How to ensure your safari is ethical
An African safari falls on the bucket list of many people across the world, allowing an often once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get up close to some of the most majestic animals on the planet.
Unfortunately however, we are undergoing “absolute decimation of environmental spaces and species like never before," according to three-time winner of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award, Brent Stirton. So now more than ever, it's important to make sure we are traveling responsibly.
Ethical tourism comes in many forms, encompassing wildlife, the environment and local communities. All of these must be considered when planning your African safari. The wildlife in Africa is a huge draw for many, from those seeking a vacation to wildlife photographers and filmmakers.
Luckily, governments in some African countries realize the value of wildlife and have created national parks and wildlife reserves to help conserve these animals. However, this is not the case everywhere and issues like the ivory trade still have a devastating impact on wildlife. Also, the success of wildlife tourism is not always shared with the local people, some of whom are living in some of the poorest regions on earth where even access to clean water and electricity remain a privilege.
So to make sure you're planning your safari the right way, ask yourself these questions.
Are you supporting local people?
The first tip would be to look at where your money is going or more specifically, who is it helping because wildlife conservation can only be successful in the long-term with community involvement and integration. Local people are often evicted from their ancestral lands to allow expansion of safari parks, and they also suffer damage to their crops or lose access to natural resources. Although government-run national parks often promise that a share of your fees go to local communities, this does not always materialize or compensate for what they have lost. Without this benefit, people may be tempted to turn a blind eye to illegal activities.
To ensure your adventure supports local people, visit conservancies. This is where the land is managed and owned by local communities or conservation charities. They can choose to lease this land to safari companies or lodge owners, but as the local people control this land, they still reap the benefits from it. So choosing to stay in a conservancy is a great way to travel responsibly. Conservancies also tend to have fewer visitors, creating a much more personal safari experience. Many luxury camps are now found within these conservancies, and many also use very advanced waste management systems, which conserve the local environment as well.
How do you travel while on safari?
There are still some safari companies that exploit animals as part of their safari tour, including riding elephants, horses, and walking with lions. Do not support any company that does this as this indicates that they likely do not have animal welfare and conservation at the forefront of their priorities.
Instead, opt for safaris that use either appropriate safari vehicles or walking on-foot to get you around. Some companies offer safaris in vehicles such as off-road quad bikes, which may sound exciting, but there can be fragile flora across the surface of the soil that can suffer from disturbance from these sorts of trips. If traveling in a vehicle, it is best to go in one that is suitable for safari purposes and is driven by someone who is familiar with the area and can be certain they are driving on safe ground (both for the safety of the passengers and the ecology of the landscape).
Also check what their policy is in regard to game viewing practices — are they conscious about minimizing disturbance to vegetation and animal behavior? Companies with guides (and guests) who remain a safe distance and keep quiet during observations are the ones that you want to go for. For a more adventurous experience, you can join a hiking safari. Some great options include tours of the Drakensberg Mountains, northern Kenya with local Samburu warrior guides, or East Africa at Saruni Rhino (the first rhino-tracking experience that supports efforts for this endangered species).
Is the safari company involved in wildlife conservation?
There are three key aspects to this question: are they actively preserving endangered species, do they have sustainability schemes in place and do they have anti-poaching units on site?
To start, you can research what species you may encounter on your planned safari — are these species found in this region naturally? Are these species endangered and if so, is the company involved in conservation programs for them? Are the animals naturally occurring or bred via human modification? These sorts of questions should help to uncover immediately if the safari have the animals' welfare and conservation success at the foundation of their business or not.
Secondly, look at whether they help to conserve wildlife indirectly through sustainability practices such as utilizing renewable energy sources, sourcing local ingredients for food, gray water harvesting for toilets and showering time limits — all of which will reduce the carbon footprint of your stay.
Read more: How to tell if the zoo you're panning on visiting is ethical
Poaching remains a huge problem throughout the majority of African countries, especially for critically endangered animals. The illegal wildlife trade is the fourth largest profitable international crime in the world, with staggering amounts of animals being killed or removed from the wild each year. WWF estimates that around 20,000 African elephants are killed each year for their ivory, resulting in a loss of about 90 percent of elephants in less than 100 years. Reserves, national parks and conservancies try to prevent this by increasing monitoring efforts and hiring more rangers. As tourists, we can help by visiting the areas that are most affected (such as Selous or Ruaha in Tanzania, where most elephants are killed), or those with fewer visitors thus increasing their tourism-based income, which they can then use to increase anti-poaching efforts.
Is the safari company involved with canned hunting?
Another form of recreational hunting is known as “canned hunting.” This is where animals, most commonly lions, are reared purely for the purpose of being hunted and will spend their lives in a specific hunting reserve or breeding farm until they are large enough to be shot. This is highly unethical and contributes absolutely nothing to either the environment or the local people. Additionally, these places often use these animals for tourist attractions while they are still young, such as "cuddling a lion," or advertise for "conservation volunteers" to help care for them for a fee. Again, this should not be supported.
What souvenirs should you avoid?
As tourists, we all love to come home with souvenirs to show friends and family, but when buying souvenirs, it is important to be conscious of exactly what it is you are purchasing. Never buy souvenirs made from animal products such as ivory, shells or fur as this only increases the demand. Instead, buy local, handmade items sourced from sustainable materials.
African safaris are an incredible experience, allowing you to be immersed in true wilderness and unique cultures. By choosing a safari with ethical credentials, your money directly supports conservation and local communities, making your memories of your trip all the better!