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How to have Ethical Animal Encounters in Africa

At Go2Africa, we don’t recommend anything to our clients that we haven’t tried ourselves – it’s our ‘we know because we go’ policy in action. This is especially important when it comes to recommending something as sensitive as an animal encounter. By ‘animal encounter’ we don’t mean observing animals on ordinary game-viewing experiences but when an interaction with the animal is the main focus of an activity, such as gorilla trekking or visiting an elephant orphanage.

We have personally experienced the animal-centred experiences we promote, which means that we’ve satisfied ourselves first-hand that the animals are handled compassionately, motivated by rewards or treats and, if they are housed, that their enclosures are spacious, safe and as natural as possible. Our animal encounter operators are hand-picked and constantly reviewed based on client feedback and our own regular travels. Go2Africa is an independent safari agent, which means we don’t have to sell any activity that doesn’t meet our high standards.

How to have ethical animal encounters - Abu Camp
Abu Camp in Botswana offers animal-sensitive elephant encounters.

We know that our diligence before recommending an animal encounter to you is essential because not all operators are ethical. For your peace of mind, here are the strict criteria we apply when assessing an animal interaction:

  • The interactions must be sensitive to the animals’ welfare at all times and any behaviour modification required – such as allowing guests to ride the animal – must be achieved through humane, reward-based training methods.
  • If the animals are confined at a research or rehabilitation facility, they must have plenty of time to rest between guest encounters, which means being at ease and free to interact naturally and safely with other animals in an appropriate environment.
  • We do not support any encounter that allows tourists to touch baby predators, like lions and leopards. These cubs can never be rehabilitated back into the wild and are doomed to a life of confinement in circuses, zoos and unregulated private collections or, worst of all, being sold to the canned hunting industry. Separating a tiny cub from its mother and forcing it to endure hours of petting by many different human strangers is cruel, inhumane and unethical – especially since the cub ends up being sold off to unregulated buyers around six months of age when it's too big to be forced to endure the petting.

 

How to have ethical animal encounters - gorilla trekking
Gorilla trekking is carefully handled, you only spend an hour with the animals in their natural habitat.
  • Habituation (or making wild animals used to humans and not frightened of us) must be overseen by qualified individuals and the tourism income from wild encounters should contribute to the conservation of the species and its habitat by raising public awareness, supporting research or contributing directly to protecting the species through tourism levies, park fees or permits.
  • Encounters involving rescued animals - injured, orphaned or wildlife that would otherwise be culled - must incorporate rehabilitation with an aim to release the animal back into the wild or, if release is not possible, lifelong care in humane circumstances.

 

There are many ethical opportunities to encounter Africa’s incredible wildlife up close - here are our favourites:

Elephants

In Kenya, the Daphne Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage cares for orphaned elephants from all over Africa. You can see these boisterous youngsters being washed, exercised and fed before they are old enough to be released into the wild at Tsavo National Park. Elephants are very intelligent and social - these little ones love their human carers and, like naughty toddlers, enjoy pranks like stealing the cap off a keeper’s head while he is talking to visitors! The orphanage is also a sanctuary for highly endangered black rhinos orphaned by poachers because the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is heavily involved in anti-poaching, snare clearing and community outreach projects.

How to have ethical animal encounters - Daphne Sheldrick
The Daphne Sheldrick Animal Orphanage looks after abandoned and orphaned calves before they are old enough to be released into the wild.

In Zimbabwe, the Wild Horizons Elephant Sanctuary at The Elephant Camp takes care of orphaned and abandoned elephants, funding this remarkable project through elephant-back safaris (undertaken for only an hour in the coolness of dawn and dusk, with the rest of the day being devoted to ‘elephant time’. These elephants cannot return to the wild and, since they can live a remarkable 70-odd years, tourism is a vital way of funding their long-term care. The elephants bond closely with their handlers, building a trusting relationship based on the principle of positive reinforcement: each time they carry out a verbal instruction, their handlers reward them. The sanctuary’s elephant handlers were trained at Riddles in Little Rock, Arkansas, one of the world’s premier elephant-training schools. The team learnt how to humanely train and safely care for elephants living in captivity.

How to have ethical animal encounters - elephants
Go2African Angela feeding an elephant at the Wild Horizons Elephant Sanctuary in Victoria Falls.

In Botswana, the Okavango Delta is home to two remarkable elephant encounters. At Abu Camp, you can interact with the resident herd on walks, elephant-back rides, and by observing or assisting in the bathing, training and general care of the animals. Abu Camp works in partnership with research institutions like Elephants Without Borders and Elephants for Africa, which are engaged in elephant conservation and research. At Sanctuary Baines' and Sanctuary Stanley's Camps, you can interact with a resident herd supported by the Living with Elephants Foundation, which is dedicated to fostering good relationships between rural communities and wild elephants. The foundation rescued the resident herd when they were orphaned by a culling operation.

Giraffes

Most people develop a soft spot for giraffes when they come on safari – these graceful, gentle creatures are as fascinating as they are beautiful. One of the most endangered sub-species is the Rothschild’s giraffe, which has elegant white leg ‘stockings’ and creamier-coloured patches. The best place to see them is at The Giraffe Manor in Kenya, where they are being successfully bred to counter the species’ decline in the wild. The giraffe roam freely around this historic hotel and are so habituated to humans that they often pop their heads in the dining room windows to see if they can lick up any giraffe treats with their huge purple tongues. It is a charming, wonderful encounter for the whole family that directly supports the conservation of the species.

How to have ethical animal encounters - Giraffe Manor
A friendly giraffe nibbles at Carlien's breakfast at Giraffe Manor in Kenya.

