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 general game-viewing experiences, but rather an interaction in which the animal is the main focus of an activity. A gorilla trekking excursion and visiting an animal sanctuary or elephant orphanage in Africa are good examples.
When it comes to enjoying an ethical encounter at an animal sanctuary or orphanage, it’s paramount 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 – and they are not chained up. These are the essential tenets of an ethical African safari encounter with animals in Africa. Our partners on the ground who facilitate animal encounters are hand-picked and constantly reviewed based on feedback from our clients and our own first-hand expertise.
What Makes an Animal Interaction Ethical?
The best ethical animal interaction holidays ensure that interactions with visitors are always sensitive to the animals’ welfare, no matter what.
If the animals are confined at a research or rehabilitation facility such as an elephant sanctuary, they must have plenty of time to rest between guest encounters. This means being at ease and free to interact naturally and safely with other animals in an appropriate environment.
Habituation (or making wild animals used to humans and not frightened of us) must be overseen by qualified individuals. The tourism income from wild encounter safaris 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.
Do not assume that the owners of an animal facility are conservationists merely because they work with wild animals. Sadly, many facilities are purely for profit.
A Word on Encounters With Predators
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, 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, strong and potentially dangerous to be forced to endure the petting.
We also do not support encounters with grown predators, like walking with lions. Once again, these animals are habituated to humans, may be drugged to keep them docile, and may end up being in the crosshairs of a trophy hunter's rifle. Because they have been handled constantly by humans since they were newborns, they do not fear us and, in fact, trust us to provide food because they cannot hunt for themselves.
Performing animals quickly learn to behave in a certain way to access food from us – they are kept slightly hungry to ensure compliance and the desired behaviour.
When male lions have full manes, they are sold to hunters in an industry known as ‘canned lion hunting’. Because they have never lived in the wild, their faces and ears do not bear the scars from fights with other lions or hyenas, or scratches from thorns. Their ‘perfection’ makes them desirable to hunters. They are shot in their pens or in a fenced area – hence the term ‘canned hunting’ (this also makes it easier for the shooter, who has paid a huge sum of money for the lion’s head, to get a direct hit). They do not have a sporting chance of escape. Feeding a grown male is expensive and his captors would rather get the US dollars from his death.
This distressing chain of events often starts with the decision to cuddle a lion cub. Supporting this activity perpetuates a cruel and unethical industry.
Ethical Animal Encounters in Africa
1. Visit an Elephant Sanctuary
The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s Orphans’ Project rescues, cares for and rehabilitates 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. 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!
And it’s not only the gentle giants that this animal sanctuary in Africa concerns itself with. The elephant sanctuary is also a refuge for highly endangered black rhinos orphaned by poachers. The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is heavily involved in anti-poaching, snare clearing and community outreach projects.
We’re often asked, “Are animal sanctuaries ethical?” This is a valid and important question as there are organisations that do not have the wildlife’s best interest at heart. Fortunately, this is far from the case here.
2. Have Breakfast With Giraffes
Most people develop a soft spot for giraffes and elephants while on safari. Especially giraffes – 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 The Giraffe Centre in Nairobi, renowned for offering ethical animal encounters in Kenya. The organisation’s main purpose is to educate local schools about Kenya’s wildlife and environment, as well as give all visitors an opportunity to enjoy up-close encounters with giraffes in an ethical way.
The Giraffe Manor is adjacent to the centre and the giraffe roam freely around this historic hotel. They are so habituated to humans that they often pop their heads through the dining room windows to see if they can lick up any giraffe treats with their huge purple tongues. It's a charming, wonderful encounter for the whole family that directly supports the conservation of the species.
And with the dramatic decline of the wild giraffe population across Africa, guests at Giraffe Manor have an opportunity to contribute to the conservation of these gentle giants. For each guest who stays at Giraffe Manor, $10 is donated to the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife (AFEW). The AFEW, founded in 1979, is a non-profit organisation set up to protect the last remaining Rothschild’s giraffes in Kenya, which includes a successful breeding programme. Funds go toward supporting the conservation and breeding of these majestic creatures.
