Tanzania shake-down

May 11th, 2008, 05:17 PM
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Tanzania shake-down

This is the story of an attempted shakedown by Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) rangers in Tanzania in late February 2008. If you are a photographer carrying a long focal-length lens to this area you may be especially interested in what happened.

It began as we were eating breakfast about 50 yards from a cheetah mom with 3 tiny cubs and a jeep pulled up. There were 4 armed NCA rangers inside and they talked loudly in Swahili to our driver. Our long lenses were on top of the jeep, out of the way while we ate. I figured the rangers were going to compliment us for staying so far from the cheetahs since there had been an ugly incident two days earlier when 8 jeeps interfered with a cheetah mom hunting, but boy was I wrong. After a couple minutes they pulled up beside another jeep with a couple of long-lens photographers that was closer to the cheetahs and began talking animatedly with them too.

“They say you have to go to the ranger’s office and pay for a ‘filming fee’ because of the big lenses. $100 per day for each lens.” Let’s see, we were going to be in the NCA for a week and had two 500 mm lenses, so we only owed $1,400. Yeah, that will work!

When we had stopped at the NCA gate on our way in our driver asked us to cover the long lenses because two weeks earlier a photographer he was guiding had been asked to pay this same fee. The photographer (whom we knew from an earlier trip) refused and his meeting at the ranger’s office included a lot of shouting and exchanged threats between both parties, according to our guide. It turns out the photographer’s father had worked in Tanzania and started a missionary school and had enough contacts in the government that the rangers eventually backed down, once they understood who he was and, more importantly, who he knew in Tanzania political circles. The guide thought this had put the kibosh this particular illegal shakedown but still wanted the gear out of sight just in case.

I knew Serengeti National Park charges extra for a special ‘filming fee’ for professional videographers but they get special privileges in return, like off-road access thru the park, and it’s actually hard to qualify for the permit. This was our fifth safari and the first we had heard of such a fee for still photographers. When we pressed for details (When did this start? How long a lens? What extra privileges does this permit buy you?) it became clear this was totally bogus. At first the rangers said any lens over 180 mm required a ‘filming permit’, then they changed it to ‘250 mm’, finally to 500 mm. Yet there was no mention of this in the park regulations and no one at the main entrance station mentioned it, just these backcountry guys near Ndutu.

Carol and I decided that we would not pay this, or as I told our driver “not even one nickel”. Our argument would be that we had paid all fees in advance with our outfitter so if there were new fees the rangers should charge the SmartCard debit account of the safari company and we would hash it out with them back in Arusha. We asked the driver to call Arusha and have the company management contact the NCA honchos, and we also talked to the lodge manager, describing what had happened. He suggested we not pay but be careful not to piss them off too much if they pushed us. He said the lodge sympathized but was limited in what it could do because they had to work with the rangers daily. I told him that if we did not return that night he knew where to find us. Later he said one of his staff had been at the ranger station that afternoon on other business and mentioned to the rangers that we were repeat guests who knew the rules and felt there was no basis for this fee, which probably helped our cause, so he did what he could.

We had one ace-in-the-hole. One of Carol’s relatives is close friends with a US Congressman and when we had traveled to Kenya during their post-election traumas he had told us that if we needed any assistance to contact him and he would have the State Department contact the Kenyan government directly. Just days before our trip to Tanzania President Bush had been in Arusha handing out over $700 million in US foreign aid funds, so I assume the diplomatic channels were well-oiled between our country and Tanzania. I mentioned this option to our guide, that someone from the State Department would be contacting the Tanzania authorities if the rangers gave us a hard time, and he passed it on to the rangers.

We had one more day in the NCA, then 3 days in central Serengeti, then a return for 3 more days in the NCA so they tabled our ‘meeting’ until we got back. When we returned to the NCA we stopped at the ranger station to check back in from Serengeti. We stayed in the jeep while our guide went inside to pay the entry fees with the SmartCard, telling us we might have to go inside and hassle with the rangers if they still were pushing for the ‘filming fee’.

