March 15, 2013
Few people anywhere begin the day without a hot drink. Chocolate and tea are popular morning jump-starters. Yerba maté, famously Argentinean, is gaining a reputation globally. Some people contrive creative blends of apple cider vinegar, herbs and honey. But coffee dominates the morning hour in every time zone. While the plant that produces the beans is native to tropical east Africa, two main species of coffee—Coffea arabica and C. canephora, or C. robusta—are now grown in nearly every tropical region. Brazil and Vietnam lead production, which amounts globally to more than 150 million 132-pound bags per year (PDF). Consumption is rising, and though coffee is far from being the world’s largest crop, it is now the second most demanded commodity after oil.
But for its simplicity in its raw state and its ubiquity in almost every culture, coffee takes a wide and unpredictable range of forms throughout the world. Here is a sampling, both bitter and sweet, of some of the regional renditions of the world’s favorite hot drink.
Italy. Perhaps nobody does coffee better than Italy. Though located many lines of latitude north of muggy coffee country, Italy has somehow attained the position of coffee lord and master. It’s here that the espresso machine had its birth, and it’s here that a coffee lover can enter nearly any establishment, whether a slick Neapolitan bar or a small nameless café in the remote Abruggio, and expect no less than the brown-black best. Never fear of instant coffee, for “cafe” in Italy is synonymous with “espresso.” Add milk, and the door to the frothy, creamy world of Italian coffee drinks opens wide. No doubt, we all owe our finest a.m. pleasures to Italy. Trivia: Espresso is big business and espresso machines serious investments—costing as much as $40,000.
Ethiopia. This is where it all began. Ethiopia is the heart of coffee country, native homeland to the Coffea genus, and people here have been drinking coffee for more then 1,000 years. Today, coffee—called buna—is still made and served in a traditional table-side ritual that transforms the beans from raw red cherries into toasty, steaming drink, often all before the guest’s eyes. The process can last more than an hour, as the host toasts, grinds and boils the coffee before serving.
Spain. The wayfarer in Spain, rising from his bedroll on a frosty September morning and eager for warmth and company, must look no farther than the nearest church steeple. For that cross indicates that a café dwells at ground level in the plaza. There, the old men are already gathering, whether Monday or Sunday, and the silvery, steel machine is already hissing away. Go! The establishment, almost always, is called “Cafe Bar” and by 6 a.m. is buzzing with caffeine and activity. Many take their their coffee standing at the bar with a hand in their pocket. If you want milk, please don’t order a latte. Cafe con leche is your ticket. Be warned: Long sit-ins at coffee bars may still be a foreign idea in parts of rural Spain. Several years ago, in the Picos de Europa, I ordered a second coffee while letting my camera battery charge in a small café. The place was nearly empty, yet the barkeeper decided she’d had enough of me after 40 minutes. She unplugged my device, slid it across the table and pointed to the door. She all but kicked me in the rear as I hobbled out. I didn’t even have time to leave a tip.
United States. America has gained an irrepressible taste for the inky black juice of the espresso machine. But “gas station coffee,” the type that one may spot in the roadside diner by the register, ominously tea-colored and brewed hours before, is still a symbol of Americana and proudly drips from Mr. Coffee lookalikes everywhere. At the other end of the spectrum are the massive high-calorie coffee drinks innovated by Starbucks, containing varying mixes of espresso, caramel, whipped cream, chocolate, eggnog and other ingredients. The presence of such milkshake-like drinks seems to have even spurred a reaction in places. So we see, in the occasional bakery café, a note on the menu reading, “Just good, old-fashioned drip coffee,” as though we ought to be relieved.
Turkey. Turkey’s favorite drink is tea, called “chai,” yet coffee is available here. In Istanbul, espresso and the associated lattes and cappuccinos are commonplace, while in the countryside, Nescafé rules—usually poured from 3 in 1 packets of instant coffee, sugar and artificial dried milk. True Turkish coffee, served in espresso-like cups, can be surprisingly hard to find. Note that what the Turks call “Turkish coffee,” the Greeks call “Greek coffee” and the Georgians “Georgian coffee.” But it’s all the same stuff—thick, gritty, tar-black juice like the emissions of a malfunctioning espresso machine. It is almost always served sweet.
