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Are Safaris Ethical? (+ How to Choose an Ethical Vacation)

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An African safari is without a doubt a bucket list holiday. I’d always imagined what it’d be like to go on one, so, after YEARS of dreaming, I finally booked the trip and went to South Africa.

In honesty, I’d not questioned the ethics in depth until after I’d booked. But, once I’d looked into what I’d be doing, and what I could expect, I researched it a lot more.

I knew that the trip itself was ethical – I’d chosen to do two weeks of volunteering at Amakhala Game Reserve.

Working as a volunteer in the Eastern Cape, we took part in different conservation projects each day. It was completely varied and included things like predator monitoring, alien plant control, reserve maintenance and outreach activities in the local community. 

During this time, I learnt so much about game reserves, national parks, conservation and safari tourism. So, are safaris ethical? Here are some of my thoughts!

Chairs on a hotel patio surrounded by grazing antelope

Safari tourism has always been big news. Before Covid, the safari industry in Africa generated around $12.4 billion per year.

Obviously, the pandemic had a massive impact on tourist numbers but, since restrictions have eased, it’s predicted that growth will return with tourists visiting from around the world.

It’s not hard to see why people want to experience this kind of holiday – it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness some of the world’s most incredible wildlife.

Plus, with an amazing choice of luxury safari accommodation, it’s well and truly a dream vacation (and makes an incredible honeymoon, too).

When it comes to sustainability and ethics, safari holidays can raise a lot of questions. The original purpose of a safari drive was to hunt big game.

For the most part, this isn’t what happens now (thankfully!), but these drives could still be seen as an invasion and disruption of an animal’s privacy and natural habitat. 

So the questions are: is it really wild if humans are involved?

Are we influencing or affecting animals in their natural habitat by participating in game drives? And are safaris becoming glorified, large-scale zoos?

An elephant walking to a waterhole

I learnt a TON during my time in South Africa. There were things I thought I knew about safaris that weren’t the case and I’ve discovered so much about how safaris can be ethical.

Of course, all countries and game reserves could be different with different initiatives so it isn’t always going to be clear-cut.

I stayed at Amakhala and learnt from the team there, so that’s what I’m basing much of my opinion on – and yes, I believe safaris can be ethical.. but you have to travel consciously.

How are safaris ethical?

Supporting local communities is a huge part of ethical travel and it’s important to look at how your provider or holiday will have an impact on this.

When the pandemic struck, underdeveloped countries took a big hit. And in Africa, those in wildlife tourism faced new threats from loss of income as well as increased poaching

If safari tourism was to cease completely, these countries would struggle – and in turn, the environment would suffer.

The work behind safaris and game reserves, and the initiatives that many organisations offer, gives jobs to those in the local communities and raises cash for those that need it most.

When I was at Amakhala, much of the work focused on the local community and this is one of the core initiatives of its volunteer program.

When you visit Amakhala as a tourist, you also pay a conservation levy, which goes into funding anti-poaching work as well as community education projects.

A far-reaching view across Amakhala Game Reserve

Amakhala focuses on community and conservation – everything is done with this in mind. You can see how much the rangers care and the game reserve maintains and advocates harmony between humans and nature.

For the most part, safaris and game reserves exist to protect endangered wildlife. And to be an ethical safari tourist, you want to visit the places that ensure animals are left in peace as much as possible.

In fact, you shouldn’t necessarily be guaranteed to see animals on a game drive. With spaces that are so vast, spotting animals shouldn’t be an overcrowded, zoo-like experience.

During my time at Amakhala, we spent most of our days out on the reserve – yet we didn’t always spot animals. Even on our dedicated game drives, we were sometimes unable to locate them.

And while this might sound like a negative, in reality, it means that the animals in the reserve have plenty of space and aren’t constantly exposed to humans.

To avoid negatively impacting wildlife, affecting animal behaviour or putting them at risk of human diseases, you also won’t be able to interact with the animals that you do see on an ethical safari. And care will be taken to remain quiet if animals come near.

The good news is, in South Africa, even the smaller game reserves are relatively vast. But, what many don’t know, is that these areas are fenced in order to monitor animal numbers, protect wildlife from poachers and keep local communities safe.

And while it seems contradictory (and controversial) to fence in animals if they’re supposed to be wild, from a conservationist’s point of view, maybe we wouldn’t have wildlife left if it wasn’t monitored in this way?

Three zebra next to a track in Addo Elephant Park

During my time volunteering, I had the chance to take part in animal tracking and monitoring as well as a vet procedure.

With very real threats, this type of work is absolutely crucial. But, unfortunately, the scale (and cost) of these initiatives is crazy – making it vital for more income.

Without tourism and money coming in, a lot of this work wouldn’t be possible. In fact, if there was no safari tourism, conservation efforts in these areas could stop completely.

Because after all, it would be hard to maintain a reserve if there was no money or benefits to the local community.

How to choose an ethical safari

If you’re planning a safari holiday, do your research in advance. Check whether the tour, lodge or reserve you’re visiting has a mission that aligns with yours.

Do they have conservation initiatives? Are they actively promoting animal welfare? Do they work with local communities? If the company is ethical, you can be sure that they’ll share this information openly.

Likewise, if a safari provider promises close contact with animals, take it off your list. We all want to see animals close up, but safaris that promise this aren’t working with conservation, wildlife or animal welfare in mind.

Close contact can cause stress or habituation or, worse, involve drugging an animal so it’s safe for humans to be near.

If however you do want the chance to be closer to animals, consider an ethical volunteer program. While it’s not a given that you’ll work with animals, you might be lucky and get to shadow a vet procedure like I did.

The program I took part in was booked through The Mighty Roar – you can find out more about their Amakhala volunteering here.

On an ethical safari as a tourist, you will of course get to observe animals, and you might see some near to you, but, this will never be to their detriment. If something feels intrusive, you can bet it’s a bad sign.

An ethical safari holiday is an incredible experience and it’s one you’ll remember forever. As an animal and eco lover, my time in South Africa was amazing and it was great to be part of a conservation project.

If you’re planning your own trip, I really hope this post has helped.

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