Origins of African Safari

Origins of African Safari

Out of all the places, Africa is chosen as the number one destination to enjoy genuine safaris due to its richness in flora and fauna. African safaris have a huge impact on the continent’s tourism industry. Millions of tourists from all around the globe visit Africa to witness the beautiful wildlife species in the wilderness. Whether it is the animated movie ‘The Lion King’, released in 1994, or the documentary safari movies such as ‘BBC Africa’ released in 2013, people are aware of the African continent’s overflowing beauty.

Giraffes in Tanzania

Giraffes in Tanzania

During earlier times, African safaris were captured in films and photographs. Only the privileged were allowed to travel to Africa and embark on safaris. However, the African safaris of the past were entirely different from what we see today. Having an understanding of the origins of African safaris is helpful in enhancing your next trip to the continent. Here is a brief history of safaris in Africa:


The meaning of ‘Safari’

Safari is a Swahili word that means ‘journey’. It originally emerged from the Arabic noun ‘safar’, which means travel, journey, or trip. The verb ‘to travel’, when translated in Swahili, is ‘Kusafiri’. In its original context, safari referred to the long travel distances people would undertake for trade or any type of migration. Presently, safari is often connected with luxury lodges, tents, game drives, backpacking, and more.


The origin of African safaris

Today, people undertake African Safaris as overland journeys to observe diverse animals residing in their natural habitats in different parts of Africa. However, this was not the case hundreds of years ago.

The earliest record, or primary interest, focused on the trade or trading routes of safaris. The African and Arabic cultures were closely intertwined, indicating that people or traders travelled long distances across different cities to spread their cultures. It was during the 18th century that trading flourished and became a successful business. Unfortunately, along with commodities, people were also traded and sold. During the colonial period, European safari caravans entered the scene, involving large-scale operations, such as substantial crews, supplies, and weapons.

Fortunately, this safari, synonymous with the slave trade, ended before the 20th century and changed its focus from business to exploration. Missionaries, adventurers, and explorers wandered throughout Africa and marvelled at the richness of the continent. Early naturalists redefined the purpose of safari and helped in discovering, identifying, and studying various species of animals, birds, and plant life.


Hunting safaris

With the new change in safaris, however, came hunting expeditions born in East Africa. The word ‘safari’ carried a negative connotation: a journey enjoyed for hunting or the hunting of animals. Instead of the elaborate safaris seen in the present, Europeans embarked on wildlife safaris not just to witness animals up close but also to hunt them. So, hunters came along with naturalists, and ‘hunting’ became a common association with safari. These hunters collected animals like trophies and boasted about conquering them. In many cases, there were year-long expeditions where wealthy Western travellers explored Africa with a rifle strapped to their backs.

Ernest Hemmingway during one of his hunts in Africa

Ernest Hemmingway during one of his hunts in Africa

During the years 1837-1901 (the Victorian era), people greatly witnessed the event of hunting safaris or trophy hunting. Explorers, traders, and aristocratic sportsmen generally told back stories about the epic adventures of hunting animals in Africa, which fascinated the common people. Hunters such as William Cornwallis Harris not only targeted the big game, which is Lion, Leopard, Elephant, Black Rhinoceros, and African Buffalo but also documented their killings to showcase them to the public.

Similarly, writer Ernest Hemmingway hunted different animals and described his experiences in the novel ‘Green Hills of Africa’. The members of the privileged classes in America and Europe greatly enjoyed these instances that romanticized hunting on the African continent.


A shift to modern safari 

While Harris was famed for his infamous hunting, he was also responsible for introducing the movement of conservation. Which helped save pillaged areas of Africa and the local wildlife. Protecting the wildlife also meant changing the customs of the local cultures in East Africa. Few indigenous groups hunted the lion as a tradition to perform rituals. As animal species became endangered, the local government started cooperating with local tribes to put an end to such hunting practices.



African safaris in the present times

Going on safari today has a different connotation. Modern-day safari in the present means actively participating in sustaining African economies, supporting wildlife conservation, and supporting the local communities. In the African savannah, safaris continue to occur with the aim of wildlife viewing, but instead of using weapons, the participants capture animals through cameras.

A modern day African safari

A modern day African safari

Safari companies actively contribute to conservation projects or generate tourist revenue, which they use to manage game reserves and wildlife schemes in Africa. The emergence of eco-tourism has led to the development of environmentally friendly safari travel. In addition to game drives, visitors can enjoy experiencing local African cultures, exploring natural wonders, sightseeing, and participating in various outdoor activities.

A ranger observes an elephant at Djuma Game Reserve, South Africa

A ranger observes elephants at Djuma Game Reserve, South Africa

The African safaris of today are all about conservation and strengthening the local communities. There are several positive trends that are transforming traditional safaris for the better. Some of them involve empowering local women, stronger community action, anti-poaching innovations, the emergence of lesser-known safari destinations in Africa, and sustainable sightings.

The 21st-century African safari offers unforgettable memories in the African bush, once-in-a-lifetime animal encounters, and authentic cultural interactions. As Jonathan Safran Foer aptly remarks, ‘If the thrill of hunting were in the hunt, or even in the marksmanship, a camera would do just as well.’


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