The Zai Whitaker column | Dispatches from the ecotourism classroom that is the Kruger National Park

Zai Whitaker
·8 min read

At times the word "ecotourism" sounds like something of an oxymoron, like "pleasant stink" or "fierce dove". Can there really be a happy marriage between the commercial industry of tourism, and the conservation of our wildlife and forests? The answer is, yes there can, but it needs careful, site-specific study and implementation by experts in relevant fields: ecologists, land and water managers, architects, sociologists and others whose inputs are crucial.

Many of us want to experience our forests and wildlife€¦and why not? Wildlife spotting is an exciting hobby; and national parks, sanctuaries, and other Protected Areas (PAs) are increasingly popular holiday locations. But changes need to be made. A familiar PA scene is one where human-laden jeeps, vans, buses, cars are driving through these forests, on the look-out for elephants, gaur, or better still, a leopard €" or, best, a tiger. Once spotted, there is often a line-up of vehicles waiting for their turn to have a look. Or impatiently beeping horns and trying to weasel to the front of the line just as we do in city traffic. The animal-celeb may shoot a snooty look at the human spectacle and wander off, or settle down to stare back. But not always. Animals have their patience thresholds just as we do, and there have been many attacks on visitors, some of them fatal. More often though, animals are left unsettled and fearful after the departure of a noisy tourist group.

Wildlife tourism is becoming more invasive and entitled. We want to get closer (and closer); we want to elicit a response, take selfies with an elephant, eyeball sharks from the safety of a cage. And not everyone is a great wildlife watcher. Many of us don't want to follow the rules, and as for being reminded or corrected€¦ well! In India this is certainly a challenge for the guardians of our forests, both government (Forest, Fisheries, Tourism and other departments) and private stakeholders such as resorts and hotels within or on the periphery of a PA. "Don't Feed Wild Animals" is a sign one often sees€¦ as I did on my last visit to Agumbe. And practically next to the sign was a tourist feeding Glucose biscuits to a pair of young lion-tailed macaques €" one of our most endangered animals.

Kruger National Park €" about the size of Israel and home to some of the most iconic birds and animals in the world €" is a great ecotourism classroom. I was lucky enough to make half a dozen trips to Kruger during a year-long stay in South Africa, in 2008/9; I'd become addicted to this paradise on earth. It has over a dozen camp sites, each with its own stamp of habitat and species; Satara for instance, is famous for its lions, and Olifants €¦ you guessed it.

Satara was my favourite, maybe because of the Indian elements in its history. After the historic Vogelstruisfontein gold discovery in the 1880s, indentured (i.e. bonded) labour from India was brought by ship to the Cape and marched north to the mines near present-day Johannesburg. Streams of them, mostly from the Hindi-speaking north, walked through the wilderness that would one day become Kruger National Park. Rest stops were marked and numbered in Hindi. Satara, pronounced with an Afrikaans intonation, is actually "sathra", or Hindi for 17; the 17th rest stop for the exhausted walkers. Apart from the physical punishment, there were also the lions and other wildlife to contend with. But that's another story.

My Kruger bird list was impressive for an amateur, and all credit goes to the many knowledgeable guides we hung out with, and Ian Sinclair's excellent book Birds of Southern Africa. But apart from watching the wildlife, I spied on SANPARKS (South African National Parks) and their staff, to see what makes the place tick. My modus operandi: brazenly approaching and talking to the Head Ranger of a camp, pestering guides during game walks, and serious eavesdropping (sitting at a table near the officers' corner during meal times was very profitable).

And my constant thought was, they really make this nature tourism thing work, and there's a lot we can learn and apply. Of course, South Africa's population density is very different from ours, but their approach is applicable everywhere. Here are a few thoughts and memories; in no particular order, just this and that, so it's going to be a bit of a ramble (best to say this myself, before someone else does):

Expectations were clear and non-negotiable. One morning we came upon a police patrol escorting a carload of tourists out of the park. They'd been nabbed close to a pride of lions with windows rolled down, noses and cameras sticking out. Approaching wildlife with open windows is on top of the no-no list, and serious injuries have resulted from infringements. We were staying at the same camp as the culprits, and the grapevine indicated that their bookings for the next few days would be cancelled. Again, all camp gates close at 6 pm (or earlier/later depending on the season) and there are no excuses or leniency for overshooting that deadline. We were once just one minute late, having seen and been captivated by a baby hyena on the roadside, and felt the full-on ire of an angry guard who obviously had the backing and support of his senior officers. Much to our relief, he let us in after inflicting a few minutes of pretty scary uncertainty.

For rules to be enforced rather than merely listed or displayed, the hierarchy needs to be angled appropriately and this was very obvious in the way the authorities interacted with one another despite their rung on the seniority ladder. I saw and heard several instances of this flattened hierarchy model: shared meals, easy and friendly conversations, democratic decision making about management issues such as nuisance animals.

There is a strict limit to the number of cars allowed into the park. (And no exceptions for the "big people", one guide told me on a walk, not even important politicians). Pre-bookings are scrutinised at the entry gates, car boots checked for disposable plastic, and paper garbage containers handed out with instructions about trash control.

The accommodation in the camps consisted of simple, clean, and well maintained rondavels, villas and rooms, price-ranged by luxury level and views. "Our" regular (cheaper end) rondavel at the Olifants camp looked over and across the Olifants river. Sitting on the porch with a cup of tea after a game drive or walk, we could see elephants and hippo, apart from all the other "lesser" beings like impala and kudu. One afternoon while thus sipping, I was startled by a gun-toting ranger walking up the steep slope below us. He must have seen the question in my expression, and came up to explain that he was after a nuisance animal, a chakma (baboon) that had grown fond of human snacks and was now attacking people carrying bags or boxes. Coming as I did from the land of rescue and relocation, I asked if tranquilisation and translocation wasn't an option. He thought for a moment, and replied, "Yae n nee (Yes and no, in Afrikaans)". "We go for science over sentiment here; cheaper, more humane." He left me with a lot of food for thought, which I'm still chewing thoughtfully 10 years later.

Architects have made the best use of the views on offer, reminding me of a stay at a Tourist Department lodge in Uttarakhand. My sister and I were in Binsar and there was a jaw-dropping view of the snow-capped peaks and the Almora valley. But the cottage determinedly faced the opposite direction and the only mountain view to be had was by standing on a stool in the bathroom and peeping through a small window.

SANPARKS has taken interpretation centres and exhibits to a new level altogether and there are many examples of this in Kruger. The elephant museum at Letaba camp stands out in my memory: attractive, full of interesting information, and obviously put together by an imaginative and competent team. Among the exhibits are the tusks of seven of the largest tuskers who lived in Kruger, and I wrote down the names on the back of a bill. This is now on my refrigerator door and just in case you're interested, the names are: Mafunyane, Shawu, Jaao, Dzombo, Ndlulamathi, Nhlonguene and Tshilonde. (Good names for a Spelling Bee.) Stained and faded, it's one of my most precious possessions because it holds memories of some of the best wildlife experiences of my life.

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Author and conservationist Zai Whitaker is managing trustee €" Madras Crocodile Bank Trust/Centre for Herpetology. Read more of her columns for Firstpost here.

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