Mr. Stipanich, I Presume?

By Rachel Globus

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.”

Covering approximately 2,600 square kilometers, the park harbors thousands of elephants, 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.

And some 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.

Tanzania 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.

First up 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.

Potential hazards come in all sizes in Africa, it seems. Pausing on a picture 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?”

As Stipanich 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.

Although 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.

Ecologists, on the other hand, have pointed out that the park depends on corridors 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 of survival.

In the meantime, however, Tanzania continues its long history of attracting visitors, 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?”

Penetrate those once vast wilds today and you might find someone like Stipanich, 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.

But Africa 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.




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