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The Political Economy of Safari

Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos
Phinda Private Game Reserve, Zululand, South Africa, 2002

We searched for them for a week, but in the end the wild dogs surrounded us almost before we saw them. They came out of the dusk in twos and threes, melting in and out of the trees with a flicker of white-tufted tails, until the whole pack, from puppies to the alpha pair, had assembled. 

I turned the big open 4×4 in behind them as they trotted along the dust track. It was my first time leading a safari, and now I was trailing one of the most endangered animals in Africa. The instructor beside me muttered the correct following distance; on the bench seats behind us, four other students kept still and low. When I switched off the engine the dogs surged back around the vehicle, their coats brushing softly against the paintwork. If I’d stretched down, I could have run my fingers through the tan-and-black fur on their backs. It was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life.

When the pack disappeared again among the trees, a first-quarter moon was rising and nightjars were calling to each other in a liquid rise-and-fall whistle. “You don’t see that wherever you all come from,” Mark, the instructor, said as we exhaled. “London, or wherever. The States. Those cities.” The word was caught between distaste and pity. He was a weather-beaten South African in his sixties who had spent his life outdoors and carried a dainty shoulder pouch that looked like a woman’s handbag.

“What does he keep in that bag?” I’d asked a senior student, a stocky local twenty-year-old who’d grown up hunting on his family’s game ranch. 

He shrugged. “Just a handgun.”

With nine other students, I was training as a safari guide on a privately owned game reserve in northern South Africa. In every direction, as far as we could see, the land was empty of humans. Our world was made up of woodland, granite koppies, red sandy earth, dry riverbeds, and dams, man-made lakes that served as watering holes. Apart from the dogs, it was home to wildlife from eight-ton elephant bulls to two-ounce elephant shrews, as well as the hundreds of species of birds, insects, trees, and grasses I spent most of my time learning and forgetting and relearning to identify. 

We slept in two-person dome tents set back from one of the dams, and at night I was woken by the rifle-crack of elephants breaking branches on their way down to drink. Sometimes, they passed so close I heard the hollow rush of their breath. This was the African wilderness as I’d seen it in endless BBC and National Geographic documentaries: beautiful and apparently pristine. But if we drove back to camp after dark, we could see on the horizon the faint glow of the town where we picked up sacks of maize meal and jerry-cans of fuel. It was home to barely 4,000 people, but seen from the reserve, it meant crowds, pollution, and, most of all, poachers.

“Rhino horn is worth more by weight than diamonds or cocaine,” the reserve’s manager told us. “There are a lot of poor people in that town who’ll hack 3kg [6lb] of it from an animal’s face.” On moonlit nights, an armed anti-poaching team patrolled the reserve’s boundary, looking for telltale human tracks in the dust strip that ran along the electrified fence.  

From inside the reserve, life seemed clear and simple. There were the bad guys, who appeared to want to destroy nature—poachers, corrupt government officials, mining companies that poisoned the soil and water, the far-away consumers of rhino horn in China and Vietnam, even the ever-increasing numbers of local people pushing the town’s edge outwards. And the good guys—park rangers, anti-poaching specialists, conservation experts, and wildlife guides—who understood it, loved it, and protected it. That’s what we were there to learn to be, the good guys. 

*

I wasn’t a guy, I had no idea how to use a gun, and the only wild dogs anywhere near my own home were part of a research project at London Zoo. But I was learning to change the tires on an old Land Cruiser and memorizing the birth weight of hyena pups because, at thirty-seven, I had burned out. I had just spent several years living in Egypt, reporting on the 2011 revolution and the cruelty and suffering of its aftermath. When I returned to work in the UK, I was angry, heartbroken, and guilty at being able to leave. Though my life in London was safe and easy, as I went through the motions of commuting and sitting in the office, everything felt dark. That was when the dreams began: huge open spaces, empty skies, light—places I’d seen when I’d visited friends in South Africa. That wild nature felt like a lifeline, something I could believe in as an absolute, uncomplicated good, a unifying and healing force that was somehow separate from the moral tangles created by humans. I didn’t think about where these beliefs had come from.  

