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A Brief History of the Bourgeois Safari

April 26, 2022
Current Affairs

In April 1991, a few years before he would be elected President of South Africa in the country’s first election based on universal suffrage, Nelson Mandela appeared on the cover of the newspaper Weekly Mail, kneeling in grass at the Mthethomusha Game Reserve. In one hand, he held a hunting rifle; in the other, the horn of a blesbok, a species of antelope that he had killed moments before while on safari. The headline declared, “Mandela goes Green. A hunting trip converts ANC [African National Congress] leader to conservation.” Mandela had gone on a two-week safari to hunt and learn about ecology—“at a time when most blacks could still not hunt legally, let alone own guns” and when “conservation [had been] long identified with the marginalization of blacks in South Africa,” writes Jacob S.T. Dlamini, author of Safari Nation: A Social History of the Kruger National Park, the cover of which features the newspaper image of Mandela. Mandela also went to visit Kruger National Park, one of the most popular national parks in the world. His trip would mark the beginning of the ANC’s commitment to conservation in postapartheid South Africa, as well as to reforming the national parks system into one accessible for all people and one which considered the needs of locals. Kruger in particular had represented, from colonial times, the government’s efforts to “promote a ‘national feeling’ among whites” and to “promote a sense of nationhood built on the exclusion of indigenous peoples,” writes Dlamini. (Dlamini notes that there was a similar attitude in the U.S. around the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872; South African parks documents at the time of the creation of Kruger show numerous references to Yellowstone. Indigenous Americans were forcibly relocated for the creation of that park. Jessica Hernández, cited later in this article, notes that the 1906 Antiquities Act, which gave the president the authority to “protect prehistoric Native American ruins and artifacts,” did not do anything to protect Indigenous people, who were denied access to the park around that time.)

The Mandela article highlights some familiar themes in modern conservation. The land for the reserve was said to have been “donated” by the leader of the “local Mpakeni clan,” a more “sensitive approach” than that which usually happened when parks and reserves (including Kruger National Park) had been created in Africa, whether under colonial or postcolonial governments: displacement of area natives. Mandela said in the article that conservation ought to aid local development and be done in consideration of the needs of local people. The tourist proceeds from this particular reserve, including those from hunting, were split more or less between the parks authority and the Mpakeni clan, which used the money for “schools, clinics, and other social services.” The reserve only allowed the hunting of “overpopulated species,” which was noted to be beneficial to the ecosystem as well as a deterrent to poaching. “As a result local people develop a deep respect for animals and other species to be protected.”

Put another way, the article promoted the following ideas: the idea of enclosing land to make parks or reserves, often separating land and wildlife from people; the idea of partnering with local people on conservation projects, as opposed to displacing them or evicting them outright; the idea that conservation projects, especially safari hunting tourism, could be used to promote human development (and/or poverty alleviation) along with wildlife conservation; the idea that killing animals via hunting is preferable to killing them via poaching; and also an assumption that the local people need to be taught “respect” for nature. For the latter, depending on the historical time frame under consideration, local people may have been living on the land in question for decades or longer, in which case their connection to the landscape (and their knowledge) would be much deeper than that of outside conservationists. In other cases, if people in a natural area migrated from urban areas and did not know about or practice the traditional lifestyles of the area, they may not know as much about the natural environment (a key legacy of colonial “education” was that Africans were left largely uneducated about their own culture, history, and landscape and educated instead about European culture, history, and landscape). If one takes the idea of teaching local people how to respect nature to its logical conclusion, we get to an assumption that tends to underlie conservation projects on the continent. That assumption, as Benjamin Gardner writes in Selling the Serengeti: The Cultural Politics of Safari Tourism, is that “African nature is too valuable to be managed by Africans.”

Dlamini notes that “Mandela’s hunt actually took place … at the Songimvelo Game Reserve.” In any case, both that reserve and the Mthethomusha Reserve were under the domain of the KaNgwane Parks Board. KaNgwane was a Swazi-speaking non independent Bantustan. Bantustans, also called homelands, were areas to where native black people were forcibly relocated under apartheid. Dlamini says that the purpose of these homelands was to “dilute and neutralize” black claims to political power. Even though the scenario in the Mandela article appears to involve Africans managing an African landscape, it will become more apparent in other scenarios who the outside Westerners or conservationists are and why some African groups choose to cooperate with conservation projects, and their reasons for doing so. It should also be noted that the National Parks Board of South Africa was a thoroughly white institution, seating its first black member in 1991. KaNgwane would ultimately be reincorporated into South Africa in 1994 at the end of apartheid.

