Chee Whiz

Chee Whiz

Tired but infuriated I watched the House Havoc to its end. Then just as my brain sensed a wee bit of insight a client sent me the Times’ article castigating tourists who drive too close to cheetah.

Alas that sliver of insight from the Speaker’s brawl wasn’t, in fact, drown in the rage provoked with the Times’ story. Good insight like a piece of petrified wood gleams even brighter in the white water of rage:

Half-truths, cherry-picked truths, like the bits and pieces of glass on the kitchen floor can’t possibly tell you what’s just shattered or how it fell in the first place or what to do to prevent it happening, again. Rather, the shattered glass is a sensational, reportable event, just like too many cars lining up to watch too few cheetah.

But where did all those cars come from? Who’s in them? Who’s driving them, washing them, fixing them, financing them? The Times doesn’t care about that, but that’s the crux of the story.

I’ve written often about the conflict between tourism and wildlife as a part of the overall human/wildlife conflict. Just a few months ago I railed at PBS for an awful documentary about the real problem tourists cause at wildebeest crossings in the Mara. (Click here.)

The Times’ article reports a problem that we guides have encountered for more than a half century – cats and tourists getting too friendly with one another. This blog is not sufficient for a rational discussion about this, so all I’m going to do is throw out a few facts that have held true during my entire 50 years of guiding so that you can understand why I’m so angry with such an infantile attempt at framing such a gargantuan problem.

Cats habituate easily. Unlike most other wild animals cats become pussies when enough people photograph them. I’m right now searching to find some place in Asia where we can still see wild tigers, the best example. (Stay tuned for an EWT trip announcement.)

When I saw my first wild tiger (on the Nepal side) as I was floating down the Kali River nearly 50 years ago the assumed territory of a male tiger was 100 sq. miles. Today there are reserves in India where there are 100 tigers in 10 square miles.

The tiger I saw dashed away the moment it recognized me. Today tigers in Asia like lions in Africa often come up to vehicles to lie down under them for the shade.

Cheetah come to cars as much as cars come to cheetah. The picture at the top of this blog was taken only a few years ago, and my three cars were the only ones in this remote part of the Serengeti for at least 25-30 square miles. We did not pursue the cheetah; they pursued us.

Cheetah hunting grounds are necessarily flatlands, and the car gives them a mount to look further afield. While mom majestically turned the boot of my car into a crow’s nest as she searched for a family dinner, her three youngsters pranced all over the back tires and roof terrifying my clients and worse, gnawing off the rubber rain seal between the pop-top roof and the top of the car.

Like many times before, I got out of the car and shooed them away with my hat.

Especially in places like the Mara cheetah now use car jams to improve their hunting. The line of vehicles is a barrier to the fleeing antelope who don’t like cars and bump back in a frenzy that often advantages the cheetah.

I’m not fond of this situation, because there’s no reason to advantage cheetah by tourists over a tommie gazelle. But the fact does improve the survivability of cheetah.

Tourism density in The Mara is soon approaching the worst in Africa. Kruger is probably still the king. But it’s a much greater problem in the Mara than Kruger, because off-roading isn’t allowed in Kruger. It is in the Mara.

That’s fabulous for the tourist’s spirit; I’m not sure I want to eliminate it. But instituting rules as exist for example in Kruger and the Serengeti that forbid off-roading in popular tourist areas is the easiest, quickest and cheapest solution to the problem of tourist interference with wildlife.

Private conservancies are a ruse. The wildlife in private conservancies is a hundred times more tame even than in the Mara’s over congested areas. In many cases private conservancy animals were bred in captivity, fed and watered in stressful times before being “introduced” to the wild.

In many conservancies active culling maintains biodiversity not to sustain the planet but tourist revenue.

(I didn’t call this a “fact” because it is highly debated and better and larger private conservancies are developing. But I remain very skeptical.)

Cheetah are one of the best examples of the importance of thriving tourism. About 35 years ago almost all the cheetah were wiped out in the Mara. Not from tourism but from mange.

After nearly a half year of global debate the decision was made to intervene in the wild for the first time in the history of East Africa. A simply powdering of antibiotics easily killed enough mites that the individual cheetahs mustered their immune systems and recovered quickly.

So the blow guns went out and the cheetah were saved. This was not done for the good of the wild. Antibiotic use anywhere is arguably throwing in the towel to the ever-mutating viruses and ends up crippling the species over the long term. It was done to save tourism in the Mara more than to save cheetah.

A similar watershed in tourism/science occurred not too many years later to mountain gorillas in Rwanda when a tourist infected one with measles. Ever since, every baby gorilla born in the mountains has been vaccinated against measles.

Without tourism there would be no mountain gorillas left, and arguably no cheetah left in the Mara. Regulation of tourism is key, and frankly the regulation in Rwanda is much better than the regulation in Kenya.

Nevertheless this yin and yang between tourism and the fundamental attraction that nurtures it (to experience the wild) is a massive dialectic today, nowhere more poorly presented than in the Times article last week.

Not to mention the searing FACT that the Times ignored almost completely: what (local) farmers and school children and developers of necessary human happiness must endure living side-by-side with dangerous wild animals.

This is not a problem whose solution is furthered by an article like the Times that picks and chooses its truths and half-truths based on what is most sensational. Sort of like Kevin McCarthy saying that by ending the chaos he has demonstrated tranquility.