In South Africa, I’d met a lot of field guides, rangers, and wildlife experts. These men (they were all men and, at a senior level, most of them were white) seemed to belong out in the spectacular wildernesses they casually called “the bush.” In their spare time, they flew anti-poaching air patrols or worked on conservation projects or wildlife documentaries. I envied their knowledge and skill, their laconic authority, their confidence that simply by working in nature they were always doing the right thing. The day I got a letter saying that a US publisher had bought the book I had written about Egypt, I found a two-month course leading to the first level of qualification by the Field Guides Association of Southern Africa. The course description spoke of inspiration, learning, and contributing to conservation and local communities. I took leave from the office where I worked as a freelance editor, bought the least ridiculous bush hat I could find, and booked the course.  

When I landed in Johannesburg, amid a spectacular spring thunderstorm that rattled the windows of the plane, the headlines were turbulent. The supreme court of appeal had just ruled that the president, Jacob Zuma, must face charges of corruption, fraud, racketeering, and money-laundering. The murder rate ran at fifty-two people a day, most of them poor and black, but demonstrators blocked motorways in protest at the killing of white farmers, and a few flew the flag of Apartheid South Africa. The left-wing populist politician Julius Malema had called for black citizens to seize white farmers’ land; Zuma, anxious not to be outflanked, vowed to wrest economic power away from the white minority. The economy was struggling, and unemployment had reached nearly 30 percent; for young people, it was around 50 percent. But the tourism and travel industry, which, all told, contributed nearly a tenth of the country’s GDP, relied on visitors’ insulation from these numbers and the people behind them. It focused on what was uncontentious and loved by all: the country’s natural beauty and particularly its wildlife. When I withdrew rands from an airport ATM, it was the big five—lion, rhino, elephant, buffalo, and leopard—that looked back at me from the notes.       

Twenty-four hours later, I was eating sliced white bread and Black Cat, the beloved, plasticky local peanut butter, under a green canvas awning in the middle of a game reserve. Around me sat six men and three other women from across South Africa, the US, and Europe. I was one of the oldest in the group; most students were in their late teens or early twenties. Some looked frankly terrified. 

The head instructor, Mark, walked over in his well-worn khaki bush clothes. “Welcome all,” he said abruptly, rapping the table. “Be aware that we have a lot to get through in the next month. I work hard, and so will you. I hope,” he added. 

I caught the eye of my tentmate, Dionne. She was a poised, outspoken New Yorker who was almost exactly my age. She was also the only black person in camp apart from Katie and Sara, the local staff members who cooked and cleaned and whom the instructors called “the ladies.”

We quickly realized that camp was Mark’s fiefdom. He decided when we got up (before sunrise) and when we went to sleep (late, studying by torchlight in our tents) and graded our performance in the nonstop round of academic lectures, tests, guiding practice, and camp chores that filled the hours between. He was responsible for our safety (since lethal danger was ever-present), and he was the only person who was armed (I didn’t count the Leatherman multitools that the teenage students, in a rush of survivalist enthusiasm, bought on a supply run to town). Mark was brusque and irritable, but there was no doubting his profound knowledge of the bush. In the isolated world of the course—living with strangers in remote, basic conditions, with no private space, no Internet, no electricity, and minimal cellphone reception—his approval took on inordinate weight.

Studying nature so immersively was the most absorbing thing I had ever done. I was plunged into a world of unfamiliar skills, knowledge, and even language: instar, cytotoxin, altricial. I couldn’t tell a red bush-willow from a russet bush-willow, a water thick-knee from a spotted thick-knee. When we hiked deep into the reserve to track a wounded zebra or look for scorpions under rocks, I felt helplessly adrift and unreasonably happy. The more scraps of knowledge I pieced together, the more beautiful and intriguing the bush became. 

It would have been idyllic—if not for an undertow of unease. I began to notice the irritable, sarcastic replies if I asked Mark a question that wasn’t completely deferential, and casual comments to female students that put me on edge: “Stand back, ladies”; “Put your foot down, sweetie.” 

“I’m not PC and I’m not interested in that PC rubbish,” he told me bluntly when I objected, trying to keep my tone light to avoid offending him. While I’d come looking for my own ideal of wildness and escape, I began to realize that the bush was, for some, the backdrop to a macho fantasy of their own. I was horrified when an assistant guide repeatedly made sleazy comments to female students and “joked” about spying on them in the rickety outdoor shower cubicle. But it wasn’t obvious whom in authority to tell. On a hundred-degree Fahrenheit day when it was too hot to hike, Mark threw the 4×4 up and down an impossibly steep slope by the dam to show off his driving skills. 

