extreme example, there’s also plenty  of profit to be made by killing elephants,   lions, cheetahs, and other rare and endangered  species in protected areas like the Serengeti,   so proper conservation requires effective spending  on enforcement, across a huge swath of land. So   that’s all to say: conservation, in the 21st  century, can’t be passive. It has to be an  

active process, and therefore, it demands  a very real, sometimes significant cost.   Tanzania, and essentially every major safari  destination in Africa, is not a wealthy place. The   government does not have bounds of money to throw  around, especially when their human population   faces myriad life or death issues that can be  solved rather simply with government spending.   So, trophy hunting works as a tragic, but possibly  effective bargain: giving the animals a means to   generate economic value in our economic system  in situations where, regrettably, there are few   practical alternatives. There are a huge number  of hunters around the world who are willing to  

pay $20,000 to kill an elephant, and $20,000 can  go a very, very long way in saving other elephants   from habitat destruction, poaching, and more—the  concept, therefore, is clear. Kill one to save   more than one—from a pragmatic, utilitarian  perspective, this is a worthy bargain.   And when you put it in a real world context, the  case is bolstered further—guiding hunting trips is   an exceptionally good employment opportunity  for those living around conservation areas,   and even offers a legitimate use for the skills a  former poacher might have acquired. Trophy hunting   can typically only happen on certain land with  an approved guide, for which hunters pay enormous   sums: a 21-day hunt in Tanzania typically costs  $40, $50, or $60,000 all-in, per person, and then   it costs more to get extra permits to kill more  than what’s included in that government-regulated   package. 
 It’s also an exceptionally-strong  mechanism for generating conservation revenue in  

places that might be too dangerous or undeveloped  for a competitive photo safari industry: for   example, Mozambique has a healthy safari hunting  industry, despite just a minor photo safari one. 
   And then there are the case studies: South Africa  has an oft-touted story of boosting its white   rhino population from the dozens to the thousands  through trophy hunting, Zimbabwe used the industry   to double its conservation lands, and Tanzania  itself insists that the industry is a critical   factor in its abnormally high lion population.  Theoretically, trophy hunting can, objectively,   create more good than bad—it can be a  tragedy that minimizes tragedy. It only  

takes a simple understanding of the system  to understand that, but… does it balance out?  Well, like a frustrating many of things, it  depends on who you ask. In fact, one of the   fiercest debates centers around the fact that  one would think would be the easiest to confirm:   how much revenue trophy hunting creates. For  example, the Safari Club International—a US-based   organization that, according to its mission  statement, seeks to “protect the freedom to hunt   and to promote wildlife conservation”—boasts that  trophy hunting contributes $426 million annually   to the GDP of these eight Southern African  economies. That number originates in a study   they commissioned from Southwick Associates—a  Florida-based market research firm that,   according to its own website, proudly supports  pro-gun organizations like the National Shooting   Sports Foundation, and also states that their,  “Economic Impact Analysis calculates the   importance an activity or initiative has on the  economy or quality of life of a region, generating   greater support for that activity.” And this study  certainly generated that support, putting forward   one of the highest economic impact estimates  of any purportedly legitimate study to date. 

In response, the Humane Society International,  which does not hide its position against trophy   hunting, commissioned its own study by  Australia-based Economists at Large which   laid out numerous methodological errors in the  Southwick analysis. The overall structure of   the Southwick study involved surveying hunters  on their in-country spending, multiplying that   by the total number of hunter-visitors, then  adding a multiplier to that to inflate it to   a corresponding GDP figure. From the very start,  Southwick reached an eye-popping $20,602 estimate   of in-country spending per hunter. While plenty  of hunters pay for the most expensive elephant,   lion, or cheetah permits, far more engage in  shorter, cheaper hunts for less dangerous game,   which in most other studies, has pulled the  average down far below this $20 thousand   figure. In fact, even their own data indicates  a strong sampling bias, as they divided their   survey into three rounds: the first two  found an average of about $16,000 in spend,   then the third reached $25,600—a 60% inflation,  which properly sampled studies should not see. 

And perhaps more fundamentally, the Southwick  study considered trophy hunting entirely   in isolation, assuming that exactly zero  income would come from the land, businesses,   and visitors engaging in the industry if  it didn’t occur. That is clearly false,   and such a basic failure in the process of  economic impact analysis that it’s covered in   the second paragraph of its Wikipedia page. That  would be like arguing that you’ve created economic   benefit by selling scrap metal, even when it  came from demolishing a perfectly good building.  Southwick itself admitted that 11% of its  surveyed hunters would still have traveled   to the destination country if not for trophy  hunting, and yet they attribute all of the   revenue these 11% brought to trophy hunting, even  if much of it would have happened otherwise—again,   they’ve completely ignored the counterfactual  case because it was convenient to their client.   The study also found that only about 5% of  total in-country spending was attributable to   non-hunting-related activities, which is far lower  than the 30% or 40% found in previous studies,   and then with this already deflated amount,  they still attributed that spending to   hunting itself, further boosting the figures. Issues like this mount and mount, so Economists  

