News Do’s and don’t of ethical animal tourism in South Africa

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Do’s and don’t of ethical animal tourism in South Africa

The Southern Africa Tourism Services Association (SATSA) has released new guidelines to help travellers make ethical animal tourism choices. We take a closer look.

Thanks to its Big 5 safaris and whale-watching tours, South Africa is one of the world’s top-visited destinations for animal encounters. But visiting captive wildlife attractions comes with the responsibility to ensure that each visitor’s presence benefits the animals and their environment, rather than bringing them harm.

According to research from Tourism Concern, 75% of wildlife tourist attractions worldwide have a negative impact on animals.

While some attractions use tourism to raise funds for conservation and supporting native wildlife, others rely financially on canned hunting and forcing animals to perform. We’ve combed through SATSA’s Animal Interaction Guide to work out how to approach animal tourism in South Africa, taking into consideration why animals are in captivity in the first place, where they came from, their use in captivity and what will happen to them next.

The best thing consumers can do is fully research game reserves, safari tours and animal sanctuaries before booking a visit. Here are some guidelines to get you started.

Do: support true sanctuaries and rehabilitation centres

Captivity is complicated. Many wild animals are injured, starved, assaulted or abandoned by humans. They end up in sanctuaries and rehabilitation centres to be nursed back to health and released into the wild, if not to be given a permanent home.

The danger is that some commercial sanctuaries put financial interest above animal interest. Before booking an animal interaction experience at a sanctuary, make sure it sticks to the following principles:

  • No breeding of animals
  • No trading of animals
  • No performing animals
  • No touching the animals or having them walk with the public
  • Animals are only in captivity because they were sick, injured, orphaned, rescued, donated and/or abandoned
  • Animals are part of a recognised conservation programme, and either have a home for life or are being used for in-situ repopulation for reintegration back into the wild
  • The facility is transparent in its operations and marketing materials

Don’t: take part in any of these activities

There are some captive wildlife activities that SATSA deems completely unacceptable. These include:

  • Performing animals
  • Touching infant wild animals (e.g. cub petting)
  • Touching predators or cetaceans (e.g. lions or dolphins)
  • Walking with predators or elephants
  • Riding the animals (including the elephants)

If you see any of these on offer, skip it.

Do: ask why the animals are there

Animals should only be kept in rehabilitation centres or sanctuaries when it’s genuinely a better option than being in the wild. If a sanctuary answers ‘yes’ to the following questions, reconsider spending your money there:

  • Are any of the animals captured in the wild, bought, bred in captivity or traded commercially (not as part of recognised conservation programme)?
  • Are any animals forced to participate in tourist activities?  
  • Are any of the animals kept in captivity just for tourism and entertainment purposes?                                                          

Do: ask what happens to the animals next

In some captive wildlife centres, animals end up as fodder for canned hunting experiences or in illegal trade for their body parts. Boycott any businesses that operate like this, and avoid anywhere that breeds lions and tigers – they’re at high risk for this kind of trade.

Do: study their marketing materials

If an animal interaction centre’s advertising looks misleading, deceptive or lacks transparency, it’s best to err on the side of caution. If there’s any sign of illegal activity, don’t go.

Do: check out these approved animal attractions in South Africa

Shark Warrior’s Penguin Paddle in Simon’s Town

Run by marine conservationists, Shark Warrior offers ethical animal experiences including a Big 5 safari. The highlight is their Penguin Paddle, which involves spotting endangered African penguins and fur seals from a sea kayak. You’ll also learn about the kelp forests below and their most misunderstood predator – the great white shark.

SANParks safari at Kruger National Park

Book safaris through South African National Parks (SANParks), a conservation organisation that operates across the country. In Kruger National Park you can do a self-drive tour or stay at SAN Parks accommodation, which ranges from basic to luxurious, and book onto a game drive with an official guide. The animals roam free and there are no forced encounters.

Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, Hoedspruit

This centre focuses on rehabilitating orphaned, injured and poisoned animals to get them ready for re-release into the wild. Any that are too badly injured are given a permanent home. During the two hour-long tours, guests learn about the role of rehabilitation and conservation centres and also meet some of the permanent residents – the most famous is Stoffel, an escape artist honey badger.

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