3. See Big Cats Up Close
Founded in 1991 and based on Okonjima Nature Reserve (a private reserve dedicated to conserving wildlife), The AfriCat Foundation is a vital research and education facility specialising in predators like cheetahs, leopards, wild dogs and lions. At AfriCat, there is no physical interaction with or handling of the cats.
We love AfriCat because they make it possible for guests to have wild encounter safaris where they can 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.
4. Spend Time With Gorillas
Uganda, Rwanda & Congo
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 a wild gorilla family, you spend about an hour observing them from no less than seven metres (22 feet) 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. Congo’s Odzala-Kokoua National Park has also made successful strides in the conservation of western lowland gorillas in the Congo Basin.
Go2Africa has also partnered with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund (DFGF) to provide our clients with a deeper and rich gorilla trekking experience when visiting Rwanda. Being the pioneer in mountain gorilla conservation, experiences with the DFGF is the perfect add-on to a gorilla trek. Currently, there are four immersive gorilla conservation experiences on offer: a behind-the-scenes tour of the Ellen DeGeneres Campus, a gorilla trek with a DFGF researcher, a private gorilla conservation masterclass, and a private cocktail hour experience with incredible views. All proceeds from these experiences are donated to DFGF’s local children’s outreach program.
5. Interact With Meerkats
Botswana & South Africa
If witty-smart-mouthed Timon was your favourite character in Disney’s The Lion King, then you’re sure to get a kick out of the real-life critters he was based on. Meerkats are the comedians of the African savannah. These extremely sociable creatures are known for their antics and unique, interesting personalities. Their playful and curious natures are beloved by grown-ups and children alike, making meerkat encounters 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.
6. Whale Watching by Boat
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 (around August). The seaside town of Hermanus, just under two hours from Cape Town, is the world’s whale-watching capital – its sea-facing public areas are dotted with benches where you can take a seat and watch whales breaching, breeding and calving just offshore. 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.
7. Witness Marine Turtles Nest & Hatch
Indian Ocean Islands
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.
8. Horse Riding With Rhinos
The Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya’s alluring Laikipia region is home to the only two remaining northern white rhinos in the world, as well as over 110 critically endangered black rhinos. The conservancy’s highly trained protection squads work closely with international veterinary experts to ensure that Ol Pejeta remains at the forefront of rhino conservation in East Africa.
Guests at the conservancy can take the opportunity to visit a 2.8 square kilometre (1 square mile) rhino enclosure and learn about the incredible conservation efforts being taken to preserve the last of this highly endangered species. There is also an incredible opportunity to saddle up and ride among the rhinos. The enclosure is completely predator-free and fantastic to explore on horseback, giving you the chance to encounter endangered rhinos, Grévy’s zebra and Jackson’s hartebeest.
Camp Kalahari lies in a private concession bordering Botswana’s Makgadikgadi Pans and offers a comfortable yet authentic experience in the famous Kalahari Desert. One of its most appealing offerings is the opportunity to explore this wildlife-rich region on horseback. Ditch the game drives, mokoro trips and walking safaris in favour of a more adventurous alternative to spotting your favourite African animals, like zebra, wildebeest and flamingos.
9. Assist in Habituating Chimpanzees
Rubondo Island is an unspoilt paradise found on Lake Victoria. The island’s extraordinary natural bounty has attracted national park status and earned it the nickname, 'Noah’s Ark'. It’s home to a plethora of animals like hippos, crocodiles, monkeys, rhinos, elephants and giraffes. Originally established as a haven for endangered species, the park became an important sanctuary for 16 chimpanzees rescued from European zoos between 1966 and 1969. This was the world’s first successful attempt to rehabilitate captive chimpanzees, as they reverted to an unhabituated state characteristic of wild chimps.
Guests at Rubondo Island Camp can enjoy the once-in-a-lifetime experience of helping habituate the island’s chimpanzees to humans. Be part of this ongoing conservation project as you walk through the forest tracking the chimps with your knowledgeable guide. The more the chimps grow accustomed to the presence of humans, the easier it will be for researchers to spend time with them. Not only is this project beneficial for the chimpanzees, but it also has an incredibly positive impact on Rubondo Island’s biodiversity, natural habitats, local economy, and longevity of being a vital wildlife sanctuary – making it one of the most ethical animal encounters in Tanzania.
