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I cannot recall the number of times that friends and acquaintances have called my attention to tourism activities that are harmful to wildlife and their habitat in our national parks and reserves. These are largely lay people who are rightly perturbed by what they see as isolated incidents of misconduct. (Including safari rally, sport hunting, consumptive use, the Standard Gauge Railway.)

The truth, however is far more complex, because what we witness from time to time are mere symptoms of a deep philosophical malaise that started slightly over a century ago. Its origins lie in a strange mix of myth, megalomania and racism. To begin with, we need to look at the whole concept of protected areas (PAs) which include national parks, reserves, conservancies, etc. We mustn’t lose sight of the fact that protected areas are a deeply flawed concept and a primitive, obsolete conservation tool. Philosophically, protected areas are lands that are taken, or “protected” from their rightful owners, the indigenous people. They are based on the globally popular myth of ideal nature existing within a matrix of “pristine wilderness” devoid of human presence.

This isn’t remarkable, knowing that the concept, first developed in the United States, was the brainchild of the 26th president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, and naturalist writer John Muir. Neither of these men had any technical ecological knowledge and their assertions about nature were based on the pillars of white supremacy and the need for self-actualization. This “poisoned root” of conservation is the reason why in the Global South the practice still requires guns, uniformed personnel, and fences. It remains a continuous slow-burning war against indigenous people. Together and separately, Muir and Roosevelt both regularly expressed their disdain for Native American societies, referring to them as “dirty” and “uncivilized” respectively in their writings.  It is against this backdrop that the oldest and arguably the most famous national parks in the world (Yellowstone, Sequoia, and Yosemite) were established in the United States.

The durability of their respective narratives was such that neither man was acknowledged as the unabashed racist that he was until the advent of the “Black Lives Matter” movement less than five years ago. Sierra Club, the conservation group founded by Muir in 1892, apologized in 2020 for his racist remarks as it struggled with its white supremacist history amidst a groundswell of anti-racist sentiment driven by the murder of George Floyd.

One of the starkest and most enduring symbols of the white supremacist origins of conservation practice is the statue that stood at the entrance to the American Museum of Natural History. It depicts Roosevelt riding a horse while flanked by a Native American man and a Black man, both on foot. In 2020, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, the then Mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio issued the following statement: “The American Museum of Natural History has asked to remove the Theodore Roosevelt statue because it explicitly depicts Black and Indigenous people as subjugated and racially inferior,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement. The whole world applauded this move, but failed to see and appreciate the big (long-term) picture that this statue had been accepted and celebrated since it was erected by sculptor James Earle Fraser in 1939, over 70 years earlier. We mustn’t lose sight of the fact that the change we are witnessing isn’t a result of any logical departure from white supremacist reasoning but as a result of collective outrage at an incident of racist cruelty that played out in the glare of global media.

How, then, did this racial prejudice come to our shores? In 1910-11, after his presidency, Roosevelt made a famous hunting trip to Kenya. It was euphemistically called a “scientific expedition” because that is the only way in which it could be supported by a State Agency like the American Museum of Natural History and other private donors, who would require tax breaks for their contributions to the cost. Granted, many of the specimens “collected” found their way to museum collections, but the bloodlust and self-actualization is evident from the sheer number of creatures killed. By Roosevelt’s own account, he “collected” over 11,000 animals which included over four thousand birds, two thousand reptiles and amphibians, five hundred fish, and 5,103 mammals. The “scientific” credentials of this expedition are somewhat compromised by the numbers of specimens collected from every single species.

The trip was a huge success and Roosevelt remained a celebrity for the rest of his days, especially as concerns matters wildlife. In 2010, the Smithsonian Institution celebrated the centenary of his trip with an exhibition of specimens, mementoes and photographs. The exhibition includes several photos that showed Roosevelt and his companions R. J. Cuninghame, Frederick Selous, Edgar Alexander Mearns, Edmund Heller, John Alden Loring, and Roosevelt’s son Kermit at different stages of their journey and posing with their kill. An enduring pictorial theme is the image of them on horseback crossing hazardous rivers and vast plains accompanied by columns of black porters, all on foot, bearing huge loads of equipment, supplies and trophies. Anyone who understands the loads carried, the risks taken and the distances travelled will know that this was indentured labour—the closest one could get to slavery in the immediate post-abolition world.

The template for tourism in Africa was thus forged and cooled to perfection. Romanticized tales of Roosevelt’s hunting trip were the first instances of the Kiswahili word “safari” migrating into the English language and being used in the context of recreational tourism. Their exploitation of nameless black bodies irreversibly infused the aroma of subjugation into the term “Safari”. Their extraordinary commitment to killing wildlife on this trip forever tied the term “Safari” to the disrespect and “consumption” of wild animals. The few conservation scholars who are familiar with African history will also note the presence of Frederick Courteney Selous among Roosevelt’s companions, an extraordinarily committed killer of African wildlife and a “hero” of the brutal suppression of the Ndebele people in Southern Africa, having killed many of them in the late 19th Century. Safari tourism is the only sector in Africa that celebrates our racist histories, and our national parks are white spaces. That’s why East Africa’s largest and richest protected area is called the Selous Game Reserve.

Anyone who understands the loads carried, the risks taken and the distances travelled will know that this was indentured labour.

So, having examined the roles of racism and megalomania in our safari tourism sector, where is the role of myth? This aspect is not immediately apparent because we tend to default to the ancient whenever the term mythology is used. In the case of conservation, we are dealing with 20th century mythology and the foundations of this myth were laid by the American author Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1914 when he created the fictional character known as “Tarzan”, an archetypal feral child raised in the African jungle by the Mangani great apes; he later experiences civilization, only to reject it and return to the wild as some strange “heroic” adventurer.

