It has all of the trappings to be your biggest bucket list item, promising everything from luxury to adventure to natural wonders. But how do you know that you’re booking a safari that’s both epic and ethical?
“Poaching is still a big concern in many African countries,” said Sherwin Banda, President of African Travel, Inc. “Guests should keep this in mind when booking safaris and support travel brands who have a commitment to sustainable tourism and wildlife conservation.” We talked to experts in the safari industry, like Banda, to help you plan your dream trip to Africa while being conscious of ethics.
Choose Your Tour Operator and Location Wisely
How you spend your money matters in the safari industry. There are tons of tour operators in many African countries, and it's up to you to support the ones promoting ethical travel. “Countries that support local cultures and heritages perform better and have better track records for ethics in the safari industry since those dollars are being reinvested into their communities,” said Banda. “Many countries have great track records including Botswana, South Africa, Kenya, and Tanzania.”
If you’re a traveler who tends to look for the best deals, make sure price isn’t your only factor when booking a safari. “Don’t look for the cheapest operator you can find,” said Jenny Gray, Intrepid Travel’s global product and operations manager. “Instead, do your homework and travel with an operator who has a strong stance on responsible travel.” Even if you do your homework, a tour operator’s website could say one thing about the way they do business, and act differently in real life.
“Travelers need to make sure that they ask their tour operators the right questions and delve deeper into the projects the company’s promote,” said Andy Hogg, a local Zambian and founder of The Bushcamp Company. “Travelers considering a safari need to research and identify companies that are engaging in ethical behavior and are actually doing the right things with regard to wildlife conservation and community projects, rather than just talking about doing the right thing.”
Listen to Your Guide
Your guide isn’t acting arbitrarily out in the field. Every move has a purpose. “Travelers should also respect where guides navigate during a safari because they know how to keep guests’ ‘footprint’ as small as possible during the experience,” said Banda. Trust that your best interest, and the best interest of the animals and local people, is in mind when your guide makes decisions. “When out on safari and the guide says he or she cannot go off road due to soil conditions, this must be respected and the guide not put under unfair pressure to get closer to the animal being viewed,” said Nicky Fitzgerald, CEO and Owner of Angama Mara safari lodge in the Maasai Mara, Kenya. “Encouraging your guide to tick off the Big Five by chasing around from one animal to the next is to be avoided (once again guides put under pressure to get good tips if all the major species are spotted).” It’s in everyone’s best interest to respect wildlife to keep safari tourism strong; adhere to the rules and advice of your guide.
Respect Local Communities
Whether you’re captivated by the stunning jewelry of the Maasai people in Kenya and Tanzania, or street scenes in Lagos, don’t plan on taking a photo without asking your subject for permission beforehand. “Always be polite, discreet, and considerate when photographing anyone regardless of who they are,” said Fitzgerald. “Always ask for permission and if it is not granted thank the person kindly and walk away.”
Also, manage your expectations when visiting local villages. “Please remember this is a commercial operation,” said Fitzgerald. “To ask for ‘real village experiences’ is simply bad mannered. How would that traveler feel if a Maasai knocked on his front door asking to see how his family lived?”
Fitzgerald is getting more requests from travelers who want access to “authentic” or “exclusive” experiences, which isn’t always for the good of the local communities. “All this does is put more pressure on us operators to invade the privacy of communities,” Fitzgerald said.
Avoid Direct Interaction With Animals
Do your best to avoid all contact with animals during your entire African vacation. “All animals, whether encountered on a walking safari or a game drive, must 100% be respected and not have their boundaries or limits encroached upon,” said Hogg. “Staying a respectful distance from animals on a walking safari means that you’ll be able to observe the animals interacting with each other in their own environment, without the humans impacting that interaction.” That means keeping your distance from wild animals, or petting cheetahs, cuddling cubs, or riding African elephants, even when it’s advertised favorably. “Unfortunately, many travelers are conned into believing they're doing ‘the right thing’ by paying to pet Lion cubs, or walk with lions. Again, this emphasizes the importance of booking a safari with an ethical operator.”
Certain best practices can vary from creature to creature. “You can alight the vehicle (if the park permits) and watch from close up a dung beetle rolling its ball,” said Fitzgerald. “Dangerous game should only be viewed at a respectable distance—the guide makes the call.” Your best bet for great wildlife viewing is being patient, and quiet. Don’t interrupt animals, cut one off from the rest of its herd, or try to get their attention by making noises. If you’re on foot, always stay behind your armed guide. If you’re in a vehicle, stay seated and enjoy the ride. "Turn off the engine and wait for the animals to cross the road. Be patient—the longer you sit and watch the more you will see,” said Fitzgerald.
You’ll want to share the magic of your safari with the world. In the age of social media, sharing photos and tagging their locations is the norm on vacation. This practice comes at a deadly cost in the safari world. “It’s a serious problem,” said Gray. “Poachers have become incredibly resourceful and sophisticated in their approach, particularly with high-value wildlife like rhino, where a single horn can be sold for 250,000 USD on the black market.”
When you geotag the location of your rhino spotting on social media, you’re sharing that information with poachers who trawl the internet for this exact kind of content. It’s not difficult to avoid this fatal detail.
“African Travel’s ‘Social Media Responsibility’ campaign encourages clients to switch off their smart device location services when taking photographs on safari,” Banda said. “We also include an informational postcard in every document package to inform our guests of a variety of best practices to employ while on safari.”
At the end of the day, poachers still have the upper hand. “Rhino poachers are smart, informed, armed to the hilt, and mostly two steps ahead of anyone else,” said Fitzgerald. “They know exactly where the animals are at all times.” Travelers can do their part by being sensitive with their social posts nonetheless.
Leave No Trace
People take African safaris to see Africa and its beautiful wildlife, not signs of tourists. As in any travel experience, keep basic considerate common sense in mind. “Travelers should wear neutral-colored clothing to help blend in better with the environment and minimize or reduce single-use plastics while on safari since this harmful to the environment and animals,” said Banda. Bring your own reusable water bottle for your adventure, and dispose of trash appropriately. Don’t pick any wildflowers or plants for souvenirs, and leave Africa in all of its splendor for the next traveler.