When he returned he said the problem had gone away. The rangers apologized for causing us any problems, there was no ‘filming fee’ required, and they hoped we enjoyed our stay. They even gave us an extra two hours the last day so we could photograph early and still reach the exit gate several hours drive away early enough to avoid paying for another day. Not sure if this change of heart came after pressure from Arusha or if they realized that as repeat visitors we knew this new fee was bogus and would fight it.

The above is what I know … next here’s some guesses as to what was actually going on.

Two months before our trip the authorities had changed the payment rules. Instead of paying with cash or check at the various entry stations the driver-guides now paid with electronic SmartCards, debit cards that automatically transferred the payments from safari company accounts directly to the NCA or Parks accounts. Now I’m not saying that any of these earlier cash money accounts were lightened between the remote outposts and final deposit in Arusha, but when Kenya went to the SmartCards a few years ago the receipts went up 30% with no discernable increase in tourism. Not saying there was any skimming going on but … on our January trip to Kenya the rangers at one entrance station outside the Mara (ie, outside the debit card area) asked our guide to pay for all three days of our stay but accept a receipt for just two days, with the understanding that he would not be checked the extra day, just to show you how easy it is to do. Or another time in Tanzania we were asked for a $10 ranger fee for a ranger to accompany us to a certain area, even though no ranger was available (we paid anyway).

I don’t know how much if any skimming was going on in Tanzania, but everyone I talked to agreed it was quite possible, and the likely reason the rangers were trying to shake down unsuspecting tourists once the SmartCards meant the cash bypassed them.

Also, I *think* the rangers saw us as vulnerable because we were just a couple traveling alone without a tour.

Also, I *think* we could have gone in humble and apologetic and negotiated the $1,400 down to something more reasonable, say $50 - $100, saying we were sorry but we just didn’t know any better (this is a country with an annual per-capita income of $800 and $100 goes a long way). Probably when they realized we were there for a week and would owe $1,400 under their scheme they knew we would never go for it, especially once they learned this was not our first rodeo. I’d think they wanted people staying 2-3 days on their first safari, people they could intimidate who would maybe panic and pay something just to make this go away, like $20 clearing a bogus speeding ticket in Mexico.

Also, I *think* they only go after certain safari companies, not daring to hassle clients from the large, politically connected companies like Leopard Tours and Ranger Safaris (both with 150-200 jeeps and partial ownership by politicians).

Anyway, if you get rousted in a similar situation stand up for your rights, keep cool, don’t pay and probably they will back down.

Good luck!

Bill_H is offline  
May 11th, 2008, 08:38 PM
Join Date: Feb 2003
Posts: 13,435
Wow !!

Thanks for the information Bill,I am sure it will be extremely helpful for all those that are going soon.

Percy is online now  
May 11th, 2008, 11:52 PM
Join Date: Jan 2008
Posts: 40
Thanks for the information. Now I'm worried. I'm taking my first trip to Africa and it's 37 days long. Now I wonder if I should have kept it short and sweet for the first time as about 14 days I'll be traveling alone.

At least I'm aware but I don't have any contacts that could help me out if I were to get into trouble.
jmartmd is offline  
May 12th, 2008, 01:05 AM
Join Date: Aug 2005
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It probably won't be long before photographers visiting NPs will be asked to sign official declarations when they book safaris that they're not taking pictures for commercial purposes, or some variation...the forseeable extreme would be a photographic surcharge for anybody with professional-looking equipment.