10. Help Collar Wildlife for Conservation Initiatives
Rhinos are one of the most endangered species in not only Africa, but the entire world. Over the years, there has been substantial efforts on the conservation front to preserve the dwindling number of rhinos in the wild, as well as ensure that these majestic giants survive for generations to come.
And now, the conservation efforts are not restricted to just the professionals anymore. In South Africa’s Eastern Cape and Waterberg regions, Kwandwe and Marataba, respectively, offer guests specialist safaris where visitors have the incredible opportunity to participate in rhino conservation initiatives.
Kwandwe’s Rhino Conservation Safari is a 3-night, 4-day rhino-darting and notching programme. Under the supervision of experts, guests witness the essential tasks undertaken to ensure the preservation of this endangered species – from darting the rhino to planting the microchip in the horn to ear-notching for future identification.
Marataba offers a similar rhino conservation experience in Marakele National Park, where guests get the rare experience to tag along on a registration and identification operation. The process includes witnessing wildlife professionals expertly and safely darting the rhino and implementing a unique ear notching pattern for individual recognition.
It’s important to note that rhino conservation safaris are not a readily available occurrence. These conservation efforts only happen at the availability of the wildlife management teams, as well as the availability of rhinos that need to be notched for conservation purposes. These rhino conservation projects are driven by the need to protect this endangered creature rather than to promote tourism, making it a truly ethical animal encounter in South Africa.
Usangu Expeditions Camp is an immersive seasonal camp found in a secluded corner of Ruaha National Park – Tanzania’s largest protected area. The camp is set on the banks of the Usangu Wetlands, offering an authentic, private yet comfortable safari experience that places a strong emphasis on conservation.
In 2017, Asilia was granted permission to build the camp in the Usangu Wetlands on the agreement that the location would serve as a hub for research alongside traditional tourism. The Douglas Bell Eco Research Station was then founded on-site, serving as a central hub for all research and conservation efforts taking place in the Usangu Wetlands region.
Guests at Usangu Expeditions Camp are encouraged to spend time at the research station, learning more about the conservation projects taking place and assisting the field researchers in various activities. Visitors can enjoy a tour of the research station, gain a deeper understanding of the research being carried out, help set up camera traps, analyse images and log results from said camera traps, and assist the team with a morning of radio tracking, using telemetry to track locate collared wildlife in the area.
11. Swim With Whale Sharks
Kenya, Zanzibar, Madagascar & Mozambique
Despite bearing the name of two of the ocean’s most fearsome creatures, the whale shark is harmless – with a diet that consists mainly of plankton and posing no threat to humans. They are also one of the most eye-catching sea creatures, with a dark blue skin splattered with a constellation of bright white spots. Fortunately, there are many spots scattered around Kenya, Zanzibar and Mozambique’s coast where you can get up close with the world’s largest fish. And with whale sharks being endangered due to overfishing, it’s truly a privilege to be able to encounter these creatures in their natural habitat.
Some of the best whale shark diving experiences can be found off the shores of Zanzibar, Tofu Beach in Mozambique, Mafia Island in Tanzania, and Nosy Be in Madagascar.
12. Trek Through Bush With Camels
Kenya’s incredible Laikipia region is one of Africa’s best-kept safari secrets. This beautiful untamed area is home to incredible conservation projects, like the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy and Ol Pejeta Conservancy, as well as some amazing wildlife sightings – which includes the ever-elusive rhino. And one of the best ways to experience all that Laikipia has to offer is on camelback. Loisaba Tented Camp and Lewa Safari Camp are two such accommodations that offer camel rides as an alternative safari experience.
It will come as no surprise that you can enjoy camel rides in Namibia’s desert landscape. When visiting destinations like Swakopmund and Sossusvlei, you’ll have the exciting opportunity to view wildlife in a new way – on camelback – providing an ethical animal encounter in Namibia that protects nature and brings joy to visitors.
13. Enjoy a Beach Day With Penguins
One of the most popular tourist attractions in Cape Town is visiting the penguins at Boulders Beach. Yes, you read that right! A scenic drive up to Simon’s Town will lead you to the marine protected area that is home to the famous colony of African penguins. Three wheelchair-friendly boardwalks stretch through the dunes and dense vegetation to get you up close to these little cuties.
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