“You don’t have to have girls screaming your name while you do this, but it helps,” he shouted over the roar of the engine. 

A week later, Dionne asked to speak to Mark. We had moved camp that day, and she had been upset to see that Katie and Sara were left sitting late into the afternoon without shelter, while workers first put up tents for the students and instructors, then the lecture and dining tent. Dionne wanted reassurance that they were respected and treated fairly by the company. I went with her, because we both had a sense that Mark was unlikely to welcome this discussion. But we were shocked at how quickly the situation escalated.       

“You’re saying I’m a white racist pig,” he shouted at Dionne, his voice shaking with rage. “But I have a daughter who would pass as black in America. You don’t know me. You don’t know anything about me.” 

At first, I was confused. No one other than Mark had mentioned race or racism. I found it hard to believe that a white man in a professional position would feel so free to aggressively shout down a younger black woman; Dionne was less naïve. But for the next few days, Mark treated her with chilly hostility. When a company official visited the camp, burly and charming in his new white 4×4, my final doubts evaporated.

“I understand where you’re coming from,” he said soothingly to our complaints. “Absolutely. Because as a white man, I’m at the bottom of the pile in South Africa nowadays.”

After a month, our course transferred to another game reserve and we hoped that we had left the conflict behind. The new head instructor, David, was a South African man of our own age, tall, athletic, and self-consciously dapper in his khakis. He was equally hardworking and equally knowledgeable about the bush. Yet he, too, seemed oddly hostile.  

“I have notes on both of you in here, from Mark,” he said to me and Dionne soon after we arrived, nodding to the filing cabinet in the office tent. “I know everything that happened on that side”—a South Africanism that meant “over there,” at the first camp.

Again, Dionne was unsurprised. “I feel you already have a negative attitude toward me,” she said calmly, measuring her words. “I’m concerned that’s been shaped by someone who isn’t objective.”   

He turned on her. “Yes, I’ve heard how you played the race card.”

I gasped. “What? That phrase is so offensive.”  

“I know,” he said, rolling his eyes and rocking back sulkily on his chair. “It’s offensive to me, too.” 

I was at a loss. With all South Africa’s traumatic past and present inequality, these men seemed to see themselves as victims of a politically correct conspiracy. They seemed defensive and besieged, oblivious to the intimidating power they had over others in a remote, dangerous environment. I’d come looking for a wilderness my own background and circumstances had allowed me to imagine; now its realities were impossible to ignore. 

*

As we trained, those realities had sometimes been hard to see. I had to memorize “traditional beliefs” about the trees that shaded the camp—that a buffalo thorn twig could guide the spirits of the dead home; that a branch from the magic guarri tree would lead a person to water, if they were pure of heart—but the course materials were silent about the people who believed them, where they had lived, and where they were now. Our textbook spent fifteen pages on a minutely detailed discussion of arthropods, but said nothing of who owned the country’s protected land—beyond its national parks, South Africa had 10,000 privately owned game reserves, including the land we were training on—how it was managed, and who benefited from it. At the back of the book, it referred tersely to “the first European explorers to visit southern Africa, their colonization of the country and its effects on the people who were already there.” And that was all. 

These silences and omissions were hardly new. In the wildlife documentaries I’d loved since childhood, crocodiles snapped at wildebeest in an untouched paradise populated only by animals. When a schoolfriend’s parents took us to see The Lion King, the year Nelson Mandela became president of a democratic South Africa, we watched Scar fight Mufasa to a Zulu-language soundtrack in a generic Africa where creatures had Swahili names (despite being voiced largely by white actors). Elephants, giraffes, and zebras marched over my younger brother’s babygros and storybooks, tangled with tigers and toucans; factual accuracy was completely irrelevant, because the animals stood in for goodness and purity. Because they were mute and beautiful, everyone could love them. Everyone, that is, apart from the bad people I read about in my parents’ Greenpeace pamphlets—the poachers who shot elephants, the cattle herders who poisoned lions—who didn’t care about “conservation” or “endangered species.”     