Greece. The favorite coffee drink in Greece is the frappe. Made using Nescafé, a frappe is a frothed-up blend of milk, sugar and Nescafé, served over ice. The drink can be had with or without sugar, but on a warm summer day in the islands, the ice is the essence of a frappe. This is at least one instant coffee rendition that’s easy to love.
Baja California. In Baja, “coffee” seems almost to mean “hello.” Nearly every other day, during my years of Baja wandering with spear and backpack a decade ago, some strange man or woman would appear out of a shack on the dirt road ahead, wave to me and call out, “Cafe?!” Thus, I often found myself seated on a broken plastic chair or an upturned fishing bucket under a tree while my host boiled water on a mesquite fire and spooned out the Nescafé. That’s right: The drink is almost always instant coffee granules, and while the coffee itself is nothing to write home about, it’s the gesture that counts in the sparsely peopled cowboy country of Baja.
Ireland. It’s little surprise that Ireland, land of cheery pubs and frosty nights, is where coffee first got really fun. The Irish coffee was invented in the 1940s and is now a cocktail served in bars worldwide. It contains hot coffee, whiskey, sugar and whipped cream, and, while traditionally an after-dinner drink, Irish coffee may be hard to argue with on a chilly morning. But Irish coffee may not suit all tastes. Years ago, a friend of the San Francisco Chronicle‘s former travel writer Stanton Delaplane reportedly said that Irish coffee ruins three good drinks—whiskey, coffee and cream.
Vietnam. Many of us aren’t fans of sweet coffee, but Vietnamese iced coffee is delicious. Coffee drinking arrived in Vietnam with the French in the 1800s, and the local palates quickly shaped their own interpretation of the drink. Fresh milk in Vietnam was not as available as it is in the pasture lands of France, and so the cafe au lait took a sharp evolutionary turn: The Vietnamese poured their coffee over sweetened condensed milk—from a can—and served the drink over ice.
Ecuador. All bets are off when ordering coffee in Ecuador. Unless you request otherwise, they may pre-sweeten the drink for you. And if you ask for a cafe con leche, what you’ll get is a mug filled entirely with steaming hot milk, served beside a jar of instant coffee granules. And if you ask your host whether they’re serving Nescafé, they may say no—but not because they’re making coffee in a French press but simply because they are serving some other brand of instant coffee, like Buendia or PresCafe. And even in a swanky countryside bed and breakfast fitted with a dazzling espresso machine, if you order a cappuccino, they might reach for the sweetened mocha packets in the cupboard. Stay vigilant. Still other times, real coffee is available in Ecuador (they grow the stuff; why shouldn’t they serve it?) offered as cafe filtrado. Pounce on it while you can!
February 1, 2013
“Faces From Afar” is an ongoing series in which Off the Road profiles adventurous travelers exploring unique places or pursuing exotic passions. Know a globetrotter we should hear about? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Give a man a glass of water, and you may quench his thirst. But teach him to build a biosand water filter using local materials and the simplest technology, and he’ll have clean water for life at a cost of just $30.
Even better, Rod and Ingrid McCarroll, two retired Canadians, will pay half the cost or more if the 30 bucks is too steep. Sometimes it is. The McCarrolls, of Calgary, Alberta, have been traveling the world for 12 years in some of the most impoverished communities with the goal of bringing clean water to millions. They have worked through their own nonprofit organization, Friends Who Care International, in rural India, Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala. Last year, they spent six months in Nicaragua alone. Just two weeks ago, they arrived in Ecuador.
“We hope to provide clean water for 20 million people,” Rod told me at the Hostal El Taxo in Quito, where we met by chance in the dining room. “It’s estimated that 1.2 billion people now don’t have clean water for drinking or cooking. The problem is, the world is growing faster than we’re able to help.”
The biosand water filter that is the main feature of the McCarrolls’ work is a relatively simple thing. Invented in the 1990s by David Manz, an environmental engineering professor at the University of Calgary, the contraption is composed of carefully selected and treated sand and gravel, as well as a layer of iron nails, strategically layered in a four-foot-tall concrete casing. The setup weighs more than 200 pounds, making it too heavy to steal. Maintenance is easy, requiring simply scooping the mucky top water from the gravel layer every few months. Being too simple to experience serious mechanical breakdowns, the water filter all but guarantees a family clean water for life. Tap, pond or river water is poured into the gravel, and at a rate of one liter per 80 seconds, pure water emerges from the spout. The filter removes 99.5 percent of bacteria, viruses and protozoa, according to Rod, as well as 100 percent of parasites and 100 percent of arsenic—which bonds to the iron oxide molecules of the rusting nails and becomes unable to travel through the filter. Currently, the McCarrolls are in the rural mountainous regions surrounding Cuenca—Ecuador’s third-largest city—working with local contacts and community leaders to teach them how to build the filters. Arsenic, Rod says, contaminates much of the region’s water—a serious problem that could be solved as easily as the filter is simple.