Parks and zoos in developed countries are moving this way, because they need more funds. The NCA rangers are understandably getting in early, for their own cut. Who's surprised?
afrigalah is offline  
May 12th, 2008, 02:41 AM
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I think this was just an atempted scam, it probably works now and again. The only place I know which charges camera fees is India, and the fee for video cameras is about 5 times that for still cameras.
May 12th, 2008, 04:01 AM
Join Date: Apr 2008
Posts: 1,720
I would think the tour companies and guides may have an interest in this behavior as some travelers have only a limited amt. of cash that most likely is set aside to tip guides, etc. and the additional, unexpected demand from rangers would come from that fund, leaving less for intended purpose. Perhaps a "tipping" container could be displayed at entrances of parks for the rangers such as is seen almost everywhere nowadays ,this may help alleviate this situation but may cause more problems eventually.
KRNS is offline  
May 12th, 2008, 08:02 AM
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If this situation ever happened to me, I would hold my ground and dismiss 100% of what they are talking about. In fact, I would giggle. The problem isn't between you and these 'rangers', but rather it scares the living crap out of the guides that have to work in the area often.
andybiggs is offline  
May 12th, 2008, 08:16 AM
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Vis a vis the suggestion that "tips" be offered to foreign government officials for additional privileges offered -- you might want to check with a good criminal lawyer to find out the U.S. federal laws you'd be violating before putting that suggestion into effect!!!
isabel25 is offline  
May 12th, 2008, 08:35 AM
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In defense of the rangers the rules of Tanzania Parks are clear (I assume the same for the NCA but I cannot find my paperwork now).

"Professional Photography and Filming in Tanzania requires a special permit from the Prime Ministers Office, Dar es Salaam."

Pain in the @#$% or not, if one is in the business of selling photography or films then it is best to get familiar with the rules!

Last time I went through this exercise was in October with crew from Los Angeles (filming and photographing). I did all the paerwork for them (including customs waivers) and I was happy we did it right. A few situations came up that would've been tough to handle without the permits.

Amazingly the lenses these professionals used were about the same sizes I see on safari with regular folk.

You can now understand why this is issue may not go away. How does the ranger know whether or not you are a professional?
climbhighsleeplow is offline  
May 12th, 2008, 02:29 PM
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Bill, Thanks for the account. Just by informing others, these shake down tactics may not proliferate.

Andy, While I would not readily fork over hundreds of dollars for lens fees, I think I'd be way too scared to giggle. Of course, with my photo apparatus, I'll attract no attention.

If you have a regular size lens, you'll likely have no problem. You may want to write down a few key names, titles, roles--ambassadors and such--that you can throw around in pinch. Nobody will know that you don't really know these folks. A shorter trip if you have the time and money would be a shame. Go for it, lenses and all!

Bill again, between this and the disturbing behavior of other drivers in the presence of the numerous young cheetahs, you had some serious stress on this trip.
atravelynn is offline  
May 13th, 2008, 06:00 AM
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In defense of the rangers …

Sorry Eben, I don’t think you can defend these rangers. If they were legit then they should have explained why they considered us “professionals” and request that we pay via debit card so the money would go to the ‘right’ place. Instead they simply said they were charging us because of the size of the lenses (changing this from 180 mm to 250 mm to 500 mm as they made it up) and that we should pay them cash.

If they were legit then they would not have backed down when we had the safari company complain to their bosses in Arusha.

In defense of the rangers the rules of Tanzania Parks are clear (I assume the same for the NCA but I cannot find my paperwork now).

"Professional Photography and Filming in Tanzania requires a special permit from the Prime Ministers Office, Dar es Salaam."

Here is what the Tz Parks site says about filming fees:

N. Filming Fees
The following filming fees are applicable to each person per day and covers entrance, camping and filming fees. (Filmers are not categorised into Tanzanians and Non Tanzanians)
a) All Parks except Gombe and Mahale US$ 100

I know two still photographers who got these permits for Serengti and both told me it was the best way to go because you get special permission to drive off-road, so I inquired about getting one for our second trip. I was told that since I was not a professional photographer that I could not purchase this permit even if I wanted it and was willing to pay the extra cost.

There is a ‘filming fee’ for the NCA, a pro wildlife filmmaker who was at Ndutu the past two years said it cost him an extra $300 a day for two vehicles and two crews.

How does the ranger know whether or not you are a professional?

This never came up in the discussion, they simply tried to shake us down because of the size of the lenses. You can see how arbitrary this is when you look at Andy’s post … he’s a professional photographer with almost identical gear leading a tour a short time before our trip and he said he would laugh in their faces if they tried this on him. They singled us out because they thought they could get away with it, and once it became clear to them we weren’t intimidated they backed off. It had nothing to do with whether you were a professional or not. The first guy I mentioned is also a professional leading tours (like Andy) and they backed off him once he dropped names of high ranking officials he knew through his father’s work.