Bettmann/Getty Images
Theodore Roosevelt standing over a dead rhino, Sotik, Africa, 1909

The roots of all these ideas stretched straight back to empire. When the first Europeans arrived in southern Africa, they found an extraordinary abundance of wildlife. It was a new Eden, rhapsodized the early adventurers, in contrast to the increasingly depleted, urbanized land of northern Europe, and its natural riches were there for colonists to use and enjoy. The week Jan van Riebeeck arrived to found the Dutch East India Company’s settlement at the Cape in 1652, he recorded that his men had killed a “sea-cow” (a hippo) that was “the weight of two ordinary fat oxen.” In the years that followed, as Afrikaner settlers pushed further into the interior and European influence increased, so did the slaughter. The Transvaal—the area of northeast South Africa that covers the modern-day Kruger National Park and the game reserve where I was training—exported around 100 tons of ivory in 1855 alone. When Queen Victoria’s sixteen-year-old son Prince Alfred visited in 1860, his hosts drove 30,000 animals, including quagga, zebra, wildebeest, kudu, eland, and ostrich, onto the guns of the prince’s party. Two decades later, the zebra-like quagga was extinct in the wild; in 1883, the last individual died in an Amsterdam zoo. By the end of the century, white rhinos were thought to have been hunted to extinction, until by chance twenty animals were found sheltering in the deep bush in the east of the country. 

Africa’s wild places became a scenic backdrop to Westerners’ feats of machismo. In the second half of the nineteenth century, hunting big game was seen as a way to stiffen the spine of upper-class British men at risk of “going soft” in luxurious Europe. A spell under canvas in the bush, with just enough bracing privation and a retinue of local black servants to provide domestic comforts, was thought to reawaken the primal instincts lost in modern city living. “Six months of African hunting life would make a man ‘a 10lb better fellow all around,’” proclaimed Lord Randolph Churchill, Winston Churchill’s father. By the first years of the twentieth century, hunting safaris had become the exotic-gap-year cliché of their day. In 1906, a colonial administrator named Harry Johnston complained that it had become “an accepted panacea… that a young or middle-aged man, who has been crossed in love, or has figured in the Divorce Court, or in some way requires to faire peau neuve, must go out to Africa and kill big game.” 

The most extravagant hunting trip of all was Theodore Roosevelt’s 1909 expedition from Mombasa to Khartoum. Led by the best-known white hunters in Africa, with a train of 500 local porters, it collected more than 11,000 specimens for the Smithsonian’s new Museum of Natural History and started a craze for big-game hunting among wealthy Americans that has lasted to this day. The photographs of Roosevelt posing triumphantly with the carcasses of rhino, buffalo, and elephant, the former president appearing slight and incongruous in his round glasses, were mirrored over a century later in the grinning, self-congratulatory shots of the Minnesotan dentist Walter Palmer with the bloodstained body of Cecil the lion, and President Trump’s sons Donald Jr. and Eric with trophies that included an elephant’s tail and a dead leopard.    

 Eric Trump (center) and Donald Trump Jr. (right), with a hunting guide, Zimbabwe, 2011

But such rites, then as now, were only for “hunters,” not for “poachers.” As the safari industry took shape, white colonists were systematically severing the relationship between non-white local people, the land, and wildlife. In the Transvaal, laws to restrict black people’s access to firearms and hunting were introduced in 1858 and became steadily more oppressive. These laws had less to do with protecting wildlife, which faced a far greater threat from white hunters and farmers, than with employers’ desire to prevent black locals from subsistence hunting, which meant they had little need to labor for pay, and kept them, in the words of a Transvaal government official, “indolent and lazy… loafing their time here doing nothing.” By 1913, the Natives Land Act restricted land ownership by black people to just 7 percent of South Africa’s total area (amended by later legislation to a mere 13 percent).

At the same time, Western countries were laying the foundations of the modern idea of “conservation.” The US established the world’s first national park, Yellowstone, in 1872, and Australia, Canada, and the UK quickly followed. (During his presidency, Roosevelt himself established 150 national forests and five national parks—a conservation record that did not hinder his 1909 African hunting spectacular.) In 1903, a group of upper-class British hunters and naturalists whom the press called “penitent butchers” established the Society for the Preservation of the Wild Fauna of the Empire, which, through its high-profile lobbying and publications, shaped an enduring Western attitude toward African wildlife: that it was under threat from ignorant and rapacious local people, and that white people were the only ones who could protect it.       