Rod stresses that he and Ingrid are not just delivering clean water to one family at a time. Rather, they are teaching others—especially community leaders—to build biosand water filters and to teach the trick to others. By this means, the snowball effect seems already to have kicked in. While the McCarrolls have worked in just half a dozen countries, Rod says that clean water now trickles from half a million biosand water filters in 75 countries.
Apart from clean water, the McCarrolls have also worked to bring sustainable, off-the-grid electricity to the needy through another Canadian nonprofit called Light Up the World. Living in literal darkness, Rod says, means living in intellectual and spiritual darkness, too—as people cannot educate themselves if they return from work to a home too dim to read in.
But the McCarrolls have another objective, too, which leads them through more figurative realms of light and darkness: They are Christian missionaries. This is a more latent, secondary element of their work. Clean water and electricity come first, and religion follows. It may take 30 minutes of chatting with the pair even to discover their spiritual concerns, yet along with biosand water filters, they are indeed missionaries, encouraging those who accept their help to also adopt Christianity.
“If you go around the world and tell starving people that God loves them, it’s hogwash,” Ingrid said. “It means nothing. But if you give them something, then they see that they really do have friends.”
Rod says the interest in dispensing Christian ideals goes hand in hand with having clean water, electricity and basic sanitary conditions. He says, too, that religious conversion is not a main objective—but that it doesn’t hurt to make Hindus into Christians. The caste system, outlawed in India yet persisting through tradition, plagues much of the Hindu world—especially India. It relegates people born as untouchables to a life of poverty and filth—and with contaminated drinking water to boot, Rod points out.
“We’re just trying to help remove them from this darkness,” he explains. “But there are 600,000 villages in India, and many of them don’t want anything to do with missionaries. So how do we get in?”
The biosand water filter. Given to the needy and bearing with it the heavy scent of Christianity (the McCarrolls may prompt prayer circles with families before they depart), “the water filter,” Rod says, “serves as a 24/7 missionary.”
Rod is 71 years old. Ingrid is 70. When she was a child, she barely escaped from East Germany before the Berlin Wall went up. Her family had been torn apart during the turmoil of war, but they managed to reconvene with the help of the Red Cross in Austria in 1945. Ingrid and Rod met and married 46 years ago. Upon retiring, they determined not to kick up their feet between rounds of golf and luxury vacation cruises.
“We decided that we’d done well, and we wanted to give back,” Ingrid said.
After learning about Manz’s biosand water filter in the late 1990s and growing efforts to dispense the invention around the world, the McCarrolls saw their opportunity to help the world’s unfortunate. They worked at first with the organization CAWST (Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology), which was led by Camille Dow Baker, a former oil development executive striving to reform her career. Once the McCarrolls had learned the ropes, they established Friends Who Care International in 2001, and they have divided their time between Calgary and the wider world ever since.
December 20, 2012
Tomorrow, a person standing anywhere along the Tropic of Capricorn can look up when the clock strikes noon and observe that the Sun is hovering directly overhead. That means easy sunburns and the start of summer to our friends in Sydney, Santiago, Cape Town and Auckland, for December 21 is the southern summer solstice.
But north of the Equator, we’re about to face-off with the shortest and darkest day of the year—our winter solstice. Where I live, in San Francisco, at about 37 degrees north latitude, the Sun will hit its meager noontime zenith at just 30 degrees above the southern horizon. And farther north, in Glasgow, at 56 degrees latitude, the situation is grimmer; the Sun will scrape out seven hours of daylight while peaking at noon only 11 degrees above the horizon. And in Fairbanks, at 65 degrees north latitude, the outlook for the solstice is truly bleak—for the Sun will barely make an appearance at all, rising to no higher than two degrees above the southern horizon and providing less than four hours of dusky daylight before dipping again behind the Earth.
