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On Safari

Young Hunter tells me that Tanzania is so Maoist-dominated that there are two million Communist Chinese living in that country. Since Tanzania’s population is under twelve million, I ask how it is possible that one out of six of its residents is Chinese? He shrugs his shoulders over his breakfast kippers, and I realize that most of his clients are trophy-collecting Texans only too happy to agree with him. “Are you bringing those smelly objects into my car?” Big Hunter rages when I buy some beautiful Somali, Turkana, and Samburu dolls in a northern Kenya village. “Don’t put them on the seat, they’re so frightfully filthy.” It strikes me as absurd that one should travel to a country with no further purpose than to look at its wildlife, that animal-gaping trips are as narrow and atomized as culinary tours of France, ceramicists’ tours of Ireland, and gay liberation tours of South America.

Yet short of renting a private plane, there is no way of leaving for a few days if I am to find my family again in Africa. Kenyan transportation is still so primitive that the only road to Ethiopia is an unpaved, blindingly dusty thoroughfare, and the road to Somaliland is akin to a mule track. Altering the schedule by a day or two is equally out of the question, for tourist accommodations are so gorged that hotel rooms and camping sites must be reserved months in advance. African wilderness these days must be booked a year ahead. This trip is remarkably similar to traveling through Russia with Intourist guides, trapped round the clock by men who command the sole means of transportation, the implacably fixed schedule, and the stupendous array of propaganda.

I acquire new respect for the mobility, the freedom, and the reality of the traditional shooting safari. The twenty or thirty miles of daily walking in order to track an animal, the reciprocity of danger, anything to escape this playhouse fantasy! Although I have been a near vegetarian and a pacifist much of my life, I entertain macabre notions of learning how to shoot and joining a hunting safari so that I can at least walk on African soil. And at night I pace the confines of the camp like one of those caged animals I have all my life wanted to liberate.

And yet. There is an anecdote Big Hunter likes to tell which sums up that great respect and knowledge of animals which makes him such a good guide to Africa’s wildlife, if to nothing else: The year before, a lioness jumped out of the bush at him, and he gambled with his life by shooting at her feet rather than killing her. “There was one chance out of four that it would frighten her—she did turn and run, actually, and I lived on to tell the tale.” His sentiment toward animals is the essence of the white sport hunter’s ethos. It is that etiquette of the sport of kings and nobles, deriving from the rich man’s leisure and abundance, that is radically opposed to killing out of hunger, as the African—or any poor man—will do. It is a code based on the ambivalent feelings of loving and respecting what you kill, on the precept that you shoot while also safeguarding the species’ young and females, that you attempt to perpetuate the species abundantly for future generations of sportsmen.

Because of the complexity of that code and their precise knowledge of it, white hunters know game as few other men do, and that is partly why they are the best guides to African wildlife. We are constantly amazed by our escorts’ instinct for when and where each species can be found in the vast reserves; by their ability to identify, with their naked eyes, as buffalo or impala what to us look like a dot on the horizon; by their enormous tenderness and respect for animals, whom they manage to approach without causing the least disturbance or fear. Thanks to their skill we are twice able to observe a leopard—that most savage and solitary animal which few tourists see any more—staring down at us with its chilling green gaze from the branches of thorn trees in the Serengeti. In the same Serengeti plain—toward the end of the dry season—our guides find the site where the largest migratory herd in years is congregated: a half million zebra and wildebeest move together toward Lake Victoria in search of young grass. From a distance there is no sound but a low dull buzzing on the plain, all scale is lost in such number, one feels submerged in a plague of insects or in a myriad shoal of microscopic fish. The dun, mourning-hued mass slowly palpitates westward, occasionally enlivened by the frail prancing of the young and by a lifted head revealing dumb, muted eyes above the wildebeest’s patriarchal beard.

It is the splendor of lions—and our guides’ skill at finding them—that dominates my memories of Africa. In the Masai Mara, Big Hunger knows from the wary stance of a vulture in a tree that a kill has been made that day. And he drives us into a thicket stiff with lion, in which a pride of some twelve animals are lying up in the shade after their feast of freshly killed young elephant. Some lift their heads and yawn, gazing at us with trusting eyes. Others continue lying on their backs, paws in the air like pups on a hot day, their white bellies grossly distended by their great repast. Meanwhile fifty yards away from the sated predators a golden-fleeced jackal commences the swift scavenging process that maintains the hygiene of the plain. His delicate ears flared out like antennae, desperately trying to decide whether the lions are sleepy enough for him to get his piece of elephant safely, he darts expectantly toward the feast and prances fearfully back a dozen times, running to and fro like a sandpiper following the turn of the surf on a beach.