In South Africa, the vast Kruger National Park was inaugurated in 1926, a symbol of the new national identity being constructed as British influence waned and Afrikaners assumed political and cultural power. Named after the nineteenth-century Afrikaner leader Paul Kruger, it was intended to preserve nature “just as the Voortrekkers [Afrikaner pioneer settlers] saw it.” (James Stevenson-Hamilton, the park’s first warden and a Scot, rolled his eyes in private at the political expediency: “the old man… never in his life thought of wild animals except as biltong [jerky].”)

While black South Africans were excluded from this mythology and, largely, from the park itself (except as low-paid labor), the Kruger immediately took on an aura of sanctity for white citizens. It was a favorite talking-point of the Apartheid regime: in 1968, the National Parks Board warned “saintly countries” and “sanctimonious critics overseas” to recognize the South African government’s moral achievements in nature conservation, whatever they thought of its racial policies. Only in 1993 were black tourists permitted to stay overnight in the main park, and by 2010–2011 less than 9 percent of visitors to the Kruger were of black African origin. The connection between this history and the present was still easy for some to ignore.  

“Black Africans just aren’t interested in nature,” a white South African student said, as we sat by the campfire one night. We’d been talking about how dominated the country’s safari industry still was by white people, who owned and managed most of its private reserves, and made up the vast majority of guests. “It’s not PC to say it, but it’s true.” 

*

Bit by bit, I pieced together the true nature of the land I was hiking and driving over every day. It was an Apartheid-era cattle farm that its owners had designated a game reserve in the 1990s when foot-and-mouth disease made beef farming unprofitable, and the law changed to allow landowners to “own”—and therefore benefit from—wildlife. However wild it looked, it was as carefully managed as any London park: the conservation manager showed us his spreadsheets recording the number of animals on the reserve, each species kept in a precise balance with the others in rounds of buying, selling, and culling. As in the Kruger and Botswana’s reserves, elephants, which multiplied quickly thanks to the artificial water sources, posed a problem no one quite knew how to solve. 

I admired the reserve owners’ efforts to rewild land that had once been exhausted by intensive farming: uprooting invasive vegetation, reintroducing wildlife, clearing the detritus of old fencing and machinery. This was the story of many South African protected areas (and a reason that some wealthy tourists dismissed the country as “not wild enough,” preferring the remote wildernesses of Zimbabwe and Botswana). But as elsewhere, the land’s human history was obscured. Empty, untouched wilderness was what tourists wanted to see, and this was the illusion the safari industry aimed to recreate.     

Wikus de Wet/AFP/Getty Images
Rangers directing blue wildebeest into their truck after they have been captured in Kruger National Park, South Africa, August 20, 2018

It wasn’t the only hangover from the days of empire. Guides weren’t simply responsible for providing expert knowledge and ensuring their guests’ safety. They were also expected to administer first aid, mix drinks, change tires, host dinners, clean vehicles, defuse complaints, and assist their guests in every way. Our textbook offered blunt advice on everything from hosting what it called “Oriental clients” (“Do not call the Japanese ‘Chinese’ and vice versa”) to dealing with a client’s corpse (“Under no circumstance may the body be transported by the vehicle used for transporting other clients”). Part of our training was to entertain our “guests” on each drive we led, serving up drinks, snacks, and small talk from behind a folding table.

I wondered whether these expectations began to explain the weirdly fluctuating sense of bravado and victimhood that seemed to dog our instructors. Part of it was economic. Guides worked in a luxury industry, but the majority of them were paid very little. A single night at a high-end safari lodge in South Africa could cost $2,000 (including game drives, but excluding French champagne), but the monthly wage of a guide might be less than a quarter of that, with the workers living in basic rooms hidden from the luxurious guest accommodation, working three-week stretches without a break. 

Spending your days fixing 4x4s and tracking lions was also a way of avoiding some of the troubling consequences of being a white South African in general, and an Afrikaner in particular. One was the trappings of middle-class life in a high-crime country: the electrified fences and rapid-response signs, guard dogs, window-bars, and lockable internal gates that made me feel caged and edgy when I stayed in Johannesburg or Cape Town. Once past the fortified outer boundary of the game reserve, all these disappeared—along with much of the impact of the Black Economic Empowerment policies that the company official had alluded to, under which non-white South Africans were preferred for most business and employment opportunities. The safari industry, like agriculture and wine farming, had been shaped by historical patterns of land ownership and perceived expertise. At its senior levels, white men still faced little competition. 

