Why do seasoned safari-goers return to the continent time and again, despite the myriad other global wildlife hotspots jostling for their attention? Mike Unwin reflects
am currently pondering this question from Julius Nyerere International Airport, Dar es Salaam, exhausted and elated after a 12-day family safari. Wow, did Tanzania perform! From the improbable congestion of the Ngorongoro Crater to the lions draped over the Serengeti’s kopjes and the elephants excavating Ruaha’s dry riverbeds, it was like a TV highlights reel of the natural world. And even at our Indian Ocean beach resort for two final nights of R&R, the show continued, with green turtles in the surf and colobus monkeys in the forest.
Yes, the variety we saw was astonishing: according to my notebook, 47 species of mammal and 227 of bird, not to mention numerous reptiles and other smaller fare. But it was also the quality. I’ve spent much of my life pursuing Africa’s wildlife around the continent, yet each encounter on this trip had a freshness and thrill as though it were my first.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to be drawn into some facile ‘what’s-the-world’s-best wildlife-destination’ argument. There are fabulous wildlife experiences to be had in beautiful places the world over, from the cloud forests of Costa Rica to the penguin colonies of Antarctica. And, when it comes to biodiversity, Africa is far from top of the tree — no African country, for example, makes the world’s top nine most species-rich destinations for birds.
For me, though, and I suspect many others, it’s about the sheer generosity of Africa’s natural world. The ease with which it seems to offer us such a variety of large, impressive and easily visible wildlife, in such impressive numbers, across such a range of spectacular locations.
When it comes to ‘large’, Africa can claim uniqueness. The continent indisputably boasts the planet’s greatest assemblage of large mammals — the ‘megafauna’, such as elephant, rhino, giraffe and hippo, plus the carnivores that prey on them — that most appeal to our imaginations. Once, other continents had a similar range. Indeed, just 20,000 years ago there was greater megafauna diversity in North and South America, Eurasia and South Asia than in Africa. Most, however, are now extinct. Thus, in a way, visiting Africa is stepping back into our past; offering a glimpse of a time when our species did not call all the shots.
Of course, the big stuff is what has put African wildlife on the tourist map. You don’t have to be a zoologist to find excitement in the drama of a bull elephant at point-blank or a wall-to-wall panorama of wildebeest. But the beauty of Africa is that its wildlife appeals to all levels of knowledge, interest and experience. A first-timer’s Big Five safari can also be a birder’s trip of a lifetime.
And this partly reflects the expertise of the industry. Africa is, after all, where recreational wildlife travel began and today it is supremely well set up for the visitor. Not only is there a fabulous collection of parks and reserves, but also an army of experienced operators and skilled guides to help you find, enjoy and understand the wildlife. Today, whether your interest is night drives or bat migrations, there is a trip with your name on it.
But, before we get too carried away, a brief reality check. Sadly, those inspiring African wildernesses are not ‘endless’: around their borders are struggling human populations, often competing with wildlife for the same precious natural resources. And those teeming herds are not ‘countless’: many species, unfortunately, are all too easily counted, as their numbers dwindle in the face of habitat loss, poaching and other threats.
This article is not the place for doom-mongering. Africa’s wildlife is something to be celebrated. But for those of us lucky enough to enjoy it, there comes a responsibility: to travel responsibly; to do what we can to put something back — for instance, by supporting conservation or community projects; and, above all, never to take for granted the wonders that we have been privileged to share.