Russell Barnett thinks back to a safari experience and questions the extent of human input.
The African safari has become a staple in the repertoire of British holidaymakers, becoming more accessible than ever to the general public. Whether it is retired couples, young families or gap year students, a growing number of people can now say they’ve taken part in this fantastic experience. In January, I was lucky enough to travel to Addo Elephant National Park in South Africa’s Eastern Cape as part of a field trip with the University of Exeter. This was my first time travelling outside of Europe and I was looking forward to seeing a new part of the world that in my mind was wilder and more natural. However, it would not quite be as I imagined it.
The trip itself was absolutely incredible. We visited places unlike any other I had ever seen, learned about the fascinating natural history of the fynbos ecological biome and even got the chance to taste some of the famous South African wines! But really, we were all there for one reason: the wildlife. Early morning game drives through Addo gave us unbelievably close views of zebra, hyena, black rhino, buffalo, kudu, secretary birds, warthogs, meerkats and of course, African elephants. Unfortunately, my best view of a lion is still Sampson from Newquay Zoo, but I suppose you can’t have everything in one trip!
Despite having such a wonderful time, one thing did strike me as slightly odd. While I wasn’t expecting to find myself alone in the bush with pristine wilderness as far as the eye could see, I was surprised as to how much of the landscape had been modified by humans. As I scanned the horizon in search of the unmistakable silhouette of an elephant, I noticed huge electricity pylons towering over the animals below. At each junction in the well-tarmacked road, signposts gave directions to wildlife viewpoints. If it wasn’t for the leopard tortoise plodding along beside the car, it may not have seemed out of place to see one reading “Land’s End: 2 miles”. However, I could see that the signs were needed to cater for the sheer number of vehicles in the park. At times, driving through Addo was reminiscent of the Cornish A30, although cars there could be found queuing not because of the seemingly unending roadworks past Bodmin, but because an elephant had decided to take a rest in the middle of the road.
Even though my expectations of South Africa’s landscapes were different to their reality, they are not unusual. Much of this phenomenon comes from the way in which Africa as a continent is portrayed within the media, particularly through wildlife films. Series after series has transported us to huge savannahs and lush wetlands with no traces of humanity for hundreds of miles. Whereas this might be the case in some of the bigger parks in countries like Kenya and Botswana, much of the continent has become so urbanised that wildlife is being trapped in smaller and smaller fragments of habitat. This creates genuine ecological issues in terms of reduced gene flow between populations, but also causes more human-wildlife conflict as animals and people are found too close together. There really is no true solution to this problem as global populations increase and African economies develop at blistering rates.
Perhaps we should begin to accept that there are few pristine wildernesses left on our planet. As our cities grow, our jungles are cut down. As we power our homes, we dam our rivers. As we become more connected to each other, we lose our connection with the natural world. Gazing through my camera lens across the green valleys of Addo, my excitement and sheer joy at what I was witnessing was occasionally overshadowed by a troubling thought. To me, the South African safari experience seemed more like a relic of what the country used to look like, rather than a celebration of the wildlife it has now. But when you think about it, how wild can a place truly be if there’s still a fence around it?