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Why We Must End “Human Safaris”

by Mark Hay

September 23, 2015
Ota Benga, an African man taken from his home, sold, and exhibited at an American zoo in the early 20th century. He committed suicide at the age of 32.

Back in 2010 Survival International, an organization advocating the rights of indigenous peoples, caught wind of a disturbing trend in the Andamans. A chain of 325 islands south of Myanmar, but administered by India since the British settled them in the mid-19th century, the Andamans house around 342,000 Indians—and about 1,000 indigenous peoples. The remnants of a much-diminished pre-colonial population, most of these natives live in remote communities, access to which has ostensibly been limited by the Indian government since 1956 to protect indigenous dignity and autonomy. Yet Survival International learned that at the time, every day dozens to hundreds of vehicles trundled into the tribes’ reserves, full of tourists gawping out the windows to catch a glimpse of tribal peoples. Whenever they managed to spot one, a cheer would go up, photos were snapped, and sweets and junk were thrown from the windows.

These tours, which treat humans like animals in a zoo, step on native autonomy in a particularly undignified way. Groups like Survival International have long branded them with the pejorative label of “human safaris”—and they’ve managed to raise a great hue and cry against them in India and beyond. Yet even in the face of this nearly universal outrage, human safaris have proven exceptionally resilient in the Andamans and elsewhere, even against threats of legal action and imprisonment. This both speaks poorly of human nature and empathy, and calls for the necessity of new deterrents and publicity programs to discourage this odious yet growing form of travel. 

Human safaris aren’t a new trend. In the late 19th and early 20th century, observing the “strange customs” of locals was a key attraction of travel around the world—a dehumanizing impulse so strong that in 1906 it allowed an (allegedly) Pygmy man named Ota Benga to be captured, shipped to the Bronx Zoo, and literally displayed as an animal in the monkey house. Although it’s now unacceptable to (vocally) conceive of other peoples as lesser species, this exoticizing impulse grafted itself onto modern travel, drawing people into the hinterlands of less-developed and far-off countries to presumptuously gaze into other cultures’ private lives and lands. National governments, often blithe to the concerns of their marginal citizens, sometimes even pimp their tribal cultures to draw in this type of tourism (which is on the rise in the modern era of cheap flights and adventure travel firms). Case in point, highly touted tours along the Omo River in southern Ethiopia have long promised not pristine wildlife, but the ability to rubberneck in jabbering crowds as men from the Hamar tribe whip women in a test of devotion.

Tourists beleaguer Hamar people in Ethiopia during a whipping ceremony

This widespread sense of entitlement and disrespect for cultures’ rights to privacy and self-determination is troubling in the abstract. But in some cases it can be outright physically harmful. Around 2012, Survival International heard reports that human safaris were offering trips into the Madre de Dios indigenous territory on Peru’s Brazilian border to catch a glimpse of the Mashco-Piro peoples. An “uncontacted tribe” (a group of people who are aware of the modern world through their neighbors, but choose to remain aloof from it, usually because of past exploitation and violence against them), the Mashco-Piro are ostensibly protected from unsolicited contact by international law and the Peruvian state. These tourists often photograph the Mashco-Piro and offer them food and goods, exposing the tribe to diseases they’ve never encountered before, and opening visitors to reactionary hostilities—in the past, the Mashco-Piro have killed those who encroached upon their lands against their wishes. 

Such forced contact has decimated and even eliminated entire tribes in the Andamans. The Jarawa, one of the key targets of human safaris there, were actually uncontacted until the 1970s, when the construction of a transit road forced contact. In 1998, the tribe decided to open itself to the wider world after a Jarawan boy, En-mei, benefitted from modern medicine. But parts of their community still wish to remain isolated—a right that human safaris rob from them.

These experiences highlight the shocking similarities between human safaris and the (implicitly or explicitly) genocidal, entitled, and exploitative ventures of pre- and early-modern colonialists. The risks and harm of these tours will only increase as tourism continues to grow and penetrate deeper and deeper into the remote parts of the world. Eventually it may threaten the very existence of the majority of the world’s 100 or so uncontacted tribes, and will certainly continue to degrade and dishonor the autonomy of hundreds of other remote and private peoples.

Fortunately, the world can recognize this offense when presented with stark, palpable examples. In 2012, video emerged of police in the Andamans forcing Jarawan women to dance half-naked for the amusement of visitors, all in exchange for some sweets and bananas. Local and national media outlets rapidly took up the cause of Jarawan dignity, and later that year the Indian Supreme Court closed the main road through their reserve. A three-mile buffer zone, closed to touristic and other commercial activities, was established around the Jarawan territory.

Location of Andaman Islands

The incident also started a conversation on the difference between human safaris and ethical tourism to remote peoples, in which native people run or at least have a strong say in the tourism industry, welcome in outsiders, and use the whole system as a means of funding and perpetuating their traditions. These conversations convinced people that there was still a way to learn about and engage with remote cultures without drifting into a troubling neo-colonialism, by encouraging the public to regard native lands as private property they had no inherent right to access without the express invitation of those who live and operate in the area.

Unfortunately, none of these measures or conversations managed to even end human safaris on Jarawan territory, much less further afield. Although Survival International thinks that closing the road may have stemmed about two-thirds of tourism traffic, subsequent investigations over the next three years reveal that police readily take bribes to allow visitors onto Jarawan territory unwelcomed. And even the local administration and major tourism companies continue to operate tours to underwhelming sites as an excuse to drive buses through Jarawan territory on what is really a quest to spot members of the tribe. The courts have waffled on whether this is a breach of their ruling—and on whether or not they might reopen the road entirely, since it’s useful in connecting remote settler communities to major facilities in the regional capital. The local administration has missed its own internal deadlines to develop alternate transit routes to these services, instead proposing to expand the road through Jarawan territory. This lack of resolve on the part of authorities displays their halfhearted commitment to indigenous rights, the persistence of this lucrative industry, and also shows the difficulty of cracking down on these tours—a difficulty that Peru has experienced in trying to stem Mashco-Piro tours as well.

The resilience of human safaris should trouble everyone. Even those who aren’t fans of indigenous rights, like Indian senators who want to bring the Jawaran into mainstream society, seem to believe that humans deserve to be treated like humans and to be integrated at their own pace and with respect. Really, this form of travel is an affront to nearly universal ideals of respect and humanity, no matter what you think or care for the specific peoples on the receiving end. Yet when local governments benefit from this dishonorable trade and operators skirt enforcement of indigenous protection laws, it’s hard to turn this outrage into action.

Perhaps the only thing that can stop human safaris is some toothy crackdown from a central authority, coupled with an effort to replace the gains non-native locals make by exploiting their neighbors. Maybe putting camera drones all around the edges of the Jarawan and Mashco-Piro reserves would work. Creating special investigatory and judiciary bodies to deal with these crimes, thus evading entrenched interests and bought cops, might be effective as well. Tour operators could be aided in setting up alternative offerings that include cooperation with indigenous peoples who are open to, and in contact with the modern world. Cases would have to be prosecuted, and the media mobilized to publicize these efforts. But these would not be simple or cheap measures to implement. And the first thing that’s needed is the political will to intervene and end the odious practice of human safaris. Unfotunately, given how marginalized the peoples who suffer from this practice are, that will might be very difficult to marshal.

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Why We Must End “Human Safaris”