“AS I stepped to one side of the bush so as to get a clear aim, with Slatter following, the rhino saw me and jumped to his feet with the agility of a polo pony. As he rose, I put in the right barrel, the bullet going through both lungs. At the same moment he wheeled, the blood spouting from his nostrils, and galloped full on.” So wrote the American president, Theodore Roosevelt, on his safari to what is now Kenya, exactly a century ago.
Roosevelt’s expedition helped make Kenya the capital of the safari business. Elephant guns have given way to telephoto lenses, but the essentials remain: dawn and dusk game drives, stately canvas tents guarded by warriors with spears, and drinks around the campfire, with the mawing and bellowing of animals in the liquid black night beyond. Pitched somewhere between a circus and the Animal Planet television channel, the safari has become a mainstay of the Kenyan economy.
Still, it has always been a boom-and-bust business, and now it is closer to bust. African tourism as a whole is doing better than most, but Kenya’s safari operators have been hit by a particular series of body blows: al-Qaeda attacks on Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998; again on the coastal resort of Mombasa in 2002; last year’s election crisis, with its televised violence; and then the global financial crisis. Camps in the Mara game reserve have been mostly empty this year—bad news for mobile camps and a disaster for permanent ones. Even in lean times operators have to pay fixed fees, along with taxes and shady incentives to officials and local elders. Soaring costs have seen Kenya lose business to Botswana, Namibia and South Africa.
Kenya’s tourism boosters think the government’s response has been weak, merely a few adverts and a reduction in the price of an entry visa. What is needed, they say, is a complete overhaul of the safari business. Grander operators, who charge upwards of $500 a night, are suffering at the hands of budget safari hotels, whose minibuses crowd in on the animals, and whose latrines and rubbish pollute wild areas. A recent UNESCO report on the Ngorongoro reserve across the border from the Mara in Tanzania says the minibuses are causing permanent damage.
Private game reserves may be an alternative to stressed national parks. Several of these have established a plush model for visitors and animals alike. But the cost of keeping the animals in and the poachers out may make them uneconomic. Another tack would be to spruce up the disdained safari hotels to attract wealthier Chinese, Indians and Africans. Fairmont, a hotel company, has spent $15m smartening up its Mount Kenya Safari Club. Kenyans hope that President Barack Obama will return to the land of his father’s birth next year after attending the World Cup in South Africa. But it will take more than a quick Rooseveltian safari (without the guns) to preserve this flagging business.