For ancient people, this dark time of year, of shortening days and a sinking sun, was a gloomy one, posing the greatest threat of freezing or famine—especially in high-latitude locations. But the solstice, though the shortest, darkest day of all, also marked the turnaround toward spring and summer. Thus, December 21 and December 22 (the exact solstice date varies year by year) were days to rejoice. Many people around the world—especially, it seems, in Egypt and Europe—built temples and monuments in recognition of the winter solstice. They aligned these structures to face, frame or otherwise “welcome” the rising Sun as it emerged from the horizon, and today viewers may still see the beautiful visual effects these ancient architects created using Sun and stone. Following are several places to see the solstice in action.
England, Glastonbury Tor: At 51 degrees north latitude, Glastonbury Tor is a man-made mound in southern England that historians believe was built to celebrate the Sun and the path it takes through the sky. On the winter solstice, a person standing on the nearby Windmill Hill can watch as the rising Sun appears to roll along the slope of the mound from base to top, where the ruins of St. Michael’s Church still stand.
Mexico, Chichen Itza: Three months ago, I discussed the importance of this ancient Mayan site as it relates to the equinoxes—on which two days a shadow, cast down the stairway of the Kukulcán pyramid in the late afternoon, creates the spectacular image of an undulating serpent. On the winter solstice, the Sun itself is the star of the occasion, rising at dawn (it always does, doesn’t it?) and lifting upward along the edge of the pyramid. To a person facing the western side of the monument, the rising Sun appears to roll up the pyramid’s edge before lifting off into the tropical deep-winter sky.
Egypt, Karnak Temple: On December 21, viewers inside the Karnak Temple can see the Sun rise dramatically in the entryway, between the high walls of the ancient monument. For a few moments, the Sun’s rays gleam through the pillars and chambers—including the Sanctuary of Amun—before the event passes, and morning commences on this shortest day of the year. Arnak is just one of many sites like it in Egypt. A survey of 650 Egyptian temples, conducted by scientist Juan Belmonte of the Canaries Astrophysical Institute, has led to the conclusion that most of the sites were built in recognition of celestial events—especially sunrise on the equinoxes and solstices.
England, Stonehenge: The makers of England’s most famous rockpile certainly had something special in mind when they arranged the giant slabs as they did, but the site remains a mystery. Some people today believe the winter solstice sunset inspired the arrangement of the stones, but overall, evidence is spotty that the huge slabs of Stonehenge are aligned to celestial events. Nonetheless, Stonehenge fanatics want in on the party. Last winter, 5,000 people visited Stonehenge on the solstice, and many are expected tomorrow—though officials have voiced concern over the impending crowds. And as if crashing the winter solstice party wasn’t enough, pagans and partiers from miles around convene at Stonehenge for the summer solstice, too. In 2011, 18,000 of them hooted and hollered as the Sun rose just before 5 a.m., and 14,000 returned for the same occasion in 2012. This website concedes that the builders of Stonehenge did not likely have any summer solstice symbolism in mind.
New Zealand, Aotearoa Stonehenge: New Zealand is a modern austral society with ancient roots in the boreal world, and so what the Kiwis may lack in paleoarchitecture they may simply build anew out of wood, wire and concrete. So was born Aotearoa Stonehenge near Wellington, a modern interpretation of the original Stonehenge. Designed specifically to accommodate the site’s latitude and longitude, the circular arrangement includes 24 pillars that create windows through which visitors may watch the appearance of important stars and constellations of the southern sky as they rise from the horizon. Additionally, a 16-foot-tall obelisk points toward the celestial south pole. The structure was built by volunteers with the Phoenix Astronomical Society, who toiled for 11,000 hours over 18 months to complete the job. The henge was finished in 2005 and already has become a noted site for seeing the sunrise on the austral summer solstice.
The end of the world? The solstice of 2012 will be a particularly exciting one since the day also happens to be the scheduled end of the world, according to many spiritualists—especially those fixated on interpretations of the Mayan calendar. But scientists with NASA have publicly countered, announcing that there is no evidence of impending doom. The United States Geological Survey also concluded in a recent blog article that the world will go on after tomorrow’s solstice. Phew!
December 18, 2012
“Faces From Afar” is a new series in which Off the Road profiles adventurous travelers exploring unique places or pursuing exotic passions. Know a globetrotter we should hear about? E-mail us at email@example.com.
