Queuing for Lions – When do game reserves become safari gimmicks?

Kruger National Park stands as one of the finest examples of wildlife tourism in Africa, and indeed the world. It’s a nature reserve that works, not only in terms of the species it supports and protects, but also in its economic success.

Conservation is simply unviable without profit, and it’s for this reason that Kruger has been able to pioneer many of the more successful modern conservation efforts. But does this come at a price?

The park owes its success to a number of factors; size, location, management, but above all, marketing. Kruger is sold as an accessable experience for everyone, from camping to luxury lodges to caravans. Whereas many of the other large Southern African parks rely on low-density, high-cost tourism (think Okavango), Kruger attracts the other end (almost) of the spectrum as well.

In a separate blog I mentioned my frustration in India at not being able to look for tigers and green pigeons on my own terms. For me, a large part of the magic of nature reserves is simply looking. There’s no guarantee you’ll see a leopard, or a lion, or even an elephant, but if you do then it’s you who found it. In an area the size of a small country it was you who tracked down that elusive rhino (because they’re not round every corner, trust me) and it was you who just happened to look down a side track and spot a prowling young lion.

Ask any visitor to Kruger and not everyone, hardly anyone, will be able to honestly tell you just that – “I spotted it first.” The park is packed with animals, relatively speaking, but it’s also packed with people looking for animals. In truth, most people see the cars first and whatever they’re looking at second.

The point was driven home on a recent trip to the park when, rushing to arrive before gate closing time (Kruger Rush Syndrome’s a whole post in itself) we stumbled across a line of about seven or eight cars – what anywhere else would be a traffic jam. It was minutes before we caught a glimpse (fleeting) of the juvenile male lion padding along the road in front. A hundred metres in front.

Now, while the absence of any horn-blasting or verbal abuse made it the most orderly traffic jam I’d ever experienced, we were effectively queuing up to see this lion. The friend I’d brought along had never seen a lion before so I was glad to check it off the to-see list but I found myself questioning whether this wasn’t just the same as trawling through any one of those artificial European ‘safari parks’.

Ok, so the lions hadn’t been planted, but I felt that by the time eighth in line became first I had no real enthusiasm. I certainly didn’t feel like I’d achieved anything in terms of the hunt.

Perhaps I’m just a little too picky. There can be only one real way to conserve our wild areas and that is through education – widespread exposure to animals and plants scarcely found outside park fences. If the cost of doing this is an eight-car queue then so be it.

It’s almost certainly a price worth paying.