The wheels spun furiously, splattering mud up the doors and windows. Slowly and steadily we slid and churned our way forward along the muddy track. Motorcyclists, who by staying upright seemed to defy physics, deftly passed us as they ferried their passengers between local villages. Despite the poor state of the road, this was a bustling artery linking tens of thousands of people. All along the way, rising serenely above the hustle and bustle were the majestic rainforest covered slopes of the Udzungwa Mountains National Park, with waterfalls tumbling down the hillside and the endless chattering of insects and birds. This road skirted the Eastern boundary; and rarely has the meeting of two starkly different worlds been so visible or profound.
Tanzania, our next stop as we head North from Malawi, is home to some of the most remarkable wildlife concentrations on the continent. From Africa’s greatest migration (the million strong wildebeest of the Serengeti), to the legendary Ngorongoro Crater, the largest intact volcanic caldera in the world. Off of the coast lie coral reefs, and high in the Eastern Arc Mountains are patches of near-pristine rainforest. Has Tanzania struck upon the secret of how to conserve its natural heritage?
Perhaps the most important factor in Tanzania’s successful conservation strategy is that it has cashed in, quite literally, on wildlife tourism. A trip to the Serengeti will set you back at least $150 for 24 hours, and likely much more. The Ngorongoro crater has recently implemented a $200pp fee, just to descend to the crater floor (on top of all the other fees). At the same time, research has shown that increasing prices further – at least to the Serengeti – is unlikely to put off international visitors. For me, an enthusiastic recently ex-student conservationist and many of you reading this, these prices are eye watering! There’s simply no way that my peers and I can afford to witness firsthand these breathtaking spectacles.
On the surface, that’s an upsetting realization. But if that is the price to pay for conservation, and if that guarantees the preservation of these natural wonders far into the future, then it’s something I can’t help but support. It begs the question both in Africa and at home, from forest conservation to the big five – should we be willing to pay more for conservation?
This journey, trundling across Africa in a Landcruiser named Tinkerbell (catch up on the previous instalments here), has given us a fresh perspective on this problem. Tourists in remote parts of Africa are few and far between. Occasionally, in lesser-known National Parks, we have been the only ones! In Tanzania, a handful of parks along what is know as the 'Northern Circuit', draw in tourist money to help fund the variety of other more remote parks, and so by visiting them, you are supporting conservation across the country. Local communities bare the cost of living with crop raiding elephants and dangerous big cats, and so it’s down to international visitors to make it worth their while.
So that’s what we sought to do. Up in the Udzungwa Mountains we stayed at Hondo Hondo, a place aptly named after the raucous hornbills that are so prevalent in the area. Hiring a local ranger, we walked along trails flattened by elephants, saw Colobus monkeys bounding across branches and came face to face with a friendly forest cobra (thanks to our ranger we didn’t step on it!). All this just a few kilometers from towns and villages but protected from encroachment. Further North at Lake Manyara we drove beneath a canopy stained white by the sheer abundance of birds and close by we watched in awe as an elephant herd thirty strong came to down to drink from the Tarangire river.
So when it comes to paying for conservation, what is the ideal compromise? Sustainable tourism can be costly, but it achieves so much more than just charity. Charge more and limit your visitors to the wealthy, or try and attract larger numbers of visitors? Is Tanzania the conservation role model for the region? As ever, travel creates more questions than it answers, but as we bumped and rattled our way across the length and breadth of this remarkable country, we couldn’t help but be impressed by the diversity and abundance of wildlife. Tanzania is treading a bold path towards conserving it, and if you can it’s worth supporting.
P.S. Tentsile is also supporting a WeForest project in Tanzania. In contrast to neighbouring Zambia, where deforestation for charcoal production is approaching epidemic proportions, Tanzania is tackling this head on. Tanzania has recently imposed a tax on charcoal that equates to around $11 a bag, and is encouraging a transition to alternative fuels. How this pans out remains to be seen, but it certainly seems to be a step in the right direction.
James Borrell is a conservation biologist with a passion for expeditions and adventure. He’s currently travelling across Southern Africa on a journey to uncover conservation success stories. With a huge fondness for forests, James and Tentsile are working together to help make the world a more optimistic place, one seedling at a time.
Also, a big thank you to Jessica Plumb for helping out with the research for this article.