On September 6, 2011, excited North Korean soccer fans took part in a “wave”—that tradition of American baseball games in which spectators stand in unison row at a time, creating the effect of a moving swell of people that surges around the stadium. It may have been among the first waves to occur in Pyongyang international soccer stadium. To Michael and Larissa Milne, the two American tourists who helped initiate that particular wave, the incident bore underlying elements of conformity, fear and repressed freedom of expression. The wave took easily within the seating section of the Milnes’ 50-person tour group. The North Korean spectators, however, were wary, trained from birth in the arts of restraint, caution and passivity. They resisted through several false starts—but finally, the wave overpowered their inhibitions. Maybe it just seemed safer at this point to join. Anyway, the wave surged along with the seemingly unstoppable force of rapture and critical mass—before stopping dead as perhaps only the wave can in a dictatorship.
As Michael Milne described it on his blog Changes in Longitude, “When it finally reached the central seating area set aside for party VIPs, not a fanny left its seat. The wave didn’t just ebb there but was stopped cold, like it broke against an unyielding stone jetty.”
The party, of course, rules North Korea, where a line of dictators has run the nation with almost superhuman power since the years following the Korean War. While citizens are sternly guarded from outside influences—including Internet access and global film culture—traveling here is surprisingly easy for tourists. Thus, when the Milnes sold their Philadelphia home and most of their possessions in the summer of 2011 and commenced on a long and ambitious world tour, they quickly struck upon the wild idea of visiting one of the world’s most mysterious and forbidding places. They made mandatory arrangements with one of several government-permitted tour companies, paid a slight visa fee at the border crossing from China, temporarily forfeited their cellphones, computers, other handheld tech gadgets and even their books, and took a five-day plunge into full darkness.
“In North Korea, you’re totally cut off from the outside world,” Michael told me from New York City during a recent phone interview. “You have no idea what’s going on outside. We didn’t even know how the Phillies were doing.” (They made it as far as the National League Division Series.)
Military omnipresence and jeering loudspeakers bring the classic Orwellian distopia to life. Party members in North Korea are well-fed and prosperous, while citizens walk in straight lines and speak softly—and Big Brother is always watching. For natives, there is no exit. But tourists enjoy surprising liberty. They must remain either in the company of the group tour or within the confines of their hotel, and photography is restricted in places, like during bus rides between tourist attractions. Otherwise, outsiders may mingle with the people—whom the Milnes describe as being just as friendly and gregarious as can be—and take photos of the country’s grandest features. Popular tourist attractions include monuments honoring former national leader Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994 and is now known both as Great Leader and Eternal President, various museums and the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on the border between the two Koreas. Here, no physical barrier separates the nations, and soldiers from each side stare coldly at one another. The DMZ offers tourists a rare opportunity for a telling side by side comparison of North and South Koreans.
“The soldiers on the South Korean side are muscular, vigorous,” Michael said. “But the North Koreans are swimming in their uniforms, and these are the soldiers they’ve chosen to put on display.”
The difference in stature can be attributed, the Milnes told me, to hunger. Food is of poor quality in North Korea, they said, and many people can’t afford it. Restaurants for tourists are a different story, providing lavish feasts that may leave visitors impressed by North Korea’s evident opulence—or just embarrassed, as the Milnes were, by the needless waste.
The Arch of Triumph is another showpiece proudly presented to all tourists. The monument was built in 1982 to honor Kim Il Sung and commemorate North Korea’s military resistance to Japan. It was also built a few inches taller than the Parisian Arc de Triomphe—which tour leaders, who speak a transparent curriculum of government-mandated material, are quick to point out.
Propaganda sounds from all directions in North Korea, and for outsiders it’s easy to identify. For example, state-run media perpetuates an altered history of World War II in which the military forces under Kim Il Sung supposedly defeated Japan singlehandedly. The Milnes also visited the ship-turned-museum USS Pueblo, which North Korean authorities captured, detained and kept as a military trophy in 1968. Here they saw a piece of U.S. Naval history wiped clean of fact and refurnished with exaggerations. The ship is now presented as a symbol of North Korea’s dominion over the United States—considered a great enemy of the state. Larissa, also on conference call, said to me, “For America, the Pueblo incident was a minor blip in a series of many, many world events, but for them, it’s a bright and shining event. It really shows how North Korea clings to the past.”