But the most significant escape, I thought, was probably psychological. In democratic South Africa, to be a member of the minority that had implemented Apartheid was to find yourself in a particular psychic bind. That uncomfortable sense wasn’t one of identity alone: pre-1994 South Africa had made military service compulsory for white young men, and now and again, the older instructors alluded in half-sentences to serving in the army or draft-dodging in small towns along the southern coast.      

Although they seemed to have little compunction about the language they used toward others, these men were acutely resentful of even the possibility of being thought racist. When they taught us Zulu or Shangaan animal names, or explained how “local people” harvested honey from mopane trees, I understood that they saw themselves as liberal. And by the standards of the Afrikaner community, which tended to be socially, religiously, and politically conservative, they could well have been right. I thought of the small farming towns I’d driven through in the remote Northern Cape, where everyone seemed to drive Toyota Hilux pickups and listen to Afrikaans country music, and I saw signs for the controversial right-wing pressure group AfriForum, which focused on the ownership of farmland that lay at the heart of Afrikaner national identity. 

“It’s hard to explain what it was like,” a friend in Cape Town, a fiftysomething Afrikaner lawyer with a long history of anti-racist activism, told me. “I still have all these people on my Facebook, whom I grew up with. And they’re all like that. The National Party…” she tailed off, naming the Apartheid governing party. “It was normal.”  

Though we had complained both to the staff members themselves and to company management, the behavior and demeanor of the instructors didn’t change, and Dionne and I spoke often about leaving the course. In the end, we resolved to qualify as guides. Perhaps, we thought, we could eventually help to change the industry. After studying and training every day for two months, we took our exams: drawing diagrams of katabatic and berg winds, describing the flagship species of the succulent karoo biome, and discussing the action of neurotoxic venom. Each of us then had to guide a four-hour game drive, with David as our assessor. I sat beside Dionne in the front of the 4×4 as she led her drive; later in the day, she did the same for me. We were both passed as competent to lead 4×4 safaris in dangerous game areas. When we returned to London and New York, both of us submitted detailed written complaints to the company. 

In the meantime, South Africa’s white minority was becoming a cause célèbre for the global alt-right. A few months after our exams, members of AfriForum made a lobbying trip to Washington, D.C. The Fox News host Tucker Carlson presented a segment reporting, inaccurately, that “South Africa’s government has begun seizing the property of some of its citizens based on skin color”; and Donald Trump tweeted that he had instructed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to investigate the “large scale killing” of white farmers in South Africa. South African police figures showed that out of a total of 20,336 murders in 2017–2018, forty-six were of white farmers. But online, right-wing conspiracy theorists made wild claims of a hidden “white genocide” in the country. An AfriForum team also visited Australia in an effort to promote this narrative, and the country’s home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, said his department was considering issuing fast-track visas to white South Africans on humanitarian grounds, due to the “horrific circumstances” they faced. 

In a lengthy exchange of emails with the training company, a representative told me that, following our complaints, it had increased pay and promotion opportunities for local black staff, especially women, that it was overhauling its supervision of remote camps, and that it was training its staff in ensuring dignity for women and non-white people. He assured me that in trying to establish greater accountability, the company was “delving into sensitive areas including sexism and racism.” But the specific interactions I had described, and the staff who were involved, were not mentioned further. 

I didn’t find the empty, pristine wilderness I’d come looking for in South Africa, or the restoration I’d thought would flow from it. Instead, I’d found something sharper and more discomfiting: why someone like me might search for those things, and how others might be excluded from even imagining them. Trailing the wild dog pack in the sunset, or being woken by baboons alarm-barking at a hunting leopard before dawn, I’d had moments of the pure exhilaration I’d hoped for. Now, Dionne and I began planning how we could help others experience them, too. The people we’d come into conflict with had their own myths of this wilderness, and their own fierce determination to defend them. But the balance of power had already shifted in the rest of the country, beyond the fences of the reserves. While they spoke bitterly of “political correctness,” it would, inevitably, also shift in the bush.


Some names have been changed.