In a country of laws they would come up with a clear definition of who was subject to these fees and apply that law evenly. For example they could make it clear that there was a daily fee (say $5 or $10) for each of the following six lenses: 600 f/4, 500 f/4, 400 f/2.8, 300 f2.8, Canon 400 f/4 L DO, Nikon 200-400 f/4 VR, lenses selling for $4,000 - $9,000 and up. Update ths list to add new ones as they come out, like the Canon 800 f/5.6.

I think this would likely cover 100% of the pro wildlife photographers. While probably 90-95% of the people bringing these lenses would NOT be considered pros (ie, more than half their income from photography sales) they would likely accept these relatively small costs (considering how much the lenses cost). This would be fair and straightforward enough.

What they are doing now is neither fair nor straightforward. What is going on now that they can’t skim cash off the top because of the SmartCards is corrupt, underpaid thieves with badges and guns are allowed to shake people down randomly.

Bill_H is offline  
May 13th, 2008, 08:54 AM
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You are right, Bill! I certainly do not agree with "cowboy"-style actions by anyone in the parks.

My point is: there has been and will be times when the professional film/photo rules are tested.

To get a permit or not is a judgement call by you and your outfitter. I deal with this about 3 times a year. The process is a royal pain in the butt.

Getting a permit is no gimme and it does not give you special rights in the parks by default. It is simply a document to help faciliate the discussions with officials who will then decide what privileges you may or may not get!

It starts at the airport if you arrive with a few cases of equipment. If you do not have your customs clearance it will be a nightmare and your equipment will stay at customs until cleared!

Whether to get a permit or not depends on many factors. For an individual I would think about it only if the equipment will raise red flags at the airport or in public, if people (officials mostly) will be interviewed, or if special demands are needed (such as off-road or night drives in restricted areas).

As I said, getting the permit is a pain, dealing with customs is frustrating and enforcing the rules is almost impossible anyway and opening up a corruption/harrassment can of worms as Bill described!

The $100 ppd filming fees cover your park fees and camping fees and it not too bad. The $1000 permit costs and resulting clearance agencies fees, etc are pretty steep however.
climbhighsleeplow is offline  
May 13th, 2008, 10:03 AM
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Can I ask just how much camera equipment would set the customs off. I have necer heard of this problem.
May 13th, 2008, 10:49 AM
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Posts: 1,354
Customs and permits are really two separate issue but related.

Customs are concerned that you will bring in equipment to sell without paying import taxes. Or exchange the expensive items with cheaper copycat versions when re-exporting as they call it.

It is always a judgement call by the officials and not just based on numbers. But arriving with two new laptop computers or cameras will be a warning sign for example. Worse case is a delay of several days to complete a customs waiver, paying a bond, etc. Not fun when on a tight shooting schedule.

As I said, this affects a very small number of visitors.
climbhighsleeplow is offline  
May 13th, 2008, 12:18 PM
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Climbhigh sleephollow

Thanks for that, we have a different problem in Sa we have to register before we take equpment out of the country that way we do not get hassled on return. Quite silly nowadays when there are companies that get you equipment duty paid for almost as little as B & H.
May 14th, 2008, 12:59 AM
Join Date: Aug 2005
Posts: 1,274
"While probably 90-95% of the people bringing these lenses would NOT be considered pros (ie, more than half their income from photography sales)"- Bill

Who says, and in any case, does it matter? Nearly 10 years ago, I entered a photo comp for non-professionals, i.e. those who earned less than $10,000 AUD a year from photography (that was probably $6000-$7000 US at the time). Nowhere near 50% of a reasonable income.

While some of the NCA rangers are undoubtedly trying a scam, there's no escaping the point that nowadays, just about anybody with anything remotely resembling professional equipment can be considered a potential money-earner from their photographs. So parks and zoo authorities will do all in their power to make sure you pay to make money from 'their' animals. They need the income. Get ready for it.

afrigalah is offline  
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