During an outing to a North Korean amusement park called the Pyongyang Fun Fair, the Milnes and the other tourists quickly noticed that something strange was at play here: There were no laughter, shrieks or cries of joy. The people were silent. “An amusement park without noise is a strange thing,” Michael said. Surely, the physiology of North Koreans is not immune to that electric thrill that most of us know from roller coaster free falls—but nobody dared raised their voice. At least, they didn’t dare until the British and American tourists did so first. Then, the effect turned contagious; whoops and cheers spread through the crowds, and vocal chords chronically underused began to explore uncharted territory of decibel levels.
The trained passivity of the people showed itself, too, at the aforementioned soccer match between Tajikistan and North Korea. Though the home team would ultimately beat the visitors 1-0, the Milnes watched North Korea play with a troubling absence of spirit. Michael wrote on his blog at the time that the players, after maneuvering the ball past the legs of the defending Tajikistanis all the way down the field, would turn sluggish, unambitious and reluctant each time it appeared there was a chance to score. Repeatedly, just shy of the goal, the North Koreans appeared to intentionally divert the ball away from the net. Michael and Larissa attributed this pattern to the North Koreans’ reluctance to be noticed and their fear of failure.
“This is a society where no one wants to be the standing nail,” Michael said.
Throughout their world tour, the Milnes had used a creative and surprisingly effective tool for breaking ice and building bridges across cultures: a six-inch-tall statue of perhaps the world’s most famous boxer, Rocky Balboa. Many times during interactions with strangers, when words between the people could not be produced, the Milnes took their little plastic prize fighter from a day pack, and what followed was nearly always laughter, cheers and shouts of “Rocky!” But when the Milnes took out “Little Rocky” for a photo op at the North Korean Arch of Triumph—part of an ongoing series featuring Little Rocky around the world—nobody in a group of bystanders recognized or knew the name of the muscled likeness of Sylvester Stallone, his arms raised, boxing gloves on his hands. It was only one of two times that Rocky was not recognized (the other was in the Kalahari, when the Milnes produced Little Rocky for a photo op with a group of San people). North Koreans, of course, are deprived of Internet access, of literature, magazines and newspapers from the wider world, of popular television and of most films. That a movie glorifying an American fighting champion has never publicly screened in North Korea is hardly a surprise.
The Milnes are currently resting in New York and plotting their next moves—which may include writing a travel memoir as well as beginning a tour of North America. Whatever they do, they don’t want to settle just yet. They are enjoying a rare level of freedom, a nomadic lifestyle void of belongings as well as that thing most of us believe is only a blessing—a home.
December 7, 2012
Nowhere in the world is it legal to hunt wild tigers, as each remaining subspecies of the giant cat is infamously on the verge of extinction.
Yet the close cousin of the tiger, the lion—almost equally large, equally charismatic and, in places, equally threatened—is legally killed by trophy hunters across its shrinking African range. The remaining lion population, centered in eastern and southern Africa, has declined by as much as 30 percent in the past 20 years, and the cats are considered seriously imperiled. Yet every year 600 lions fall to the bullets of licensed and legal tourists on safari hunts. The activity is opposed by many, but those in favor argue that trophy hunting of lions and other prized targets generates employment and revenue for local economies. The Huffington Post ran an editorial in March 2011 in which the author—lion researcher Luke Hunter—condemned the act of shooting a big cat but still argued that lion hunting is an important tool in generating revenue for land preservation. The author reported that trophy-hunting tourists may pay $125,000 in fees and guide services for the privilege of killing a lion, and he questioned the wisdom in protecting the animals under the Endangered Species Act, an action the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering. A hunter’s organization called Conservation Force also makes the case on its website that African “tourist safari hunting” benefits land, wildlife and communities while imparting “no detrimental biological impact.”
But a report published in 2011 says otherwise—that the environmental and economic benefits of trophy hunting in Africa are negligible. The paper, produced by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, states that in 11 sub-Saharan countries that allow trophy hunting of large game, 272 million acres—or 15 percent of the land—is open to the sport. However, returns from trophy hunting are dismal. While hunters in Africa kill, in addition to lions, 800 leopards, 640 elephants and more than 3,000 water buffalo each year, among other species, they leave behind only 44 cents per acre of hunting land. In Tanzania, that figure is much smaller—a per-acre benefit of less than two cents. A closer look by the report’s authors at seven of the 11 countries—Namibia, Tanzania, Botswana, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Burkina Faso and Benin—revealed that trophy hunting employs not even 10,000 people on a permanent and part-time basis. About 100 million people live in these seven nations.
