‘Safari’ traditionally means journey in Swahili, but the word now describes the ultimate bucket-list trip to discover Africa’s wondrous wildlife. Yet today, that wildlife seems increasingly vulnerable, so how do you ensure your safari will be both safe and ethically sound?
Start with a good safari operator
A good safari operator is key to a good safari. Research well and check the company’s ethical credentials: do they use local staff and guides? How do they help communities? Are they involved with conservation initiatives?
With a bewildering array of safari options and complex logistics, it can be a false economy to book independently: specialist operators have invaluable insider knowledge and often better rates. Websites like safaribookings.com are a good place to start, and offer helpful customer reviews of hundreds of operators and the tours they offer.
Stay safe on the road
On game drives, remember wildlife is still wild, even if the lions or elephants you spot seem unperturbed by 4x4s surrounding them. Stick to responsible safari etiquette: stay in your vehicle, don’t stress the animals, don’t stand up or move suddenly, don’t let your driver get too close or go off-road hoping for a better tip, and definitely don’t litter.
Get closer to nature on an exhilarating walking safari: you’ll be accompanied by an armed ranger but the gun is only ever intended as a last resort. Make sure it doesn’t need to be used by always obeying your guide’s instructions, walking quietly in single file, and never ever run – by doing so, you act like prey, and predators will act accordingly.
Most safari destinations, with the exception of parts of Namibia and South Africa, are malarial – use prophylaxes and insect repellent, and if you’re on a budget trip, you may need your own mosquito net. Avoid wearing blue and black since these colours attract tsetse flies – they have a nasty nip similar to a horse fly and can cause sleeping sickness.
Support communities and conservation
Traditionally, local communities come a poor second to conservation, with tribes often evicted from ancestral homelands to make way for national parks and reserves. Botswana’s San or Bushmen, Uganda’s Batwa ‘Pygmies’ and Kenya’s Maasai have all been ‘conservation refugees.’
While issues around disappearing cultural heritage and marginalisation of tribes remain, in general communities are now recognised as being crucial to successful conservation. Tourism gives wildlife a longer-term value by providing sustainable jobs and social benefits like better education and healthcare. When wild animals are then worth more alive than dead to local people, they are therefore worth protecting.
You can make a difference by staying in community conservancies, where locals collectively manage and lease their land to lodge-owners or run their own camps and lodges. Visit their villages with local guides: they get an income while you get an authentic insight into living alongside the wildlife. Namibia has over 80 conservancies including Nyae Nyae, home to the Ju/’hoansi Bushmen, and Kenya’s Maasai are reaping rewards from conservancies surrounding the Maasai Mara.
Be aware of poaching
Annually, a staggering 30,000 elephants across Africa are brutally killed for their tusks. Just 5000 black rhinos remain, their horns worth more than gold in Asia where they’re sold for traditional medicine and trinkets. Perhaps unsurprisingly, today’s poachers are often organised criminal syndicates with hi-tech equipment and helicopters.
As a traveller, it’s easy to help anti-poaching efforts: simply go on safari. Where there’s tourism, there are rarely poachers – there are just too many eyes on the ground and the risk of being caught is too great.
Conservationists are increasingly working with former poachers. At Malawi’s wild and wonderful Nkhotakota Reserve, for example, conservation organisation African Parks offered an amnesty on weapons and exchanged poachers’ guns for jobs.
Shoot with your camera, not to kill
In June 2015, the killing of Cecil the Lion by a crossbow wielding American near Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park hurled trophy hunting into the spotlight. Hunting safaris are big business. However distasteful this might seem, the arguments around hunting and conservation are complex and deeply entrenched.
Opponents maintain hunting is immoral, unjustifiable and unsustainable. Supporters (including some conservationists) claim that, if properly managed, it can bring much-needed income to communities and protects precious habitat for wildlife on a continent whose human population is set to double to 2 billion by 2050.
In reality, if you’re on a photographic safari, you’re unlikely to come across hunters – they visit private concessions or farms set aside for hunting, with favoured destinations including South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Tanzania. To avoid hunters altogether, head for Botswana, Malawi and Kenya where trophy hunting is banned.
Ensure your close encounters are ethical
Lion cubs are undeniably cute, but those you pet on most lion walking projects can never return to the wild. Born in captivity and semi-habituated to humans, they will likely be shot on a ‘canned hunting’ farm, an easy target for unethical hunters with fat wallets. If you’re keen to volunteer on wildlife projects involving lions, check Responsible Travel, a useful portal for ethical holidays.
Similarly, riding elephants in Africa (as in Asia) is not ok: their training is often cruel and inhumane. Indeed, Botswana has recently banned this activity. Instead, visit a respected sanctuary like the David Sheldrick Trust in Kenya and adopt an orphaned elephant.