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In kiswahili, a language derived from Arabic and Bantu interactions, the word safari refers to a journey, voyage, or expedition, with kusafiri being the infinitive verb form. The command safiri salama means “travel with peace” or “safe journey,” and is a blessing for someone going away. Safaris can transpire on foot or by animal, wheeled vehicle, plane, or boat. Despite the generality of the term in Kiswahili, to most non-Kiswahili speakers, safari is synonymous with wildlife tourism in Africa. One can participate in such safaris through organized walks or even by hot air balloon, but by far the most common today involve short-term visits during which tourists travel with safari guides in minivans or Land Rovers.
The term safari entered the English language in the late 19th century, the era during which the British claimed east Africa as a protectorate. Prior to that, east African trade safaris-large-scale caravans (also known as misafara) organized by African and Arab traders-moved goods (including wildlife products) and people between the interior and the Indian Ocean coast. The structure of the trade safaris served as the organizational basis for big game safaris, the latter of which also built upon the colonial penchant for hunting.
Elite game hunters found east Africa a veritable paradise. The savannas teemed with game, and white hunters could rely on African caravans to porter fallen game and transport luxury supplies. U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt and his son Kermit’s 1909 romp through British East Africa serves as iconic representation of the romance and excess of this kind of safari. While the Roosevelts bagged over 500 game animals between them, accompanying personnel killed over 11,000 mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles for scientific purposes. All the while, they hobnobbed with colonial elites and other wealthy visitors, and consumed fine food and drink.
The adventures, as covered by media and the Roosevelts themselves, coupled with the material representation of seemingly infinite, magnificent animals, secured Kenya as the ideal destination for wealthy hunter tourists and made the phrase “going on safari” one of social distinction. Millionaires and royalty from Europe, India, and elsewhere “went on safari,” which came to index a series of elite social events interspersed with exciting hunting expeditions. Hemingway’s writings on the subject further etched this ideal of safari into popular imaginings. The business of big game safaris also secured the high status niche for a select group of settlers acting as professional white hunters and hosts, although the vast majority of work undertaken during any safari was done by African employees, who were rarely acknowledged. Safari firms cropped up and began to advertise overseas, and the decadence of big game safaris lasted until the interruption of World War II.
The post-World War II boom in adventure travel saw a widening range of safari options catering not only to extremely wealthy sport hunters, but also to middle-class adventure-seekers. Increases in numbers of international flights and decreases in ticket prices allowed Europeans and Americans to book short-term east African safaris, which allowed travelers to taste some of the romance and luxury associated with the earlier big game safaris. Photographic safaris also increased in popularity during this time.
By the 1960s, east Africa’s crown colonies had been reconfigured into independent states. The land within those political entities had been divided according to a variety of uses, including more formalized national parks and reserves set aside as wildlife habitats. These changes came about in part due to a recognition that wild animal populations had dwindled dramatically over the preceding decades. The creation and management of parks, reserves, and wildlife populations occurred within a historical context in which a series of policies alienated large numbers of Africans from lands, and thus subsistence practices, in pursuit of foreign revenue.
By 1977, sport hunting ceased in Kenya due to presidential decree. The Kenyan government did so to further enhance tourism as a revenue stream, as short-term photographic safaris were anticipated to prove more lucrative than hunting, while also protecting that which tourists paid to see. Tanzania, however, still permits sport hunting (as do several southern African countries). Debates continue about how best to conduct and capitalize on safaris.
Now, throughout the world, tourist and ecotourist businesses form the very basis of local economies in many biodiversity hotspots and serve as important foreign revenue earners for states. The term safari has been popularized in a number of ways, still maintaining its symbolic links to those set out previously. For example, the term safari has come to refer to visiting any exotic locale or undertaking something that is (or should be, according to the speaker) viewed as wild and/or perhaps even dangerous.
- Elspeth Huxley, White Man’s Country (Chatto and Windus Ltd., 1935);
- John MacKenzie, The Empire of Nature: Hunting, Conservation, and British Imperialism (Manchester University Press, 1988);
- Edward I. Steinhart, Black Poachers, White Hunters: A Social History of Hunting in Colonial Kenya (Ohio University Press, 2006).