Safaris that offer glimpses of local wildlife and culture, while making the least possible impact on the environment and the maximum possible positive impact on local communities, may be termed as Eco Safaris. Described as insightful, mindful and participatory travels into the wild, Eco Safaris usually take visitors to unspoiled, virgin forests and grasslands off the tourist maps to bring them closer to nature and to sensitize them about the delicate balance that exists between man and environment.
In my camp I feel the tempo, the pulse and the freedom that is Africa. To live in any other way is to lose that intimate bond between myself and nature...
Hannington Speke, 19th Century explorer
Eco Safari ConcernsOne of the most important issues that Eco Safaris are concerned with is the often deadly interface between predatory animals and local communities and their livestock. In the absence of their natural prey in their fast-shrinking habitats, predators like the big cats often carry off livestock causing immense losses to the local communities. As a result, they are viewed as pests, and locals kill them with impunity. In Namibia, for instance, any lion found outside the national parks may be killed at any time. Therefore one of the aims of Eco Safaris is to generate economic benefits for locals, to give them incentives to cooperate with animal conservation efforts.
Further, ecotourism in general and eco safaris in particular are committed towards developing public support for conservation, and encourage private sector conservation efforts. Eco Safaris are especially relevant today, at a time when traditional approaches toward conservation through enforced protection of forests and wildlife habitats are being questioned for their efficacy and sensitivity to local communities.
Eco Safari Features
To be truly called an Eco Safari, a safari must have the following traits –
- It should minimize its own impact on the environment and local cultures.
- It should build environmental and cultural awareness through education, activities and pre-departure information.
- It should provide direct financial benefits for conservation and the local culture.
- It should support local businesses and service providers.
- It should offer site-sensitive accommodation.
- It should respect local culture.
Eco Safari Activities
- Adventure camping – Camping in small tents with minimum supplies is possible in relatively pristine areas. To avoid disturbing the wildlife and environment, these camps are kept small so that supply trucks and large vehicles, are not needed.
- Game Walking -- Eco Safaris employ local tribesmen to guide small groups of tourists through the wild. Tourists learn to track animals through their pugmarks and spoor, getting a closer feel of the jungle. Such activities also help locals to earn money from doing what they know best, and provide them with the needed impetus to cooperate with conservation efforts.
- Horse riding – This is great as it minimizes the use of vehicles in the wild. Horses do not scare off otherwise skittish wildlife, and also allow riders to get a far closer feel of their environment (there really is no fair comparison between riding with the wildebeest on their annual migration beside the Mara River, and watching it from the confines of a jeep).
- Climbing – the mountains of East Africa offer plenty of easy hiking, rock climbing and rappelling opportunities for eco-travellers. This way, they can get to many places inaccessible by vehicles.
- Cultural Village Visits – these provide an informative and educational look into different cultures and also aid better understanding between travelers and local communities. Also, these could provide locals opportunities to sell handicrafts and local produce.
- Snorkeling and scuba diving – There’s no better way to explore marine life, than by strapping on a mask and a tank and diving. The East African coast is particularly good for such activities as are the coral reefs in Australia, South East Asia and the Andaman Islands in India.
- Canoeing – this is a superb way to explore wildlife on riverbanks, cutting out the noise and restrictions of a vehicle. It should, of course, be avoided in regions where hippos and crocodiles are endemic.
- Mountain Biking – this provides an excellent opportunity for the fit and adventurous to travel through deserts, forests, up mountains and down valleys.
Safaris in Africa
Two of the best regions to explore through Eco Safaris are Eastern (Kenya, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Uganda and Rwanda) and Southern (Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique) Africa. East African safaris are older and more popular, while the ones in the Southern nations are more exclusive and relatively more expensive.
There are two seasons for African safaris – the dry and wet seasons. The Eastern dry season is from June to September, and the Southern dry season is from May to October. This is peak season for viewing wildlife, for animals can be easily spotted near water sources. However, it is also dusty, less colourful and a lot more expensive to go on safari during this time.
The wet season in comparison (in the East, April, May, November and December; in the South, from November to March) is peak migration season for the animals, as well as the time to see all the animal offspring. However, traveling can be tough during the often torrential rains in this season.
How to choose the right Eco Safari
Choosing the right Eco Safari operator can be tricky business. Here are some tips to find out which one is right for you.
- Look out for travel company advertisements and reviews in reputed natural history magazines (try Discover magazine and National Geographic) and travel websites (try responsibletravel.com and Comtripadvisor.com)
- Request for catalogues. A reputable company will offer prospective customers a comprehensive directory of programs and services.
- Network with friends, relatives and fellow travelers who have gone on safari. What company did they use? Were they satisfied?
- You could also ask the tour company to furnish names and contact details of four to five satisfied customers to check with them about the finer details.
What to carry on an Eco Safari
While it is important to travel light on a safari, here is a list of things you should not leave behind.
1. If your safari is in another country, carry your passport (with two copies kept in a separate place).
2. Ensure that your camera batteries are fully charged. Remember there may not be provision to recharge batteries, so be sure to carry extras for your torch and other necessary equipment.
3. Pocket knife or Swiss knife
4. Insect repellant and/or anti-itch gel
5. Pain killers, anti-allergic pills, antibiotic cream and other necessary medicines
6. Hand sanitizer
8. Protein bars, raisins and other dry foods.
Critics argue that eco-tourism in environmentally fragile areas, especially during sensitive periods of breeding and growth can have a negative impact. Areas and sites opened for ecotourism may eventually lead to mass tourism and a range of negative consequences that accompany it.
Even though Eco Safaris typically involve small groups of people, they do necessitate the development of lodges and other tourist infrastructure which interferes with the local ecology. Also, tourists, however enlightened, do leave pollution and garbage in their wake. Thus, Eco Safaris by their very nature have a negative ecological impact on the host country. Critics also point out that the economic benefits to local communities are few and far between. In fact, in the absence of adequate participation in planning and management, local communities often end up bearing the costs of tourism development and protected area management.
Often, companies use terms like `sustainable’, ‘eco-friendly’ and `green’ to market tourism schemes covertly run on commercial lines. This trend, which experts refer to as Greenwash, has discredited bonafide eco-tourism projects as well. What it means for the consumer or the traveller is that he or she must check the antecedants of the tour operator at the beginning.