The IUCN’s report points out that since the economic benefits of trophy hunting appear to be virtually nil in Africa, the only way hunting can be used as a conservation tool is by allowing it as part of carefully designed conservation strategies. Which beckons the question: What species are to gain by hunters prowling their habitat? Certainly, in some cases of overpopulation—usually of grazing herd animals—hunting can serve a direct purpose and even benefit ecosystems. Even elephants are widely said to be overpopulated in certain locations and in need of intervention via rifles.
But for lions, can the intentional removal of any animals from remaining populations be tolerated? Their numbers are crashing from historic levels. Lions once occurred in most of Africa, southern Europe, the Arabian peninsula and southern Asia as far east as India. But nation by nation, lions have disappeared. In Greece, they were gone by A.D. 100. In the 1100s, lions vanished from Palestine. The species’ greatest decline occurred in the 20th century, when Syria, Iran and Iraq saw their last lions die. In 1950, there may have been 400,000 left in the wild; by 1975, perhaps only 200,000. By the 1990s, their numbers had been halved again. Today, an isolated population in the Gir Forest of India numbers more than 400 and seems even to be growing. But the current African population of 32,000 to 35,000 is declining fast. (Defenders of Wildlife has estimated that not even 21,000 lions remain.) In Kenya, the situation is dire: In 2009, wildlife officials guessed they were losing about 100 lions per year in a national population of just 2,000 and that they might be extinct within 20 years. The causes are multiple but related; loss of habitat and decline of prey species are huge factors which, in turn, mean increased lion conflicts with livestock herders—and, often, dead lions; and as numbers drop, the gene pool is dwindling, causing inbreeding and weakened immune systems. Disease outbreaks have also had devastating impacts.
Then there is trophy hunting, which may remove powerful breeding males from a population. David Youldon, the chief operating officer of the conservation group Lion Alert, said in an e-mail that no existing lion population needs culling. The only potential benefit from hunting could come as revenue for land preservation and local communities—but this, he says, isn’t happening.
“Hunting has the potential to generate conservation benefits, but the industry needs a complete overhaul, improved regulation and greater benefit to Africa if such benefits are to be realized, and I see little motivation within the industry to make those changes,” he wrote.
Incredibly, as lions disappear, tourists spur the decline; they may still shoot lions in Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Ethiopia also allows very limited hunting. Fifty-three percent of the cats are taken by Americans, according to Lion Alert, which has reviewed the IUCN’s report and warns on its website that the societal benefits of hunting in most of Africa are so minimal that the activity, in effect, creates little or no impetus to preserve land for the activity, maintain populations of target animals or stop poaching.
So what can travelers do to help? Take more pictures, perhaps. “Photographic tourism” generates 39 times the permanent employment that trophy hunting does, the IUCN report says, while protected lands generate on average two times the tourist revenue per acre as do hunting reserves. That is still just pennies—but at least it leaves the lions alive.
Other Big Cats to Protect—and See While You Can:
Tiger. Since 1900, tiger numbers from Turkey to Malaysia have dropped by 95 percent. Today, between 4,000 and 7,000 remain, and the outlook is grim. The largest population lives in India, where tourists have the best chance at seeing wild tigers in Ranthambore National Park, Kanha National Park and Bandhavgarh National Park.
Cheetah. The world’s fastest land animal once lived in 44 countries in Asia and Africa, with a population of possibly 100,000. Today, most cheetahs live in Africa, where numbers are down to as low as 10,000. A gene pool bottleneck thousands of years ago has left a legacy of inbreeding, one of the major threats to the cheetah’s survival. For now, an excellent place to see cheetahs is Kafue National Park, in Zambia.
Snow Leopard. The granite-colored snow leopard of the Himalaya numbers possibly 6,000 in 12 nations, but, like most wild cats, the snow leopard is disappearing. Trekkers in the Himalaya (PDF) have the best chance, though unlikely, of catching a glimpse.
Clouded Leopard. Perhaps the most mysterious of the big cats—and definitely the smallest—the clouded leopard ranges from Tibet through southern China and south through the islands of Malaysia and Indonesia. The animals weigh just 30 to 50 pounds and spend much of their time in trees. The current population is unknown but believed to be less than 10,000 individuals and shrinking. Seeing clouded leopards is rare—and we may take satisfaction simply in knowing that this beautiful creature exists.