Responsible tourism in Southern Africa Part 1: Wild Animals

Southern Africa is one of the world’s natural gems with beautiful landscapes and unique wildlife. Not only do you find the big 5; lion, elephant, rhino, leopard and buffalo -it is also the home of giraffes, hippos, zebras, wildebeests, whales, penguins,  sharks, monkeys, and so many other wonderful animals. While there are many great places to spot these fascinating creatures, there are unfortunately a lot of unethical tourist activities that are harming wild animals and contributing to their extinction. While most visitors have the animal’s best interest at heart, many end up supporting destructive and violent practises without even being aware of it. This post provides ethical guidelines for wildlife tourism for any traveler to Southern Africa. 


1. Avoid unethical animal sanctuaries

There are numerous wildlife sanctuaries in Southern Africa (particularly in South Africa) that offer encounters with enclosed wild animals. These are typically animals people wish to see, such as elephants, lions, cheetahs and rhinos. Sadly, the tourist demand for photos and animal entertainment has created an industry where animals are harshly trained, kept confined, and treated badly. Most sanctuaries are doing it for the money, but will market themselves as doing rehab and trying to conserve the species. In reality they are partaking in illegal wildlife trade, violence, drugging and confinement of the animals they pretend to have rescued. These animals are never released into the wild. Unfortunately, this is the norm rather than the exception for animal sanctuaries. 

Lion sanctuaries are particularly popular. Here, visitors are offered to hold lion cubs, and as the lions grow bigger they get sedated for photos, and finally the lions are sold for trophy hunters to shoot in canned hunts. Alternatively the lions are put back into breeding cages to make more cubs that undergo the same cycle. These “sanctuaries” are scams that profit on the lions, and visitors are unknowingly funding this industry.  

Visitors to Southern Africa are therefore strongly encouraged to do proper research before visiting a sanctuary and should avoid places that offer close encounters with animals. Ethical captive centers always put the needs of animals before the wishes of the paying visitors.


2. Never touch or take photos with a wild animal 

In these social media times, many tourists that visit Africa want to get a photo of themselves with a big animal like a lion or a cheetah. A wild animal in a small space with human strangers  will naturally attack, so places that offer close encounters and photos with wild animals either sedate them or treat them so harshly that they can’t move in fear of being beaten. While wanting such a photo often comes out of a  fascination for the animal, you are supporting captivity and violence towards these wonderful creatures. Both lions, elephants, rhinos and cheetahs are threatened with extinction, and having them in confinement with tourists means that they are prevented from living their natural lives in the wild. As a general rule, do not support businesses offering you to touch or take close-up photos with wild animals. 


3. Avoid riding on or walking with wild animals 

Wild animals like elephants, big cats and ostriches will instinctively never allow humans to ride on them or walk next to them. One must therefore be aware that places that offer these kinds of activities use training and handling techniques that are harmful and traumatic to the animal in order to make them behave in this way. If a wild animal allows you on its back or to go for a walk with you, the animal is operating out of fear as it knows what will happen to it if it doesn’t oblige. 


4. Avoid shows and circuses with animals 

It is well known that circus animals (like tigers, lions, elephants, bears)  and performing marine animals (like dolphins and killer whales) experience serious harm in order to perform for humans. Cruel methods are used for animals that conduct unnatural behaviours, such as tethering, physical punishment and food deprivation. These animals are not there by choice or necessity in any way, and circuses with animals and aquatic shows (like dolphin shows) should therefore be avoided by all means. South Africa is planning to ban performing animals from July 2020, but you might still come across it in South Africa, and it is still legal in other African countries. 


5. Don’t feed wild animals 

When traveling in Africa there is a high chance that you will encounter free living animals such as baboons and dassies, as well as numerous kinds of birds. While it can be tempting to feed them, the animals will get accustomed to it and start seeking out people. While we might think we are being kind to them, their natural diet is all they should be eating. 

Feeding wild animals can also be dangerous, for instance in the case of baboons. Baboons are generally used to humans and don’t mind us, but it’s best to show caution as they like our food and can attack humans if provoked. These close relatives of ours often live in places with a lot of tourists, and sometimes seek out humans to check if we have food. It is therefore important to not make any sound with plastic when they are close by (they know that’s the sound of a treat). They can also break into houses and cars and open your backpack, so make sure you are cautious when in their territory. (If they happen to get hold of your lunch, you must just accept it and wait for it to be safe to take your stuff back). 


6. Don’t buy souvenirs made from animals 

When visiting touristic places you’ll be sure to find a souvenir shop. Here you can find many nice hand-maid and colourful items to bring home. Unfortunately items made from endangered animals and mistreated animals are out there.  Make sure you stay away from products made from tortoiseshell, ivory, teeth, and the fur, skin or body parts of protected species. Or even better; avoid souvenirs made from animals completely. Even if they are not endangered now, the practice of creating souvenirs from animals puts species at risk of becoming endangered in the future. Luckily there are many other options out there. How about some handmade baskets, beadwork crafts, rooibos tea, coffee, jewelry or perhaps some Amarula liqueur?


7. Avoid shark-cage diving 

The great white shark lives in the ocean outside Cape Town, which has made shark cage diving a popular activity. However, as meat is thrown out of the cage to attract sharks, the sharks have moved down the coast. This has put an additional pressure on an already depleted ocean ecosystem along the South African coast. In addition, shark cage diving has been criticised for damaging the mouth and teeth of the sharks.


When traveling to Southern Africa it is important to make sure that you are supporting the conservation of African wildlife, and not contributing to animal cruelty. Many species are highly endangered due to human activities, so as a tourist it is important that you make informed decisions. The the Southern African Tourism Services Association has created a tool to help select which Captive Wildlife Tourist Attractions & Activities to support and which to avoid. It is accessible here:

Fortunately there are many ways to experience African wildlife in an ethical way. As long as you do your research and book your tour through a responsible tour operator you can have a truly wonderful experience. 


This post is part of a 3 part series for travelers to Southern Africa that wish to explore what these beautiful and exciting countries have to offer in a way that positively impacts communities, is  more eco-friendly, and respectful towards wildlife. Part 2 presents guidelines for how you can contribute to People and Communities when visiting Southern Africa (read here), and Part 3 looks at how you can protect the Environment while travelling (read here).


Written by: Kristin Hagan (PhD scholar in Environmental Ethics), working as a consultant for African Sensations.  

Photographer: Trine Lysholm Hagan.

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