Last week the ruler of Sharjah opened the $272 million Sharjah Safari, described as the largest safari in the world outside Africa. There are many ‘safari’ parks outside of Africa, here in the UK we have six. But they’re not really safaris, are they? To me, the use of the word ‘safari’ (which is Swahili for ‘journey’) is an example of cultural appropriation, and that nothing would ever come close to the experience of a real safari in Africa.
‘Safari’ is too often interpreted as driving around in open-top vehicles among lions, zebra and giraffes. But the type of safari available in Africa is as diverse as the continent itself.
In Botswana you can embark on a watery safari through the Okavango Delta. In Uganda a safari can take you through the forested mountains of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. In Namibia safaris take you over the impressive dunes of the Namib desert. The landscapes and animals you can see on an African safari are hugely diverse and go far beyond what we typically think of as a ‘safari’.
Of course, there are also safaris which involve open top vehicles, lions, zebra, giraffes etc. But when you are on such a safari in Africa there is no doubt whatsoever that you are in Africa. The sky is quintessentially African, the landscape is pure Africa, put your hand on the ground and feel soil that is somehow, undoubtedly African.
It’s not just the animals and landscapes that make a safari in Africa incomparable. The people you meet also create an experience that simply cannot be replicated elsewhere.
Let’s take another look at that word ‘safari’. Yes, it’s a Swahili word, but its origins are actually from the Arabic word ‘safar’, which also means ‘journey’. The Sharjah Safari may not be guilty of cultural appropriation after all. But why import 288 African animals and pretend to be something you’re not? There’s nothing necessarily wrong with zoos (although many are abhorrent), and many, like Sharjah Safari, help to preserve rare species. But there’s a risk that they encourage people away from genuine experiences. I’m not ignoring the fact that many can’t afford to travel, and that a zoo may be the only way in which they can come face-to-face with exotic creatures. But if you can afford it, why not do the real thing?
Sharjah also offers visitors the chance to visit the Sharjah Desert Park. Here you can see Arabian leopard, as well as that beautiful and rare creature the oryx (which features on the Qatar Airways tailfin). The park has a breeding centre for endangered Arabian wildlife and anyone who visits will experience a slice of the rich Arabian culture – the real thing -, which is surely why many come here in the first place.
I’m sure there are many good reasons for why the Sharjah Safari has been created, and any aim to preserve wildlife is a worthy one. My main concerns are that it will divert people away from Africa, that tourists won’t have genuine experiences, and that the idea of ‘Africa’ is reduced to simply its animals rather than the magnificent, rich cultures to be found throughout its 54 countries.
I hope that the people who visit safari parks outside of Africa feel motivated to go and experience the real thing, in much the same way that I hope that those who visit museum exhibits from far off and fascinating places also get the urge to see where they came from. But places such as Sharjah Safari have, I feel, a responsibility to promote the real Africa, and that what they offer, while impressive, is just a facsimile.
I’ve not taken many safaris in Africa, but my favourite so far is the one I experienced in Tanzania, which you can do as part of this 18/19-day itinerary
Find the best value flights to Tanzania here (I recommend flying into Kilimanjaro and out of Zanzibar for the full Tanzania experience)
Please do let me know your comments on this article. Did I get it wrong? Have you experienced particularly good/bad safaris (in Africa or elsewhere)? I’d be interested to know your thoughts!