Big Cats

In Namibia, the AfriCat Foundation is an important research and education facility specialising in predators, including cheetahs, leopards, wild dogs and lions. At AfriCat, there is no physical interaction with or handling of the cats – Go2Africa does not recommend any activity that allows tourists to handle cubs because they quickly become habituated to humans with disasterous consequences when they mature. We love AfriCat because they make it possible for guests to see the cats close-up from specially built hides as well as conducting thrilling guided nature walks to track the roaming predators. The hides are a photographer’s dream – this is one of the best places in Africa to capture that winning portrait of a leopard or a classic yawning king of the jungle.

Many visitors to Victoria Falls will have met Sylvester, an orphaned cheetah who lives at the Wild Horizons Elephant Sanctuary. Sylvester’s mother was killed when he was very young and, despite several attempts and extensive rehabilitation, he has never succeeded in being returned to the wild and would undoubtedly be killed by lions, hyenas or even baboons if he was abandoned in the bush. His handlers ensure that he is never stressed by his encounters with humans and that he has plenty of ‘cheetah time’ to himself. Because he is an adult and not a cub, he is a very rare exception to our ‘no petting predators’ rule.

How to have ethical animal encounters - cheetah
Go2Africans Laura and Bonita meet Sylvester the cheetah at The Elephant Camp in Victoria Falls.

It is very tempting to walk with lions or cuddle cubs but ask yourself (and the operator) the hard questions about these animals’ origins, living standards and, most importantly, their futures. What happens to a little lion cub when it's no longer small enough to manhandle and because of its habituation to humans, can never be returned to the wild?

Gorillas

Gorilla treks are a carefully managed activity that contribute directly to funding the conservation and research of these endangered great apes and their rainforest habitats. Encountering wild gorillas in Uganda, Rwanda or Congo is a truly unforgettable safari experience – after trekking through the forest footpaths in the care of a professional guide to find an habituated wild gorilla family, you spend about an hour observing them from no less than 7m (22ft) away. Every effort is made to minimise the impact of human observers on the gorillas: you are not allowed to use a flash or cameras that make loud mechanical noises, no food or drink is allowed; and tour groups are limited to a maximum of six to eight guests. Gorillas are susceptible to human illnesses and a common cold can be deadly to them, so you are not permitted to trek if you are unwell and, in Congo, you must wear a face mask to further protect the gorillas.

What we love most about this remarkable animal encounter is that tourist treks contribute directly to the protection of the gorillas. Since trekking was introduced, mountain gorilla populations have stabilised in Uganda and Rwanda, which gives us great hopes for the future of western lowland gorillas now that trekking has started in the Congolese rainforest.

Congo Safari: Gorilla Trek
Seeing a silverback western lowland gorilla in the wild is an exceptional experience.

Meerkats

Meerkats are the comedians of the African savannah. In recent years these intelligent little suricates have become household names with their own reality show, the popular Meerkat Manor, and starring roles in countless TV commercials. Grown-ups and children love watching their antics and, since they are extremely sociable creatures, meerkat encounters are one of the best family-friendly wildlife encounters in Africa. We recommend South Africa and Botswana as the two destinations where you can interact with wild meerkats in child-friendly, meerkat-sensitive experiences, and where the activity supports research into the habituated meerkat population.

How to have ethical animal encounters - Meercats
The meercats in Tswalu Private Game Reserve are part of a habituation program; enjoy being up close to these fascinating little animals!

Whale Watching

South Africa’s Whale Coast is famous for offering some of the world’s best land-based whale watching when southern right whales migrate along the coast in very early spring (about August). The seaside town of Hermanus is the unofficial capital of this pretty Cape coastline – it’s sea-facing public areas are dotted with benches where you can take a seat and watch whales breaching, breeding and calving just off shore. Tourists can also take a boat cruise for a closer encounter. Strict conservation regulations are in place to stop boats from harassing the whales and passionate local citizens are quick to report any skipper who breaks the rules.

The best time for boat-based whale watching is between late morning and early afternoon when the ocean is flooded with direct sunlight, enticing the whales to the warmer surface water. Whale-watching tourism contributes directly to the local economies of former fishing villages, providing an incentive to protect the marine environment, which is good for all the creatures that depend on it, from seals to southern right whales.

How to have ethical animal encounters - Whale Coast
Hermanus is well known to have some of the best land and boat-based whale watching in the world.

Marine Turtle Hatching

This is one of our favourite, conservation-boosting, educational and once-in-a-lifetime safari experiences! Waiting patiently for baby turtles to hatch on a postcard-perfect tropical island beach, hearing the first shells crack and seeing the tiny hatchlings waddle determinedly towards the safety of the warm Indian Ocean, witnessing the bittersweet horror when one is snatched away by a gull and feeling the unadulterated joy when a tiny turtle makes it to the water – this is an experience that combines excitement, awe and a profound sense of connection with the natural world.

Africa’s Indian Ocean beaches are home to five species of marine turtle: green, hawksbill, loggerhead, leatherback and the rare olive ridley. No matter how far the great ocean currents take them, turtles return to their matriarchal nesting grounds to lay their eggs and continue the cycle of life. Turtle tourism motivates local people to protect the nests and allow the turtles to lay their eggs in peace, instead of poaching them. Turtle encounters promote conservation, education and are ultimately essential to the long-term security of marine turtle breeding grounds.

How to have ethical animal encounters - turtles
If you're there at the right time, watching baby sea turtles hatch and escape to the ocean can be an amazing encounter.

If you would love to include a wild animal encounter in your vacation with absolute confidence that the experience is ethically managed and contributes to the conservation of the species, then talk to your Safari Expert today – she knows which operators you can trust for an incredible, life-changing experience that meets our toughest standards.

Written by Donyale MacKrill. Connect with her on Google+

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