Going on an African safari is a bucket list favorite for travelers, but there are ethical drawbacks to consider before participating in these experiences.
When asking people what destinations or experiences are in their top-ten must-do’s, it isn’t long until someone usually mentions wanting to go on an African safari. But really, who can blame them? Safaris are a once-in-a-lifetime, epic adventure that allow you to immerse yourself in the natural habitat and environment of some of the most incredible and fascinating animals in the world.
Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, and Zambia are just a few of the most enticing and popular locations for African safaris where giraffes, lions, gazelles, and elephants can be seen with no bars or cages.
These safaris, however, may not be as ethical as they seem.
Deeply rooted in hunting and trading, some of the earliest safaris recorded detailed stories of shooting trophy animals such as lions or elephants to elevate one’s status among other colonists.
The intentions behind safaris have now evolved and shifted, as we are in an era where people are more environmentally conscious than ever before, and the idea of killing animals solely for entertainment repels many animal lovers. But today, instead of pointing a gun at the animals, people wave their phones and camera lens at them.
Even though the actual safari has changed, we still may be hunting. We track and follow the animals through jungles and savannas while we sit in open Jeeps with binoculars. We surround the animals with our cameras and phones as they sleep with their families, climb up trees, or drink water.
The rate of animal tracking – whether it be for gorillas, lions, or elephants – has risen as the tourist demand for a more authentic safari or travel experience has also increased. Groups of tourists gather with guides and rangers in natural parks to follow animals that have been tamed to feel comfortable around humans.
This process of making the wild animals accustomed to humans in their space is known as habituation. In order for any safari to be possible, the animals will be habituated to some degree. Habituating animals has been going on for a while, but it’s also not 100% safe. These are wild animals. No matter how long they have been around humans, or perhaps have been in captivity, there is still a natural instinct within these animals. Habituating is not only then unpredictable for both the animals and people, but it also works against the animals’ best interest, which for them is to live a natural life in the wild, not to be tamed and accustomed to the presence of humans.
Another ethical challenge facing wildlife safaris is the risk that these animals can contract human illnesses. While, in most cases, humans are kept at a distance from the animals, some organizations offer interactive activities where visitors can take up-close pictures and sometimes even touch the animals. Safari companies that exploit animals as part of their tours, including these up-close interactions, should not be supported as their practices indicate that these companies do not have the best interests of their clients, or more importantly, the animals in mind.
With all of this said though, the ethicality of the African safari is not a clear-cut issue. Responsible safari tourism is an important part of animal protection and vastly improves the local economy. The impact that safaris have on national African economies cannot be underestimated as travel and tourism – largely driven by the safari – are booming and largely growing. The benefits extend beyond money too, as many companies run community projects that empower and offer career opportunities for local communities.
If you are able to cross “African Safari” off of your bucket list, here are just a few ethical considerations you should keep in mind and ask yourself to better support the animals, the local environment, and the community.
Where is my money going? Does the safari company support local people, the environment, and animals?
One of the first things you should do is look at where your money is going, or maybe more specifically, who is involved with the company because wildlife conservation is only successful with community integration and involvement. Local communities and people are often evicted from their land to allow for the expansion of safari parks. Local communities also often lose access to the land’s natural resources. Government-run national parks often promise that a share of the fee will support local communities, but this cannot compensate for what they have lost.
To ensure that your experience best supports local communities and the environment, visit conservancies, where the land is managed and owned by local communities or local non-profits. They can choose to lease the land to safari companies, while still reaping the benefits.
Is the safari company involved in wildlife conservation?
To begin to answer this question, start by researching what species you may encounter on your planned safari. Are these species typically found in this region naturally? Are the animals naturally occurring or bred through human modification? Are these species endangered, and if so, is the company supporting or involved in conservation programs? These are just a few questions that should help you to answer whether or not the safari company has the animals’ best interest, welfare, and conservation at the root of their business or not.
Poaching, or the illegal shooting, trapping, or trading of animals from private property, also remains a huge problem throughout many African countries, especially for endangered species. This illegal wildlife hunting is a largely profitable international crime with startling amounts of animals being killed each year. According to the World Wildlife Fund, around 20,000 African elephants are killed each year for sport. National parks and reserves try to prevent this through monitoring efforts and hiring more rangers, but as tourists, we can help by visiting areas that are most affected or those with fewer visitors in order to increase their tourism-based income, which can be used towards anti-poaching efforts.
Is the safari company involved with recreational hunting?
Besides poaching, another form of recreational hunting is known as “canned hunting,” in which animals – most commonly lions – are bred and grown solely for the purpose of being hunted. These animals will spend their lives in a specific hunting reserve or breeding farm until they are fully grown or large enough to be shot.
These places often use these animals as tourist attractions while they are still young, such as “cuddling a cub lion” or “feeding a baby elephant.” Companies that support these practices are highly unethical and should not be supported.
Are there souvenirs I should avoid?
When buying souvenirs, it is important to be conscious of exactly what you are purchasing. Do not buy a souvenir made from animal products such as fur, shells, or ivory. Instead, buy local, handmade items that were sourced sustainably if possible.
What should I do when I arrive at my safari?
Abide by protocol – stay the advised distance from wildlife, avoid flash photography, be respectful of the local environment, keep a low voice, keep your presence as minimal as possible, and try to prevent stress for the animals as best as you can.
You can help make your safari experience as ethical as possible too. Ultimately, it really comes down to doing your research and hopefully keeping these ethical considerations in mind, so you can have the best interest and welfare possible. For yourself, the environment, the local communities, and most importantly, the animals.