Modern conservation as applied to African wildlife and landscape is rooted in Western colonial attitudes and practices that have, in the past and modern times, been carried out to the detriment of Indigenous people and land, causing disruptions to communities that can lead to “famine, disease, and death.” Indigenous scientist Jessica Hernández, author of Fresh Banana Leaves: Healing Indigenous Landscapes Through Indigenous Science, writes about Western conservation from the perspective of an Indigenous person of the Americas. In the book, she explains:

“Conservation is a Western construct that was created as a result of settlers overexploiting Indigenous lands, natural resources, and depleting entire ecosystems. According to National Geographic, conservation is defined as ‘the care and protection of … resources so that they can persist for future generations. It includes maintaining diversity of species, genes, and ecosystems, as well as functions of the environment, such as nutrient cycling.’”

Furthermore, Indigenous people were already “conserving” their land prior to colonization. And as Hernández explains: “Conservation did not exist precolonization because Indigenous peoples viewed land as communal, meaning no one person owned it.” Western and capitalist notions of private ownership were exported onto the African continent as well.

In his 1972 book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, the Guyanese Marxist historian Walter Rodney argued that African nations, having been formally colonized by Europe for just over 70 years, had ended up underdeveloped (socially, politically, culturally, and economically) to the degree that Europe had become developed in that same time period. Colonization was a large part of the reason that, upon independence, African nations emerged stunted. Rodney wrote that, prior to the arrival of Europeans in the 15th century, the African continent was unevenly developed. Some societies existed closer to a state of feudalism, as Europe had been on the eve of its transition to capitalism. But many African societies resided in a state of communalism, which, unlike feudalism, was non exploitative and was governed by customary land rights. This meant that the land was communally owned on the basis of ethnic or tribal ties and history of occupancy to the land. “Customary and collective land rights … were dismissed under colonial rule,” writes Gardner. Land was thus used to serve colonial economic interests, whether for natural resource extraction (such as mining), to build transit, or to build reserves, especially for big game hunting, a favorite sport of gentlemanly European elites that peaked in British East Africa (which approximates modern-day Kenya) in the early 20th century prior to the outbreak of World War I.

Furthermore, the idea of separating people from land and wildlife forms an important underlying assumption in modern Western conservation. This is the idea of “fortress” conservation, an idea

“based on the belief that biodiversity protection is best achieved by creating protected areas where ecosystems can function in isolation from human disturbance. Fortress, or protectionist, conservation assumes that local people use natural resources in irrational and destructive ways, and as a result cause biodiversity loss and environmental degradation. Protected areas following the fortress model can be characterized by three principles: local people dependent on the natural resource base are excluded; enforcement is implemented by park rangers patrolling the boundaries, using a ‘fines and fences’ approach to ensure compliance; and only tourism, safari hunting, and scientific research are considered as appropriate uses within protected areas. Because local people are labeled as criminals, poachers, and squatters on lands they have occupied for decades or centuries, they tend to be antagonistic toward fortress-style conservation initiatives and less likely to support the conservation goals.”

Separating people and land under the “fortress” conservation model “denies the possibility of people sharing the land with wildlife as a viable practice,” writes Gardner. This is a problem for Indigenous people all over the world whose livelihoods depend on their access to and relationship to the land and its flora and fauna. The roots of this modern trend in land enclosure can be seen in the colonial practices around hunting. Colonial administrators needed tracts of land which could ensure that elites, mostly from Europe, had undisturbed access to ample big game. In fact, the Europeans were so fond of hunting that they “shot out” the big game and had to impose regulations. In one review of books in the white-man-goes-trophy-hunting genre, there’s a quote from John Tinney McCutcheon’s 1910 memoir In Africa: Hunting Adventures in the Big Game Country: “The Belgians place no limit upon the number of elephants one may shoot. … In British territory, however, sportsmen are limited to only two elephants a year to those holding licenses to shoot.”

The Germans gained control of Tanganyika (which, along with Zanzibar, became modern day Tanzania) in 1885, and they preferred ivory. Writes Gardner, “Soon after colonizing the country the Germans created regulations to protect the remaining wildlife and regulate its use for hunting. Colonial laws effectively banned customary hunting,” although locals could “apply for a license to hunt” or else had “severely limited” access to what eventually became formal game reserves. Thus, wildlife went from being a communal natural resource to being mostly for European use and profit. The British would gain control of Tanganyika after World War I, at which point they enacted game ordinances which kept locals out. Gardner writes that in Tanzania, whether under colonial or postcolonial governments, “controlling wildlife” would remain “central to accumulating state wealth and maintaining authority.” In neighboring East Africa (Kenya), by the 1930s, the British realized they would need to conserve wildlife if hunting was to remain a viable industry; that was thus one impetus for the creation of national parks around that time.

