Cages and Freedom

Wildlife safari, day four. Last Friday morning we arrived in the Arusha parking lot of the multistoried, white concrete Arusha International Conference Center, where the offices of Gosheni Safaris, Ltd are located in a single, top-florescent-lit office room. Before setting foot in that parking lot and catching sight of the high-slung, ready-for-combat, light brown vehicles arrayed along a shady spot, I’m not sure that it had yet occurred to me wonder: What, exactly, is a safari? Or perhaps better, what constitutes a safari today, in this world of international exchange rates (five days into Africa, and we’ve yet to pay for anything in Tanzanian shillings), free WiFi connections, Facebook Likes and Ranger radios and heavily-government-regulated conservation areas and national parks?

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Safari images waft around: baggy, khaki-colored clothes; exotic animals; unending skies reaching heavenward over grass-covered savannahs;

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hours of silence and solitude punctuated by seconds of motion– leopard pouncing! Lions chasing! Giraffes trotting along the horizon line!
The reality of a safari, or at least the one we are on touring the central portion of the vast, world-renowned Serengeti National Park in northern Tanzania, is, well, both similar and different. Yes to savannahs so infinite that if anything can inspire faith in the divine, they will.

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Yes to baggy clothes in various khaki hues: because tze-tze flies swarm to dark fabrics, the New Yorker’s black uniform poorly serves intrepid cosmopolites on these roads. Yes to elephants flapping their ears to swat flies and other bothersome intruders– though I was in no way prepared for how cute an elephant is, despite its girth, weight, and monumentality.

Fact number one of today’s safari: be prepared to develop an intimate relationship with the vehicle that transports you.

DSC02274_DxO.jpgIt serves multiple functions. A 2017 Toyota Land Cruiser is our viewing platform and our means of locomotion, complete with the deafening soundtrack of sturdy tires on the washboarded, pitted, occasionally nearly invisible dirt road. It supports the throne from which our estimable guide, Zadok (about whom Danny has written much more) surveys the lands, makes plans and advises his more-or-less ignorant charges – us — all the while offering reams of well-considered information about Tanzanian history, politics, culture, wildlife, geography.

These safari vehicles also can be an iron cage of sorts, as regulations at the Serengeti National Park mandate that people enter only when they’ve paid the not-inconsiderable entrance fees — fees so high that many Tanzanians never get to go. Not only that: visitors must be accompanied by a registered, trained, professional guide and, and may not disembark—except in one of the infrequently-encountered picnic areas– from these vehicles, no matter what sort of alluring, exotic, or exciting a spectacle they happen into. So, no to walking long miles on red dirt through wheat-colored grasses, but yes to lazy hours driving around watching zebra and Thompson’s gazelles graze, hippos huddle in the mud, and to occasionally happening onto a pride of lions, just awakening from their mid-afternoon nap.

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There are several reasons for this, all good but not all readily intuited. Most obvious: safety. Everywhere in this immense bowl of nature (lips turned up at the edges, creating the impression of a complete, defined, articulate world), danger lurks. It isn’t just the lions or the water buffalo, with those ominous-looking horns, made especially for goring. Get too close to something as innocent-looking as a termite mound, Zadok warns, and risk the fangs of a venomous snake, which hang there because it’s termites that they are looking to eat. We safari-ites couldn’t possibly anticipate the dangers this seemingly all-beneficent, nearly silent, hyper-low-stimulation landscape harbors.

Less obvious: the collective action problem. What benefits the individual acting in her own interest will harm the collective good. Clamoring down from our 4WD to kick up the iron-oxide-laden dirt beneath my soles of my sneakers and watch it float back down to the earth, or to get my body a bit closer to that small herd of small zebras, so peacefully being with one another, so tiny in this vast world, could on the one hand frighten the animals or on the other habituate them to humans. Neither good. Someone would try to feed one; someone else might toss a stick; and eventually, or much much sooner than eventually, the ecology of this tens-of-thousands-of-years old habitat would be disrupted. Or just changed.

 

So this land, perhaps as nearly nowhere else on earth, belongs to the animals, and the safari truck belongs to us. To the antelope, the dicky-dickys, the hyenas and the baboons, the warthogs, ostriches, and giraffes, we are irrelevant passers-by, bothersome only owing to the noise we produce and the dust our tires kick up. We, interlopers in the dwelling that is their world, invite little curiosity.

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Is there anywhere else on earth where the power structure of the human-animal kingdom has been so effectively subverted?

— Sarah, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

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