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Tourists seek safaris on the American veld

By Todd WilkinsonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 31, 2000


His summer, Mary Ann and Harry Chronister are giving their daughter a high school graduation present they hope she'll never forget. As world travelers, the Chronisters of Columbus, Ohio, have already been to Europe. So they're sending Anne on an expedition to a more exotic locale: Yellowstone National Park.

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Yes, the same Yellowstone that for many Americans represents a summer vacation clich, replete with shoulder-to-shoulder crowds at Old Faithful and frantic scrambling from one mudpot to the next. But the Chronisters have something else in mind.

By enlisting a private guide to take her to the best spots for seeing wolves, grizzlies, and other wildlife, they are rejecting the old ways of visiting national parks for a new trend in summer travel: the North American safari.

From birding treks along the San Pedro River in Arizona to brown bear photo expeditions in Alaska, safaris are now becoming de rigueur for a growing number of the ecology-minded middle class. And they're big business. "It's an idea that has been slower to arrive in this country, but it's modeled after the photo safari concept Europeans have gravitated toward for years in Africa," says Gary Machlis, a sociologist with the National Park Service in Washington. "Exploring the big national parks of the West still is considered the great American pilgrimage. Now people are choosing to embark on that vacation in a slightly different way."

The nature safari trade in North America now looks on track to set another record this year.

The Gatsby economy

Part of the explanation is economic. Despite recent downturns in the stock market, the strong economy has left more people with more disposable income, enabling them to shop for exotic alternatives to the regular American vacation.

But there are cultural factors at work, too. Political unrest and rising crime in parts of Africa have persuaded wildlife-loving travelers to stay closer to home. At the same time, polls show Americans are interested in the environment more than at any time in at least a decade.

As a result, safari offerings on this continent have quietly been growing. Ironically, the expeditions are taking place in the middle of one of the most highly developed nations on earth.

Economists say it demonstrates the benefits of rich nations investing in environmental protection. When the amount of money spent on guides, restaurants, hotel rooms, cameras, and field guides is put together, wildlife watching becomes a multibillion-dollar enterprise.

"The word 'safari' is no longer limited to the white big-game hunters in Africa, who are best personified by Ernest Hemingway," says Ken Sinay of Northern Rockies Natural History, a Bozeman, Mont.-based group that is one of the oldest commercial wildlife tour operators in the region. "Today, safari applies to any person who decides to go searching for wildlife in its native habitat."

Nowhere else is the experience of seeing big animals move across the landscape more vivid and comparable to Africa than in the Yellowstone ecosystem. Here, the rolling grasslands of the national park have been dubbed "the Serengeti of North America" because of the huge diversity of animals.

Thousands of elk, and hundreds of bison, mule deer, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, and moose appear at certain times of the year. Along with them are the animals that feed on these wildlife and really awe the crowds - wolves, grizzly bears, coyotes, and, to a lesser extent, secretive mountain lions, the Western cousins of the big African cats.