In Selling the Serengeti, Gardner gets to know Maasai activist and former Tanzanian MP (Member of Parliament) Lazaro Parkipuny, who had this to say about the settlers’ appetite for the hunt:

“Indeed the excitement of the whites, colonial civil servants, missionaries and settlers alike was not climaxed in watching, photographing and describing the scenery and wealth of wildlife they found here. Their pleasure was only recorded and hearts fulfilled at sights such as the heaviest ivory from the biggest horn of a ferocious rhino that took a bullet in his brain, the display of the biggest horns of a sable antelope shot; the distance at which an eland was killed with a small caliber rifle, etc. … The main attraction of the Serengeti to Europeans at the time, up until the 1930s, was shooting lions [that were] helpless in the extended [plains].”1

The colonial attitudes and practices that lie at the origin of Western conservation show up conspicuously in the modern safari, whether for sightseeing, photography, or trophy hunting. Essentially, safaris glorify the European colonialism from which they originate. Note the following aspects of safaris:

  1. The iconic Hemingway-style tents and “colonial style safaris. ”
  2. The practice of having “sundowners,” also referred to as “happy hour in the bush.” (Referring to the G&T or gin and tonic, the author writes of a sundowner: “It’s quite tasty. And it’s historical. Yes. Historical.” By this she means that the quinine in the tonic water had antimalarial properties that came in handy as the Brits “trundled on into more and more malaria-infested lands” in Africa.)
  3. The focus on the Big 5, a term referring to big game species that were considered the most difficult to hunt by foot: the African buffalo, African bush elephant, leopard, black rhinoceros, and lion.
  4. The practice of posing with one’s kill. (See photos of Theodore Roosevelt’s safari, to be discussed, here).

Safaris purchased today descend conceptually from safaris that originated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as European powers were “carving up” Africa into various regions under their rule and bringing in white settlers. “Safari emerged as a form of tourism at the precise moment that imperial expansion in Africa was reaching its peak,” writes Trevor Mark Simmons in Selling the African Wilds: A History of the Safari Tourism Industry in East Africa 1900-1939, from which most of the details in this sketch of the colonial origins of safari have been drawn. As Simmons quotes Elspeth Huxley’s 1948 Settlers of Kenya, he notes that Sir Charles Eliot, the Governor of the British East Africa Protectorate, said in 1903 that “the main object of our policy and legislation must be to found a white colony.” Indeed, these former “white colonies” are now some of the top tourist destinations for safari: Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa.


The area that would become the Serengeti National Park (SNP) and Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA, which is home to a large crater) was created by the colonial Game Ordinance of 1940. Although the colonial government said that the Maasai would be able to live there, they eventually placed restrictions on peoples’ movement and on burning and hunting, and they banned agriculture outright in 1954. Even though the government let up on some of these restrictions in later years, for people around Loliondo, the NCA “came to symbolize loss of pastoralist land and rights through state-led conservation.” Gardner discovered that Maasai often used the word “conservation” to refer to the government agency that manages the NCA.

Researchers from the Oakland Institute, a think tank that published a report about the Maasai’s plight in the region in 2018, interviewed villagers in the Ngorongoro district. One anonymous villager had this to say:

“We are Tanzanians but the laws that govern the others do not apply to us. Instead, we are still governed by the colonial laws of the past. The Maasai, chased from the Serengeti, were tricked into believing that we will have Ngorongoro as compensation and that we will never be evacuated from here. We were even promised priority in a case of conflict. But today we cannot use the land for grazing or for cultivation—the end result is starvation of our families. The only use left for this land is to be our burial ground. … We were then promised food aid. But little assistance came and when it did, leaders sold it at exorbitant prices. So we live in dire poverty and face malnutrition. Families have sold cows to buy food. With cattle gone, nothing more is left. Men have been forced to look for jobs in urban areas. They work as night guards in South Sudan where several have been killed. Poverty, hunger, and illiteracy have increased. There is no money for education and those who go to school are still starving. In 2012-2013, close to 500 children from 30 villages, faced with malnutrition, were taken to the hospitals. … Hunger is a sensitive political matter in the village and we are not allowed to speak of it.”

