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Sunday, January 18, 2015

US Land Managers could learn a few things from their African colleagues

Male Lion
I recently returned to the Northwest after a two week Safari through northern Tanzania.  It was an amazing experience. The safari took us through Arusha, one of Tanzania's larger cities, out to Lake Tarangire and Serengeti National Parks and Ngorongoro's Conservation Area.  The parks and conservation areas were filled with wildlife from the ubiquitous wildebeest to the rare black rhino.
African National Parks share many similarities with their American counterparts. 

They are big. Serengeti for example is more than 3.7 million acres or roughly 1.5 times the size of Yellowstone. Put another way, Serengeti is as large as the state of Connecticut.

The parks are well visited. Despite having to travel over poorly maintained dirt roads, parks like the Serengeti and Ngorongoro see roughly 1 million tourists annually. 

Olduvai Gorge
The parks protect natural and cultural resources. The Tanzanian Park Service, like its US counterparts,  protect both natural and cultural resources. Olduvai Gorge in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area protects one of the world's most important historic sites and some of the oldest fossilized human remains. They like to say at Olduvai, if one traces his/her lineage back far enough, everyone is from Tanzania.

Yet, the Tanzanian Park Service diverges from the National Park Service (NPS) on many issues.  An approach, in my opinion that the NPS should copy.

Conservation over Recreation

Guided tours allow close but low impact interaction with park wildlife.
The Tanzanian Park Service places conservation and the protection of natural resources and wildlife over private recreation.  Nearly every visitor to Tanzania's National Parks has a guide. These guides receive extensive training on resource and wildlife protection. The guides are trained to get the visitors deep into the parks for close up but safe interactions with the wildlife. Private recreation such as hiking, mountain biking, and swimming is practically non-existent.

Yet, despite this focus on guided rather than private access, park visitor's report high satisfaction with their safaris.

Here in the US, the National Park Service mistakenly promotes the idea that they have a dual mandate. A mandate that requires them to balance conservation with recreation. This is incorrect and the courts have consistently ruled that when their is a conflict between conservation and recreation, the law requires the Park Service to favor conservation. The Park Service's continued pushing of the conservation vs. recreation myth creates undue management headaches as every recreation interest from snowmobiles to off-lease dog walkers demand access to the national parks. As a result, the National Parks are compromised by questionable activities that in many instances do not require a national park setting to enjoy.

Africa takes conservation crimes seriously
Tanzanian Park Rangers and their African counterparts take environmental crimes seriously. During our trip, I asked our guide if our truck broke down how would we contact the rangers for help.  The guide responded, we wouldn't.  The rangers job was to patrol the borders looking for poachers. This focus on poaching was recently rewarded when Tanzanian police arrested Feisal Mohammed Ali, the world's most wanted ivory trafficker. Meanwhile, rangers in South Africa shot and killed suspected rhino poachers. While I'm not advocating for the summary execution of park criminals, the US federal government could do more to increase the understanding of the severity of environmental crimes. However, its handling of the Cliven Bundy standoff and the courts unwillingness to impose stiff penalties on poaching sends the message that resources crimes are no big deal.

Focus on experience

One of the better Serengeti park roads
Another area of focus for Tanzanian Park Rangers is on visitor experience rather than amenities. To say the roads of Serengeti and Ngorongoro are rough is an understatement.  In some instances, the roads are little more than a mud streak. Meanwhile, the Tanzanian National Parks spend little on so-called necessities like Wi-Fi and cell coverage. Interpretive displays are often rudimentary and lack any high tech whiz bang features found in the US.  Yet, they provide information in multiple languages increasing public understanding of why the parks are important.  Rather than providing distractions, the Tanzanian parks focus on preserving authentic experiences.  An authentic experience is one that improves a visitor's appreciation and understanding of park wildlife and natural features, while allowing low impact intimate interaction with those resources.  Unfortunately, many US park activities significantly diminish authentic experiences.

America's National Parks will celebrate its 100 birthday in 2016. During the year, its expected the Park Service will seek public comment on how best to insure it reaches its bi-centennial.  The National Park Service should look to Africa for guidance.

Sean Smith is a former Yellowstone Ranger, and an award winning conservationist, TEDx speaker, and author. He writes national park thrillers from his home in the shadow of Mount Rainier National Park. To learn more about his conservation work and novels, follow him on twitter: @parkthrillers


  1. This is a true statement. What Americans will learn from African Land Managers are mostly challenges. Challenges of how to balance human expectations regarding resource use, protection against illegal activities, role in local and regional development, government expectations in revenue generation, etc.

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