African Safaris: A History from Big Game Hunts to Conservation

African Safaris: A History

For hundreds of years, people have been awed by the unique landscapes and unusual animals found across Africa. Starting in the 18th century, large caravans of traders would cross the vast landscapes, trading goods and selling wares. The practice became exceedingly profitable at times. Unfortunately, some of the most prized items bought and sold are devastating to consider now, and communities, cultures, as well as animals were abused or, at times, decimated. And the large crews that lugged in supplies and weapons often left only destruction in their wake.

A New Period of Adventure

Then, beginning in the late 19th century, European colonial powers began to journey to the continent to hunt big game and explore the faraway lands with wide-open spaces. In fact, the word “safari” comes from the Swahili word for “journey” and originally referred almost exclusively to hunting expeditions. 

During the colonial period, safaris were almost wholly the pursuit of very wealthy European and American hunters searching for a new type of “courageous” adventure to collect “trophies” to ship home. These trophies then decorated game lodges as well as natural history museums around the world.

 The hunters would hire local guides and trackers who could lead them on their search for big game that is often only found in these regions. Some of the most popular attractions were elephants, lions, and other large animals. In addition, these adventures led to the exploration and often exploitation of different species of plants, birds, and smaller animals. 

Sadly, these hunts were often brutal and indiscriminate, with little regard for conservation or the well-being of the animals or the local cultures and communities. And safaris were a fashionable vacation that was available only to the most privileged classes.

At the same time, however, scientists and naturalists were given the opportunity to study flora and fauna from remote locations and soon became champions of preserving these wild places and species.


African Safaris: A History
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Changing Attitudes for the Better

After World War II and into the mid-20th century, attitudes toward safaris, big game hunting, and the unique cultures and communities in the area began to change. As the newly independent African nations began to promote tourism to generate income and promote new opportunities for the local populations, safaris shifted from being primarily about hunting to being more about wildlife viewing and photography.

This shift was also driven by changes in Western attitudes toward hunting and especially conservation to preserve the animals and this way of life for future generations. Over the years, the public has continued to become more aware of the environmental and ethical implications of big game hunting.

African Safaris: A History
Photo by David Groves on Unsplash

The Photo Safari

Starting in the 1960s and 1970s, a new type of safari emerged: the “photo safari.” These safaris were led by professional photographers and naturalists, who would take clients on trips to see and photograph Africa’s wildlife and landscapes. These safaris were more focused on education and conservation, and many of the early photo safari operators were instrumental in promoting conservation and wildlife management in Africa.

As the tourism industry in Africa grew, so too did the demand for different types of safaris. Today, there are many different types of safaris available, from luxury tented camps to budget camping trips to train safaris to luxury resorts. And people from all walks of life can view the wildlife and explore African savannas, forests, and rivers. All of which offer a unique way to view wildlife, explore awe-inspiring landscapes, and learn about different environments and cultures.

African Safaris: A History
Photo by Wei Pan on Unsplash

Ecotourism and Conservation Efforts

Most safaris have continued to evolve to become more sustainable. Ecotourism and responsible tourism are becoming increasingly important, which has been vital to the survival of many species and communities. While hunting safaris do still exist, most safaris now involve shooting animals with cameras, rather than guns, and mounting photos, rather than heads, on walls. 

Many safari operators now focus on educating their clients about conservation and environmental issues and work closely with local communities to ensure that tourism benefits the local people and culture, the environment, and the wildlife, so future generations can continue to experience the African safari. For some uplifting news, due to the decades-long conservation efforts, numbers of rhinos, elephants, and cape buffaloes are experiencing a resurgence in Uganda.

The Continuing Evolution of Safaris

Despite the changes in safari tourism, the African safari remains a powerful symbol of adventure and discovery. The wide-open savannahs, towering mountains, and diverse wildlife of Africa continue to captivate the imagination of travelers from around the world. 

However, it’s important to remember that safari tourism can have a significant impact on the environment and local communities. It’s crucial that anyone who departs on safari respect the land, the history, the animals, and the local communities that call these amazing places home.

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