at Large revised and corrected the methodology  to create their own economic impact estimate:   $132 million—less than a third of what Southwick  posited. While other studies seemed to converge   on a number more in the 200s, the point is less  about a systematic over or under exaggeration,   but more so about the inherent inability to  actually reach any confident consensus on the   economic effect of trophy hunting on GDP.  But trophy hunting is not even supposed to   be about GDP growth—it's not supposed to be a  system designed for economic growth. That can  

be a nice side-effect, but the bargain is about  sacrificing the few for the many, on behalf of the   animals. Establishing a figure of how much revenue  actually ends up used for conservation has proven   even tougher, and concerningly, even Southwick  suggested that only some $27 to $40 million of   their purported $426 million went to conservation.  That means that a $7,000 lion in Tanzania has   unwillingly sacrificed at least $6,300 of itself  for humans, and only $700 for its brethren. At the  

simplest, least academic level, the systematic  slaughter of a species of just 20,000 globally   for only $700 in benefit to that species is a  much tougher bargain to argue for. 
 There is   a world in which trophy hunting works, but when  you dig into it, it’s increasingly difficult to   believe it’s this one. It’s a theoretically viable  concept that has crashed head-on into the dirty,   difficult realities of a flawed world, and that  increasingly operates as a profit-generation   device, rather than a pragmatic bargain.  So, when coming back down to the less   destructive bargain, photo safaris, it’s clear  that it’s less useful to look at it from the   basis of its theoretical underpinnings,  and more so its real-world realities.  

In Tanzania, photo safaris and their rising  popularity, through the lens of conservation,   are becoming increasingly problematic.  In the past two decades, the annual number   of international tourists in Tanzania has  tripled, while the country’s total tourism   receipts have surpassed that of Kenya—their  northern neighbor with a more mature tourism   sector. That means more people than ever  are spending more than ever to visit. This   increased allure has set off a land race and  development boom across northern Tanzania.   Luxury resorts like the Four Seasons aren’t  confined to Serengeti National Park, but are   instead spread across the area. This network of  tour companies, roads, air strips, national parks,   and conservation areas from Mount Kilimanjaro  to the Serengeti is now so well established that   it has its own name: the Northern Circuit.  The rise of the Northern Circuit has made it  

clear that in Tanzania tourism doesn’t serve  conservation, but rather conservation serves   tourism. Within Tanzania’s park system, further  and future development seem an opportunity they’re   trying hard to capitalize on, as each year  they release an annual investment prospectus   for those who might be entertaining the idea of  building a lodge within the park’s boundaries.  The parks are undeniably changing, but this  new-age scramble for Africa is being most acutely   felt in the lands directly around the parks—where  wildlife still roams, but regulations are more   relaxed and restrictions remain relatively  loose. Some companies, like Dorobo Safaris,   have entered mutually beneficial agreements to  lease from and work with the local Maasai people   to establish wildlife watching services outside of  the park. Others have opted instead to work with   the Tanzanian government directly to establish  safari or hunting reserves. The UAE-owned   Otterlo Business Corporation for instance,  relied on close connections to the Tanzanian   government to create a hunting resort here,  and government force to relocate locals once   they began to expand. Regardless of how they go  about it, and regardless of their reputations,  

developers and outfitters are riding the region’s  newfound notoriety, putting pressure on locals   and forever altering the very landscapes  driving the region’s rise in popularity.   For the sake of pure conservation, tourism’s  proving too successful—it’s leading to more roads,   more airstrips, more suspect private entities  running hunting reserves and safari lodges.   It’s leading to strife between local populations  and Tanzania’s federal government that has the   potential to destabilize the region. The  downstream effect of this land rush is a   landscape marred by shining new resorts, freshly  cut roadways, and burned-down villages monitored   by officials stretched too-thin, and supervised  by a federal government with a spotty record.  

Northern Tanzania is quickly becoming a landscape  where the rules of conservation take a back seat   to the economic potential that Africa’s brilliant  biodiversity affords.  
 Moral bargains can seem   effective when discussed theoretically, but then  you go from concept to reality. For decades upon   decades, Serengeti National Park has conserved its  land—so, simply, it’s tough to recognize how this   recent build-up, this ruination has equivalently  worked to further that conservation mission.   And this seems to be a moment that most  moral bargains reach—when the side-effect,   the bonus revenue-seeking justification that  enables the bargain becomes a disconnected   profit-seeking motive. This happens  slowly, quietly, and then suddenly,   one takes a look back and a theoretical good  has taken an entirely different form. Therefore,  

any bargain is only as effective as those  maintaining and enforcing the bargain. Safaris   are no different. There’s no slam-dunk, there’s  no this is bad and this is good. It’s rather a   reminder of the value of nuance. A reminder that  this, like any bargain, is defined by the boring,   quiet, unglamorous task of enforcing it.  Scarcity drives value—that’s almost universally  

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2023-01-29 08:31

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