Safari tourism is the only sector in Africa that celebrates our racist histories, and our national parks are white spaces.

The power of this myth is most visible in its success over the years in syndicated articles, novels, comic books, movies and animated features. The most powerful and oppressive parts of the myth, however, are more subtle and almost subliminal. Firstly, it is the fact that the “feral” child is actually a noble scion (John Clayton II, Viscount Greystoke). This actually provides for maintaining the seamless link between being a “leader” both in the “jungle” and in “civilization”. In present day Africa, that manifests as any white person being entitled to claim leadership in the conservation/safari tourism sector, regardless of their age or qualifications. Secondly, there is the absence of black people, despite the story being set in Africa, which manifests in the sector as black people’s needs being completely subordinate to the needs of safari tourism interests and their clientele.

This particular message is extremely powerful, and has poisoned the thinking of conservation students and scientists in Africa over the decades. It is probably most responsible for the “saviour complex” and ambivalence to black people that is so characteristic of those who parachute in from Western countries. In a refreshing show of honesty, the world-famous chimpanzee saviour and primatologist Dr Jane Goodall openly says that the legend of Tarzan inspired her to come and work with wild animals in Africa. To this day, I struggle to see any intellectual participation of black Africans in her work.

Lastly, there is the very strange “introduction” of black people into the story of Tarzan when they finally do appear. A tribe of black Africans settles in Tarzan’s home area, and his adopted mother (an ape!) Kala, is killed by one of its hunters. After avenging himself by killing the hunter, Tarzan begins an antagonistic relationship with the tribe, raiding its village for weapons and practicing continuous sabotage on the villagers and their activities. They, in turn, regard him as an evil spirit and attempt to placate him.

This last subliminal story from Tarzan is the most compelling snapshot of the safari tourism situation we witness every day in present-day East Africa. It begins with the problematic concept of a black African tribe being described as “settlers” in a part of Africa occupied by a white man and some wild animals over which he exercises some kind of dominion. The white occupier is judge, jury and executioner for what he, an outsider, perceives as a violation of “his” animals’ rights. That could be a description of local communities and their relationship with any protected area as we know it, including the ever-present spectre of extra-judicial killings therein. Compellingly, Burroughs’ tale tells us how, after this killing, Tarzan maintains a continuous war and a campaign of violence against the black Africans. Who hasn’t seen the violent displacement of indigenous people to create protected areas, most recently in northern Tanzania? Who hasn’t seen the destruction of livestock production and farming systems to create “alternative livelihoods” serving tourists and making beadwork?

The white occupier is judge, jury and executioner for what he, an outsider, perceives as a violation of “his” animals’ rights.

Fast forward to present-day Africa. Our parks were created as “white spaces” and they remain so. The only notable change is that “white” is no longer an exclusive reference to Caucasian people, but has necessarily broadened to include elites of other ethnicities, certain activities, and a certain school of thought about Africa’s natural heritage vis-à-vis who owns and uses it. Here in Kenya, our parks and reserves are managed by the Kenya Wildlife Service and conservation officers from various county governments, respectively, at various levels of efficiency, but the uniform thread that runs through them all is the almost neurotic need to please the white gaze.

The latest incident shared on social media last week was a video clip from the Maasai Mara reserve where we are currently enjoying the annual wildebeest migration. It shows a fleet of over 20 tour vehicles driving off-road at breakneck speed and jostling for position as they seek vantage points on the riverbank to view a crossing that was about to begin. Given the speed and number of vehicles, it’s no small miracle that no animals were run over, although they were spooked away from their initial path. People wondering why the rangers don’t enforce the rules are unaware that those are mostly (if not all) foreign tourists and we are too obsessed with them (especially the Western ones) to even enforce the most basic park rules, because we need the numbers. That is why the performance of our tourism sector is measured by the ministry in terms of “arrivals”, meaning that the local ones don’t matter. We are the ones who must follow the rules like speed limits within parks and staying on designated roads.

On the part of activities, it is instructive to look at how little respect the Kenyan government (which is supposed to hold parks in trust for us) has for our natural heritage. Even in the worst of droughts, like the one we are currently experiencing, there has never been any move to allow even limited managed grazing of livestock in parks because it is said that this would damage the ecosystem. However, the same government licenses the construction of major infrastructure in parks, creating new wayleaves despite the existence of old ones. In the detailed KWS park rules visitors are cautioned against making noise and scaring animals, but in 2020 the KWS licensed the Koroga music festival to take place in Hell’s Gate National Park because they classified it as a tourism activity. The same park rules stipulate a maximum speed of 40 km/h in national parks, yet the KWS licensed an entire leg of the World Rally Championship to be held in a national park.

Who hasn’t seen the violent displacement of indigenous people to create protected areas, most recently in northern Tanzania?

When the colonial government established national parks expressly as recreational spaces for white people, it instantly gave their lifestyles a higher priority than the livelihoods of locals. We have simply been unable to change from that prejudiced thinking, so in terms of conservation practice today, the government and tourists are “white”. Further afield in northern Tanzania, Maasai villagers are violently evicted from their grazing grounds in Loliondo to make way for wildlife, yet the activity for which they are being evicted is sport hunting. This demonstrates that the welfare of animals is rarely the primary consideration in our conservation practice. It comes second to the edification of the visitor. Local livelihoods come third. This is what we urgently need to change. This is such a deeply entrenched mentality that it has become “normalized”.

However, in Kenya we have an opportunity to do so with the change of government. We must urgently do away with the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife and house these under different ministries.  Only then will our government and society realize that tourism is simply a by-product of good conservation practice, and should not be treated as the reason for conservation. We were stewards of our natural heritage before tourists came, and we will continue to be, even without their patronage.

This publication was funded/co-funded by the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of The Elephant and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.