February 18, 2020

ETHICAL ANIMAL ENCOUNTERS: How To Choose Them In South Africa

Words by Zoe Macfarlane
ImpactTravel Better
'Walk with the Animal' Safaris Distrupt Wildlfe Patterns - Credit Pexels

Booking an animal encounter in South Africa is a must, but how can you ensure your activities are ethical?

Of the 80,000 Australians travelling to South Africa annually, it’s fair to assume that most tourists include an animal encounter or two.

It’s humbling to witness the Big 5 on safari, spy the Marine Big 5 offshore, or to experience localised encounters like African penguins in Betty’s Bay.

South Africa is an incredible destination to quickly and affordably get close to some of the world’s most magnificent creatures. 

Fabulous. But how to discern that the encounters you book are ethical?

With no governing body nor regulated standards, it predominantly falls to South African travellers to self-educate and self-police on where the wildlife tourism dollars go.

Ethical Animal Encounters
Africa Penguins – Credit Harry Cunningham

What’s the challenge?

In South African tourism, conservation is a buzzword. Savvy providers know it sells seats on safaris and tickets to self-proclaimed ‘sanctuaries’. But across the wildlife tourism sector, the marketing statement of a facility and the reality behind closed doors are often poles apart.

If the drive for the business is profit-driven over animal welfare, it doesn’t matter how much the visitors, volunteers or even workers care for the species; it’s typically not enough to protect them. 

Ethical Animal Encounters
Wild Zebras Roam Free – Credit Vincent van Zalinge

What’s in place already?

Thankfully, the morality thermometer around animal encounters is rising globally, with travellers questioning welfare standards before booking.

This trend is crucial to reducing the power that South Africa’s interactive wildlife activities, captive hunting and breeding operators, and voluntourism schemes currently hold.

The SATSA guidelines declare, “The interest of animals should not be subordinate to the benefits humans derive from their existence.” Well, yes, but it can be a trial to identify the real conservation efforts from the fake ones. 

The following questions are helpful to identify ethical wildlife facilities and experiences:

What animals are at your facility and why are they there? 

There are many reasons for animals to need care (including those that cannot be released into the wild), but it doesn’t mean they should be at this facility. Is the wildlife there from necessity or for the amusement of humans? Their home should be a permanent one, too. Disreputable businesses that trade wildlife cause significant disruption for their residents. 

Are the animals indigenous to the region? For example, there are an estimated 280 tigers in 44 facilities in South Africa, and yet the breed has never called any part of Africa home. 

What kind of restrictions do the animals have? 

Nature is a fickle (Wilde) beest. Therefore, a promise of guaranteed sightings on a safari is a red flag. Free-roaming wildlife may reduce your chance of sighting them, but knowing they have autonomy as they wander makes it a worthwhile gamble.

For rehabilitation facilities and sanctuaries, the resident wildlife mustn’t be hindered from behaving like themselves. This includes consideration of their enclosure sizing, animal pairings, and enforced interaction with humans. 

Ethical Animal Encounters
All Wildlife Experiences Should be Hands-off – Even Giraffes – Credit Stephen Gitau

Can I touch the animals?

If the website shows pictures of human-to-wildlife contact; you don’t even need to ask, it should be an immediate ‘no’. As sad as it is that you can’t snap a cute photo of you hugging a lion, all ethical facilities should be hands-off for visitors. 

At many ‘sanctuaries’, these stunning animals (especially babies) often work a longer day than you thanks to an endless stream of visitors taking selfies or petting them. It’s nothing short of animal cruelty.

Do you do anything to entice the wildlife?

Facilities that bait wildlife is unethical, too. Baiting is detrimental to the behaviour and hunting habits of all species as they learn to rely on their next meal from the operator. The kill shouldn’t be used to stage that perfect ‘wild’ photo, and, of course, drugging shouldn’t occur to allow for petting or hunting.

Avoid activities that coerce animals to participate or perform, including the famed ‘safari walk’ opportunities. During a visit to Panthera Africa, an ethical big cat sanctuary, we were not even allowed close to one lion’s enclosure due to the recognised signals that he was not in the mood for any attention. These rules should be the benchmark standards. 

Ethical Animal Encounters
Baiting to get the perfect photo is unethical – Credit Ivandrei Pretorius

Do you breed any wildlife?

Breeding is detrimental to the animal’s welfare, even if it’s claimed for ‘education purposes’. If you see babies, the majority are without their mother. Why? 

Louise de Waal, the spokesperson for True Sanctuaries, a collective of ethical big cat sanctuaries, says, “Ask these pertinent questions, like where is the mother? Who is looking after the cubs? Once they are too big for the enclosure, where will they go? Generally speaking, facilities will not be able to answer these questions satisfactorily.”

Lion breeding is a significant issue in South Africa with an estimated 3,000 wild versus the 6,000-8,000 bred for hunting tourism.

How much education do you provide during a visit? 

Many facilities place visitor awareness at the core of their existence, but this cannot be at the expense of their residents. The highest education a sanctuary can offer is to place their animals’ needs above everything else.

Aside from unhappy animals, be wary of reports of untrained staff and volunteers. If there is a lack of professionalism or care for the humans involved, it’s unlikely to stop there. 

Ethical Animal Encounters
Lions are in Captivity Due to Tourism Hunting Credit Pexels

How to find an ethical encounter

There is currently no definitive guide to help choose ethical wildlife encounters in South Africa, but the Volunteers in South Africa, Beware is a fairly comprehensive place to start.

Their list includes the big cat sanctuaries in the True Alliance: Panthera Africa, Drakenstein, Jukani, Shamwari, and Lionsrock Four Paws

Green Girls in Africa asks the hard questions at wildlife centres, with a range of helpful blogs if you’d like to explore further.

Ethical Animal Encounters
A majestic Giraffe – Credit Kelly Arnold

How can you make a difference?

The power is ours.

Until more legislation is introduced and enforced in South Africa, it’s up to us to choose our wildlife visits ethically. While this may seem daunting, investing some time researching before you travel allows you to contribute positively to the welfare of all wildlife you encounter.  

Besides declining to visit, you can also make your feelings known by leaving a review online, posting on social media, or by writing to the facility owners and operators directly. Sign petitions and pledges, too, as NGOs use these to lobby government. 

With every visit declined and conversation explaining why we lead the evolution of awareness, and the revolution to travel to change the world.


How can you travel to change the world?

Congratulations! By reading this post and taking some of these insights on board, you’ve already made a difference.

Now you can easily create your impact by sharing your new-found knowledge with other friends who you think would also be interested.

Ultimately, responsible travel comes down to common sense – stay curious, keep yourself up-to-date with the challenges at hand and make yourself accountable for your actions on your travels.