Amos, our guide, stopped our vehicle only 3 meters away from the lone cheetah. It was lying on a mound, back-dropped by the low grasslands and hills typical in this part of the Serengeti National Park. He was successful in finding the second cheetah I’d seen over three weeks of looking for them in the Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, Chobe National Park in Botswana, and the Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti in Tanzania.

Photo by RT KISS

The Serengeti National Park is a World Heritage Site. It is famous for the annual migration of wildebeests and zebras and is home to over 2,500 lions, Thomson gazelles, elands, kudus, hippos, leopards, hyenas, cheetahs, and elephants.

Wildlife tourism forms a significant part of the Tanzanian economy (The Serengeti National Park hosts 350,000 visitors per year), supporting employment for guides, tour companies, lodges, and staff within the national parks. The management of the parks and the tourists who visit them is fundamental to a sustainable environment that supports the wildlife, the economy, and the livelihood of its people.

My stay in the Serengeti National Park was my last chance to see a few cheetahs and leopards — it was near the end of my trip, and until this morning, I hadn’t seen either of these animals. As I was admiring this specimen, three other vehicles full of tourists like us pulled up to have a look, and I wondered at the impact of our presence on this beautiful animal.

“How come there aren’t many cheetahs, Amos?” I was curious, wondering if I was here too early in the season. “Apart from wildebeests and lions, there don’t seem to be many animals. Is this typical?”

“Before, there was plenty of wildlife — lions, elephants,” he said, looking off into the distance. “But the number of animals has decreased, and it’s more difficult to spot them, especially cheetahs,” he said apologetically.

The week before, I had visited the Ngorongoro Crater and had been disappointed at the low wildlife numbers there, too. The Ngorongoro Crater lies within a protected World Heritage site of the larger Ngorongoro Conservation Area and receives just under 600,000 visitors per year. A variety of animals can be found in the Crater — flamingos, black rhinoceros, buffalos, wildebeests, zebras, hippopotamus, elands, and Thomson’s gazelles, among others.

I had only seen one rhinoceros, and this was quite some distance away. According to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority (NCAA), the local population of black rhinos declined from about 108 recorded in 1964-66 to 30-40 recorded in 2012. The NCAA also claims this area has one of the densest populations of lions, about 60 recorded in 2012. These statistics seemed consistent with the species I had been able to spot.

Photo by RT KISS

When we had stopped in the Crater for lunch, I had asked Amos about the large number of vehicles. Several tour companies were operating in this area, and, judging by the logos on the trucks, some companies had more than one vehicle.

“This is not as many vehicles as there will be in a few weeks’ time,” he had replied. “This is still a little early for the tourists. If you came later, there would also be more animals but maybe less chance of getting close to them due to the number of tourist companies here… more vehicles, more people.”

The relationship between the locals, the wildlife, and the tourism economy is critical at the local level. Amos is employed by a tourist company to run trips in Tanzania, and his job supports his wife and two children. Amos has plans to continue this role for another four years to help build up some capital. As he explained to me, “I want to find a place to teach others how to become guides, teach them about the wildlife, and identify habitats, animal behavior, and ecology, as well as the human side of tour guiding: how to handle a group, and communication.” He paused, then added, “I might do shorter trips, three or four days, so I’m not away from my family for as long.” Most trips involve driving on extremely rough roads, for seven days at a time with only a short break between trips.

Before visiting the Ngorongoro Crater, in Esilalei Maasai Village, I had spoken to Laraha, the Maasai guide whom Maasai Wanderings, a tourist company, sponsored.

“I was sponsored to go to school for one year to learn more English to be a guide for the village here,” Laraha explained. He is very tall and slender and wears traditional colorful robes and sandals made from recycled tires. “I learned how to take people into the bush safely and how to explain about the habitat, food, and behavior of the animals. At night we keep our cows, goats, and sheep in the middle of an enclosure, which is in the middle of our circle of huts, so the (domestic) animals don’t get eaten by the wildlife.” Laraha proceeded to bring us to this enclosure to experience a welcoming dance and to purchase items made by the women of the village. Any purchases from tourists contribute to the economy of the village.

There are no statistics at the village level, but to put this into the broader Tanzanian context, TanzaniInvest reports that the Minister of Natural Resources and Tourism of Tanzania reported in the budget for 2016/2017 that tourist arrivals had reached over 1.25 million in 2016 — up by 12.9% from 2015. In the financial year 2016/2017, tourism contributed to 17.5% of Tanzania’s Gross Domestic Product. TanzaniaInvest also reports that in 2016/2017, the Tanzania National Parks Authority, which is responsible for the management of the national parks, collected 173.2 billion TZS in revenue from entrance fees.

That night at the Serengeti camp, Amos was relaxing with a beer before dinner after another long day of driving us around searching for cheetahs and leopards. I wondered about the effect of tourists and asked Amos about the number of campsites.

“When I first started working as a guide, there were few campsites, few lodges. Now, there are a lot more, and the number of people visiting has increased a lot. There are more companies running tours. The animals are moving away, going elsewhere. The vegetation is also changing.”

The African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) states the cheetah’s habitat, which is primarily open plains, has decreased by 89% — which has led to a conservation status of “vulnerable.” The main cause of habitat loss is human activity such as agriculture, expansion of settled areas, and road construction. According to the AWF, the cheetah population has decreased by 30% over the last 18 years and less than 7,000 adults remain in the wild.

Amos has been a guide for sixteen years, seeing a lot of change in that time period. “So Amos, what would you say has been the best experience in your time as a guide?”

Amos thought for a moment, “Before, I used to hear a lot about poaching. Now, not much. We educate people in the villages not to kill animals, and they are getting their income from other activities like gardening vegetables. I feel like I’m making a difference, for the better.”

The pressure on wildlife habitat is not only from tourism but also from drought and wildfires. There is only one perennial water source in the Serengeti National Park, the Mara River, which runs through Kenya and Tanzania. The World Heritage Site acknowledges that as the activities of the park expand, the lack of sufficient resources for effective management of poaching, tourism, resource monitoring, and wildfire threat remains a concern.

That tension between numbers of visitors, number of wildlife, economic opportunity and pressure on the wildlife habitat is always present, and so is the continuous effort made by world organizations such as the World Heritage Conservation, and local guides like Amos, to balance these demands.

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