Tanzania gained independence from the British in 1961, and its first President, Julius Nyerere, a socialist, became leader in 1964. His main program was ujamaa (Swahili for family bond) socialism or “villagization,” in which the government attempted to unite different ethnic groups into villages in which democratically elected representatives could manage the interests of a diverse group and which could function as socialist agrarian collectives (Nyerere believed the country had to begin producing food crops to modernize). This transition was sometimes carried out at gunpoint. The Indian Marxist historian Vijay Prashad has referred to Tanzanian socialism of the period as “socialism in a hurry that became undemocratic and authoritarian.” In Maasailand, villagization took place later than in the rest of the country, as government officials initially avoided efforts in places they saw as potentially noncompliant. Villagization was potentially incompatible with pastoralism, which required “dispersed” peoples to manage resources such as salt, water, and grass for livestock. Gardner notes that the government failed to understand the distinction between concentrating people for social services delivery and dispersing livestock to “safeguard the range land from the destructive power of large herds.”

Over the years, there were various failed projects in Maasailand—one to convert the Maasai into ranchers, and another to grow barley on the land in order to service the beer industry. The 1964 rancher project was largely an influence of USAID, created with the idea that the Maasai could produce meat for export to Europe and other countries. The project failed due to overgrazing and problematic water sourcing. When USAID got formally involved with the project in 1970, they shut down their efforts after ten years. The barley project was a state-run project from 1987-89. That, too, failed because of lack of adequate rainfall and the remote location making transportation difficult. After the government abandoned the land for the barley project in 1989, Maasai people in the area agreed to share use of the land for livestock grazing and watering—that is, until 2006, when the owners of Thomson Safaris, a popular American safari tourism company, announced they had acquired (via their organization Tanzania Conservation Limited, or TCL) a 96-year lease on the land, completely taking it away from Maasai use without their prior notice or consent. One man, Ole Pertese, said people with the safari company came to survey his family’s homestead, telling him, “You can no longer use this land. It is the land of a mzungu [Swahili for white person], not of Maasai.” The Thomson lease triggered fierce resistance from the Maasai over the eight-year period in which Gardner covered the story, what he calls a “remarkable political achievement,” given that at the time the book was published in 2016, the legal issues were still unresolved. As Garder notes, Thomson Safaris claimed their project “preserve[s] fragile ecosystems and protect[s] vulnerable wildlife populations,” promoting the idea that the Maasai were destroying the ecosystem. Thomson also pitted ethnic groups against each other by hiring certain ethnic minorities over others and portraying the conflict as one about ethnic tensions, the latter which Gardner found to be largely unsubstantiated. The Oakland Institute report noted that the conflict between the Maasai and Thomson “rages on.” The report notes the “climate of fear” that has pervaded the area, as the Maasai have been subject to “violence, harassment, and arrest, at the hands of local police officers, who are called in by TCL for trespassing” on its nature reserve.

The neoliberal structural adjustment programs (SAPs) of the ‘80s , writes Gardner, aimed to “reduce the role of the public sector, prioritize balancing national budgets, promote foreign trade, privatize state-owned companies, and rationalize social service provision.” This encouraged privatization of the hunting industry (the socialist government banned sport hunting from 1970-78 and had intended to nationalize the industry but never did). In 1992, the Dubai based Ortello Business Corporation (OBC) trophy hunting company gained hunting rights in Loliondo. OBC was required to do development projects (involving water and the building of primary schools and medical clinics), as was the trend at the time, as part of the agreement. However, a decade after initiation, “very few of the development projects initially promised by the OBC had been realized.” For some years, however, the Maasai tolerated the hunting because the company only used the land certain times of year, and initially people were still able to graze their livestock on the land; besides, the Maasai weren’t particularly concerned about the hunting of game. Eventually, things came to a head in 2009, when a drought forced Maasai people to congregate in search of water outside their usual range. State police responded by evicting hundreds of people and thousands of cattle and jailing or harassing many people. It was an “unprecedented event in Loliondo.” Gardner notes that, “for many of the Maasai residents I interviewed, the OBC and the Thomson Safaris … land deals were considered a ‘government effort to complete the land grab started under colonial rule.’” (Gardner notes that “conservation refugees” exist all over the world; he cites one estimate that puts their number at “14 million in Africa alone.” One recent report by Minority Rights Group, a human rights NGO for Indigenous peoples’ rights, details the eviction of and violence against Indigenous groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, and India.)

The Oakland report also details events of 2017, when government-inflicted fires struck Maasai homesteads (also called bomas) around Loliondo and further worsened tensions between Maasai and OBC: “According to the Tanzanian Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, the violent evictions began on August 10, 2017, and were set to last for two weeks. The Ministry’s press release notes that bomas were being burned under government orders, in order to preserve the ecosystems in the region and attract more tourists.” That year, OBC’s hunting license was withdrawn amid accusations of corruption.