Selling Safaris

Most people want wild animals to survive and even thrive in wilds on Earth, and some are willing to donate money to make that happen. (Or vote to make others pay.) Some others are willing to pay to watch TV and movies made in such settings. But in Africa, most financial support for wild animals comes from tourists; people are willing to pay to see them up close. I recently spent two weeks “on safari” in Africa doing just that. We mostly visited wildlife parks near the Chobe and Zambezi rivers (in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Zambia).

The modern safari ethos is capture in the saying “leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but pictures.” You are supposed to try hard not to disturb the animals, and are supposed to get nothing more out of the visit than you could get from a very high res movie or virtual reality recording. And this does work as a nice clean line to draw, relatively easy to understand and enforce. It minimizes problematic interactions, and protects the “natural” brand, so that future visitors can be more assured that they are seeing animals acting “naturally”, as they would if humans never existed.

But it seems to me that this line also leaves a lot of value on the table, and so misses out on a lot more financial support available to keep such animals going. For most visitors, much of the thrill of seeing the animals up close is the feeling that one is interacting with them. They look at you, and you look at them. You might accidentally be in their path, and then have to get out of the way. It might momentarily look like they feel threatened by you and will attack. And they may even back that up with threatening noises, before they turn away.

Safari guides are selected from among those most passionate about African animals. (See the movie Out of Africa for a plausible picture.) And from the stories they tell, it seems that what what they’ve most valued emotionally in their decades of safaris are the times when they most interacted with wild animals. When one side or the other felt threatened, or made a gesture of help or friendship.

Thus if we could find ways to organize and arrange safaris to contain more frequent and deeper interactions between humans and wild animals, I’d guess people would be willing to pay a lot more for that. Maybe 2-10 times as much. And that added revenue could pay for much larger wildlife parks that protect far more animals. Or at least prevent their shrinkage as other economic activities increase nearby.

Of course, visitors would want to know that such interactions had been limited sufficiently so that they had only a minor effect on animal behavior. They are there to interact with wild animals, after all, not pets or zoo residents. And great care would need to be taken to avoid chances for harm to either side. For example, elephants love oranges, and I’m told that if someone on a safari jeep throws out an orange to them, they may well smash the jeep trying to get at the entire bag of oranges that they smell is there.

I not at all an expert here, so I don’t know how exactly to promote more interaction while limiting them and keeping everyone safe. I vaguely imagine people hanging from wires well above the ground, throwing down food at times, or pushing buttons that open or close gates or water sources. But clearly a lot of development would be needed to work out the bugs in such arrangements.

My point here is just that we seem to be leaving a lot of value on the table. Humans now dominate Earth, and other animals can only survive here when humans either get some value from them, or can’t be bothered to exterminate them. The size of these value metrics will set how many animals there are and where. It seems to me that a lot of innovation remains possible in this area.

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