Mr. Stipanich, I Presume?
Tanzanian animals are either the most photogenic creatures on earth,
or Neil Stipanich, photographer by hobby, has some uncanny ability
to charm them into poses National Geographic would drool over.
I had a tough time deciding which.
“It’s just amazing,” Stipanich says of his
African safari, during which he stopped in Tanzania’s Tarangire
National Park long enough to put his Canon digital SLR to good
use, and collect soil for Common Ground. “You see a whole
herd of animals and you just go,” he says, adding with
a knowing laugh, “The only thing you have to watch out
for are hyena holes.”
approximately 2,600 square kilometers, the park harbors thousands
antelope, zebras, wildebeest, leopards,
rhinos and other exotic birds and beasts. During dry season these
animals congregate around the park’s Tarangire River, presenting
photo opportunities so varied and magnificent, if Stipanich’s
photos are any proof, that you might think nature herself was
going into the PR business.
would say it’s about time. Although the remote
park offers diverse and abundant wildlife viewing opportunities,
tourists often bypass it in favor of Tanzania’s better
known destinations, Mount Kilimanjaro or the Serengeti, if they
visit the country at all. One look at the runway where Stipanich’s
plane landed—a gravelly strip of dirt with nary a building
in sight—and it’s easy to guess why.
is one of the world’s poorest countries, which
can be daunting to many travelers. “You talk to people
and you’re like, ‘How about a vacation to Africa?’…and
they all go, ‘Are you nuts?’” Stipanich recounts.
Yet, as Stipanich intimates, the kindness of the people and the
profusion of wildlife constitute wealth of a different kind. “You
get there and it’s like paradise,” he says.
Fortunately for those of us on this side of the Atlantic, paradise
provides plenty of adventures to write home about.
in Africa 101 was a lesson in elephant psychology. Showing
me a picture
of an elephant lying in front of the car
his group was touring in, Stipanich described how he learned
to identify a mock charge. “The elephant had been attacking
the car and stuff. And then we kind of chased him with the car,” he
says, the twinkle in his eye belying his nonchalance. “He
started to gore the tracker’s seat and at that point we
started up the car to back him off a bit, so then he got ready
to do a mock charge.” When an elephant does a mock charge,
Stipanich told me, it tries to appear as large as possible, puffing
out its ears before charging and stopping 10 or 15 yards away
from the target. When an elephant is serious, it keeps its ears
in. In Stipanich’s case, the would-be attacker lay down
after the mock charge. “It was a show of strength,” Stipanich
explains. “They will lie down in front of you to show you
that they’re not afraid of you at all.” He admits
with a laugh that the feeling was not mutual.
hazards come in all sizes in Africa, it seems. Pausing on a
of a fist-sized golden orb spider—smaller
than life-size, he assures me—Stipanich recalls: “One
guide was driving his jeep and he hit a web with the bridge of
his nose and it cut him and he bled.” Like something out
of the movie Arachnophobia, these spiders’ webs are large
enough to catch birds. “It will go from one tree sixty
feet to another,” says Stipanich. “You’re like,
so what did the spider do? Walk down, walk over, walk up and
then pull it tight?”
guides me through a virtual photo-essay of his travels, it’s clear he truly gets a kick out of Africa.
The continent’s hold over him seems not to have faded since
his return—every photo elicits a fresh trill of excitement,
as if he were discovering each animal anew. “Dik dik!” he
cries gleefully, as we flip to the picture of a tiny, deer-like
animal. These dainty creatures, he explains, are in fact miniature
antelopes, just 14 inches tall when full grown. “We’d
be walking along and suddenly you’d see this thing go zoom
and you’d go, ‘dik dik!’” he says, looking
thoroughly tickled by the memory. And then there is the giraffe,
the secretary bird, the immense, sprawling baobab trees, the
warthogs, the jackals, the cheetahs—each one receiving
its own glowing review.
visitors like Stipanich are impressed by the richness of Tanzania’s wildlife, it’s hard to ignore the poverty
of its people. Since 9/11, the tourism industry has been decimated,
Stipanich said. And while the international aid projects are
encouraging signs, he felt ambivalent about their success, noting
that locals were not always included in their development and
implementation. “While people think they’re giving
money to help,” he says, “you just wonder if it’s
being really focused in a way that’s constructive.”
Increasingly, the people are forced to encroach upon wild areas
in order to support themselves. To date, 19% of Tanzania comprises
protected land where no humans are allowed, with an additional
9% where humans cohabit with animals. Despite these measures,
even the pristine and remote Tarangire competes with farmers,
hunters, tour operators and miners.
on the other hand, have pointed out that the park depends on
connecting it to other wildlands. Unlike
the circular migratory patterns of the Serengeti in which animals
follow the rains, Tarangire’s migration expands and contracts.
During wet season the park’s habitat regenerates as the
animals disperse over 20,500 square kilometers of land connected
to the park by these corridors. Closing off these migratory routes
therefore threatens to vastly reduce the plentiful wildlife for
which Tarangire is known.
But it’s hard to argue that the wildlife should be saved
at the expense of people who are themselves struggling to survive.
With a per capita GDP of $260 compared to the U.S.’s $36,300,
Tanzania finds itself at a crossroads along with many other developing
nations. As Stipanich observed, “The more they develop,
the more the natural environment is impacted, and yet their main
source of revenue, or a good chance for it, is really tourism.” Tanzania
derives approximately 14 percent of GDP from its growing tourism
industry and half from agriculture. Resolving these conflicting
interests is therefore a question not merely of politics, but
In the meantime,
however, Tanzania continues its long history of attracting
not the least of which was the famous
explorer Dr. David Livingstone. When the New York Herald sent
reporter Henry Morton Stanley to find out what had happened to
Livingstone, who was though to be dead, Stanley traveled all
the way to the shores of Lake Tanganyika, more than twice as
far inland from Tanzania’s coast as Tarangire. After battling
some 750 miles of intractable wilderness, fever, and near starvation,
he uttered the famous words of greeting to his elusive quarry: “Dr.
Livingstone, I presume?”
those once vast wilds today and you might find someone like
drawn, as Stanley, Livingstone, and others were
drawn, by an abiding curiosity and an adventurous spirit. Even
if Tanzania’s most formidable obstacles are now dirt roads,
malaria medication, and the occasional belligerent elephant,
there is still much to explore; the visitor’s common ground
with that land is therefore one of fascination with its abundant
wildlife—and recognition of its fragility.
“It’s a really hard thing. I don’t know how
they’re going to deal with it in the long run,” Stipanich
muses. For now, however, the country’s difficulties won’t
keep him away. “We’re going to try to go back as
often as we can, whatever that means,” he says.
will never be too far—not with so many pictures
to play around with on the computer. His wife going down Victoria
Falls in a bathtub—courtesy of Microsoft’s photo
editing program—was one of his first endeavors. In later
efforts he textured pictures to look like paintings. “Now
I’m getting into signing them!” he tells me excitedly.
Indeed, the best method of preserving the wildlife, as Stipanich’s
experience in Tanzania suggests, is perhaps by shooting it—with
a camera of course.
Top | Back