While acknowledging that tourism is extremely important for Tanzania and Kenya, both of which share the Serengeti ecosystem but too many tourists are endangering the ecosystem while also frustrating locals.
“Tanzanian tourism, for example, accounts for half a million jobs in direct employment and more than double that in jobs that indirectly support the industry. In a country where the average income is less than three US dollars a day, that's a huge asset,” Serengeti Watch said in its latest report. “It's a seductive idea, therefore, to keep growing tourist numbers indefinitely to maximize the benefits,” the report added.
The term is being increasingly used, and for good reason. Wikipedia defines it as “the perceived congestion or overcrowding from an excess of tourists, resulting in conflicts with locals.” But this definition is too narrow. It may fit destinations like Barcelona or Venice but does not cover impacts on natural areas like the Serengeti.
In these areas, “locals” include wildlife and plants and the all the natural resources that sustain them. Impacts include land degradation by vehicles, stress on wildlife that impairs their hunting and reproductive success, demands on water and other resources, introduction of invasive plants, and barriers to wildlife movement.
Moreover, locals do include human communities around the Serengeti, which need to get tangible benefits from tourism. Otherwise, they may turn their backs on conservation, as this recent article suggests,
Overtourism, of course, impacts the visitor experience as well, degrading the very qualities that lure travellers. This is happening in parts of the Serengeti ecosystem.
Serengeti Watch has received numerous reports from travellers about safari vehicles speeding and harassing wildlife. For instance, a BBC film unit told us of a safari vehicle racing toward sleeping lions in order to get clients good photographs. Guides, who depend on gratuities from travellers for much of their income, are under pressure to produce.
One traveller reported her experience in a blog: “A stressed out Cape buffalo charged our car because he was separated from his herd. A scared leopard was forced into hiding after being boxed in by a mass of tourist vehicles. Hyenas sleeping on the road were awoken and startled when our car got too close. While all of these experiences were phenomenal for us, I can’t help wondering: is it fair to the animals?”
Scientists are now telling us how this does affect wildlife: Femke Broekhuis, a cheetah researcher at the University of Oxford, wrote an article entitled, ‘We need to limit tourist numbers to save cheetahs from becoming an endangered species.’
A study of impalas in the Serengeti showed significant physiological stress in relation to roads and traffic' resulting in a more female skewed sex ratio, lower observed reproductive and recruitment rate, and reduced time spent on restorative behaviour (i.e. resting)."
And then there is the outright killing of animals by safari vehicles as reported in this article by a Chinese news agency, Tanzanian experts raise alarm over killings of cheetahs in Serengeti by tourist cars. One report Serengeti Watch received told of a young zebra being killed by a safari vehicle jockeying for position at a crowded wildebeest crossing.
How many tourists are too many?
In the Mara, the saturation point has already occurred. In the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, there is much more land area (about ten times that of the Mara) and far fewer accommodations. But crowding and negative impacts are mounting, and there are plans to keep the numbers growing.
A World Bank study in 2015 entitled, The Elephant in the Room: Unlocking the Potential of the Tourism Industry for Tanzanians, advocated an eight-fold increase in Tanzanian tourism by 2025!
The WB admits this is ambitious and acknowledges it would place a great strain on the Northern Circuit, which includes the Serengeti National Park. For this reason it advocated diversifying tourism to lesser used parks in the southern part of the country. But the Serengeti, like all iconic attractions, is unique and will continue to be the main attraction for travellers.
The way forward
The model of tourism best for the Serengeti ecosystem is High Value Low Impact Nature Tourism which is the opposite of mass tourism. Unfortunately, this usually translates to high end, expensive tourism for the relatively few who can afford it. There must be ways for East Africans to enjoy their own heritage.
Future tourism, however, may not follow this model. Governments are eager to maximize income. In the Mara, the body that administers the reserve would like to double tourism numbers (in one year).
Right now, tourists come primarily from Western countries, the US, UK, and Germany. But new markets are being targeted, especially in China and India. If these markets take off, the numbers could be staggering.
“The time to plan and act is now. There must not only be a wise strategy to keep tourism in check, but the will to enforce it. Governments need to plough back more tourism revenue into conservation and park administration rather than siphoning it off. And this should include support to local communities,” Serengeti Watch argued. Finally, it's up to the tourism industry and travellers to step up and give back with real support.