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 (and they are not chained up). 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.
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. Elephant-back safaris are being phased out across Africa and are no longer offered.
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, 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 cross-hairs of a trophy hunter's rifle.
Because they have been handled constantly by humans since they were new-borns, 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 the males 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, which is not often possible on a lion running free in the wild). 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.
Lion bones from hunts are shipped to the Far East where they are relabelled fraudulently as ‘tiger bones’. Lion meat has been sold as a novelty in restaurants in the United States.
This distressing chain of events often starts with the decision to cuddle a lion cub. Please do not undertake this activity as it perpetuates a cruel and unethical industry.
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.
Do not assume that the owners of the animal facility are conservationists merely because they work with wild animals. Many facilities are purely for profit.
There are many ethical opportunities to encounter Africa’s incredible wildlife up close - here are our favourites:
1.Remarkable Elephant Encounters
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.
In Botswana, the Okavango Delta is home to two remarkable elephant encounters. At Abu Camp, you can interact with the resident herd on walks, 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.
2.Share your Lunch with a Giraffe
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.
3.Witness Big Cats Up-close
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 also do not support activities such as 'walking with lions'.
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.
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?
4.Unforgettable Experiences with 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 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, which gives us great hopes for the future of western lowland gorillas now that trekking has started in the Congolese rainforest.
5.Interact with Wild 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.
6.Boat-based 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.
7.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.