Another time we come upon a pair of lions as they are about to mate on top of a huge rock of the Serengeti plain. They stand nuzzling in the sun a few yards above us, their sinews delineated as majestically as in an Assyrian bas-relief. After a particularly affectionate nuzzle the lioness lies down. The lion mounts her, gives a few raging thrusts, and then with an apocalyptic growl bites her in the back of her neck. She swiftly stands up, snarls, and gives him a resounding cuff in the jaw. He looks sheepish, and licks her tenderly. It is intimidating to think that they can repeat the performance some two hundred times that weekend, about every half an hour.

I think that people are traveling to Africa not only to bathe in nature’s innocence but also to witness nature’s violence. To see predators on a kill is considered to be the great moment of a safari, a new outlet for the blood lust once channeled into hunting. It is the corrida of the Seventies, with the animals doing all the blood-letting.

We never come upon a kill—a failure that pleases me—but the one time we see predators miss their prey is grimly instructive. Driving one evening through Amboseli, at the foot of Kilimanjaro, we see twenty-one minibuses gathered near a clearing to observe three cheetah stalking. The first cheetah curtly moves through the thicket toward a small herd of impala, occasionally twitching her ears as a signal for her companions to move on. There is an exaggerated stylishness about these animals’ features—extravagantly long, elegant forelegs, outlandishly small, heavily marked faces. These most endangered animals of East Africa—champion runners but unskilled at camouflage, their temperament as open as the plains they frequent—seem only too willing to be movie stars, and cock their heads photogenically toward the tourists.

After we have watched them for some twenty minutes the cheetah have approached to about 150 yards of their prey, coming close to the distance from which they make their famous sixty-mile-per-hour dash for the kill. But as they reach the critical moment minibuses start crashing about them; tourists leaning on the open rooftops of their vehicles, cameras poised, urge their drivers to get the closest possible view of the kill. Startled by the commotion, the impalas race about in circles and cough out their warning message, the baboons’ terrierlike barking comes sloughing off the trees. The cheetah must know better than we that they have lost their chance for dinner but they go on stalking for a few minutes, as if to finish their pose. And then, amid the clicking of some fifty cameras, the head scout abruptly turns away from the impalas. The three slink off into the plain. Their fragile rib cages seem terribly thin in the dusk, the black markings of their cheeks—like rivulets of black tears—seem to express their frustrated hunger.

We are going to kill these animals with sentiment. Having slain and trapped wild creatures for food, domesticated them for our amusement, and hunted them for sport, we are now decimating them by our fantasies of wilderness. How curious that photographic “shooting” is becoming deadlier to game than the ancient pastime of sport shooting. How regrettable that most of the intrusive drivers are Africans. The ancient code of hunting is past, a new etiquette of viewing has yet to be elaborated if the animals are to survive. I turn to Big Hunter, who, along with two other European drivers, respectfully kept his vehicle still during the cheetahs’ attempted hunt. “Looking at game may become more dangerous to them than hunting,” I say. “Worse than that,” he remarks laconically, “it’s so bloody rude to the animals.”

Briefly escaping from the local Intourist, I visit with two young African conservationists in Tanzania. One is the newly appointed game warden of the Serengeti, David Babeu. He receives me in an office that looks like a primitive military outpost: From a line of low barracks attended by rangers dressed in austere khakhi there blares the rash drone of a short-wave radio, the station’s only communication with the rest of Tanzania. Babeu talks at first with diffidence—probably because of the rudeness with which my type of British guides treat him. As soon as he learns that I am an American and that I frequently write for The New Yorker, which has published a very fine profile of Tanzania’s president, Julius Nyerere, he immediately becomes cordial. We chat morosely about the one million tourists predicted to swarm through East Africa’s game reserves in 1980. And we discuss the future of his park’s three most threatened species—cheetah, leopard, and ostrich—in the light of that invasion. In the past three months alone, Babeu’s rangers have reported several cases of cheetah having heart attacks from being pursued by tourist vehicles, and my tale of the cheetah’s missed dinner seems all too familiar to him.

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