How ethical are safaris really?

If safari’s history is rooted in hunting, cameras have replaced the gun. Few destinations appear on travel bucket lists as much as the exploration of African parks. Seeing animals in their natural habitat is an awe-inspiring experience, laden with expectation and, rightly or wrongly, it remains one of the most enticing reasons to visit Africa. But is it ethical?

The background of safari is strongly interwoven with hunting; shooting trophy animals such as elephants or lions were considered as high status with colonialists – and consequently Theodore Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway, Clark Gable and Robert Redford – as a luxury yacht is Philip Green. There is, of course, a tasteless repulsiveness in swathes of white men roaming a country that didn’t belong to them, killing their animals, while the locals carried their belongings.

“If safari’s history is rooted in hunting, cameras have replaced the gun”

Now, in an era where we are more environmentally conscious than ever before, the idea of killing animals for entertainment repels us, and the idea behind safari has evolved. But the idea of it as a fantasy still stands. We still wear the same colonial-inspired khaki garb of our predecessors and we expect, over the course of our dream holiday, to see an animal. Instead of pointing a gun at an animal, we wave our phones and long lens cameras at them.

The former obviously has a more devastating effect than the other, but we are still hunting. We track them through jungles on foot, or we follow them in open-top jeeps with binoculars. We surround them with iPhones as they eat or climb up trees, or sleep with their families. In Africa, we become the paparazzi.

“There’s a gut instinct because to be up close to any of these beautiful animals is awe-inspiring, and it’s something people 10 years ago wouldn’t have even questioned,” says Peta’s Corporate Project Director Yvonne Taylor. “But now, people are questioning, ‘was that right? Why were those animals so happy to sit there and have their photos taken?’ It’s a question of how did that animal become so relaxed around its predator.”

Animal tracking – be it gorillas, lions or wild dogs – has risen with tourism’s demand for a more authentic travel experience. Tourists in small groups join guides and rangers in natural parks, jungle and forests to follow animals that have been habituated, ie tamed to be comfortable around humans. Peta reports the number of companies offering activities that use animals as entertainment has fallen, but that tracking could fall under the same umbrella.

“It’s not only unnatural, but it’s also unsafe to habituate an animal,” says Taylor. “These are wild animals; no matter how long they’ve been in captivity or have been around humans, they still retain a natural instinct. Even animals who have been born and bred in captivity can still attack or kill people in these facilities. This is not something working in their best interest. If the animal’s best interest is to live and full and natural life in the wild, it’s not to try and have them accustomed to human behaviour so that tourists can take selfies.”

“If the animal’s best interest is to live a full life in the wild, it’s not to try and accustom them to human behaviour so that tourists can take selfies”

Another challenge facing wildlife safari is the risk that the animals have in contracting human illnesses. While, in the case of game drives, humans are kept at a distance from the animals, some organisations offer activities where visitors can take up close-up pictures with them, and sometimes even touching them. There have been examples where docile lions posing with humans were found to have been drugged, or elephants who have been tamed via “spirit crushing means”, as Taylor says, but – as safari companies become more ethical in terms of animal treatment – one if the key issues is how to prevent the wildlife from contracting human illnesses.

Bwindi Field Office Manager and Community Health Field Officer Alex Ngabirano, who has been working in the Ugandan field for 12 years, says it’s certainly a problem that ne to be addressed.

“Due to close genetic relatedness, gorillas are at risk of contracting human pathogens,” he told us, adding that tourists are not permitted to track gorillas when they’re sick. “Common colds are among the illnesses and that’s why we recommend at least to keep seven metres away while viewing gorillas.”

The ethics of safari isn’t a clear-cut issue. Both Taylor and Ngabirano agree that responsible safari tourism is crucial to animal protection and survival, and vastly improves the economy of local communities. Ngabirano also stresses that animal habituation, specifically in gorillas, is a sensitively handled issue that takes place over the course of a year. The animals are left in their natural surroundings, and pursue their lives in the most natural way possible.

“Habituation is a process,” he says, “whereby the gorillas are slowly tamed to generate revenue for sustainability of conservation. It also improves the livelihoods of communities living around protected forests.”

Ultimately, he says, it comes down to whether or not tourists abide by protocol – staying the advised distance from the wildlife, avoiding flash photography, avoiding human contact, keeping a low voice and only spending a limited hour with any animal so as not to cause them any stress. Small groups are also advised to prevent stress – the Uganda Wildlife Authority recommends only eight tourists for tracking a gorilla family each day “as to manage their anxiety levels”.

The impact that safari has on national African economies cannot be underestimated. Travel and tourism – largely driven by safari – in Africa is booming, growing 5.6% in 2018 compared to the global average of 3.9% and the broader African economy rate of 3.2%. This places Africa as the second-fastest growing tourism region behind only Asia-Pacific. In Uganda alone, tourism accounted for 10 per cent of the GDP.

Praveen Moman, who grew up in Uganda, established Volcanoes Safaris in 1997, four luxury lodges in Rwanda and Uganda near the great ape parks, Virunga, Mount Gahinga, Bwindi and Kyambura. His goal was to use tourism to boost and empower local communities, as well as conserving and protecting the wildlife.

“If these animals in the forest or savannah do not have economic value, then why should anyone support their existence?”

He says that without the economic benefits of safari tourism, then local communities are unlikely to see the advantages of looking after the animals, especially when they so often roam into neighbouring villages and eat from their farms, and therefore damaging their livelihoods.

“If you are going to try to save the plains, savannahs and the wildlife of Africa, you have to connect then to an economic value,” he explained. “People like us, who are privileged in the world, who are able to buy a gorilla permit, or a game drive are helping those parks. That money will directly and indirectly go back to those communities.

“If these animals in the forest or savannah do not have economic value, then why should anyone support their existence?” he posits. “We can support it because we’re privileged, but it’s a luxury to be able to do that. Local people and governments do not have that privilege. Unless you link it to the economic supply chain, the local community might say, ‘this park is an inconvenience to us, let’s clear the bush and use it for local farming. If we can farm, we can afford to feed our kids.’ It’s deeply important these things produce money for local people.”

He also added that the animal safari has led to a fall in poaching, which often stems from poverty. “If you have limited amounts of money and you want meat and the beef in the market is x amount of dollars or x pounds a kilo, and you can kill a hippo, buffalo or something, yourself it’ll be much cheaper. Animals can feed you,” he says. “Higher up the chain, if you are connected to ivory smuggling for example, it can produce a lot of money. Tourism connects the wildlife and the area to the wealth of the world. International tourists come, they pay money to go on a game drive and to enter a park, they stay in a lodge nearby, the lodge employs local people… If you don’t have that, then the temptation is to look for other ways of finding value from those animals.”

“It’s very important to connect to the community and not to just have luxury ghettos”

A percentage of every gorilla permit sold in Uganda and Rwanda (and prices ranch from $700 and $1500 depending on what country you’re in), goes towards the local community and the remainder goes back in the respective government, who in turn look after the parks, pay the rangers, anti-poaching patrols, fund any community work and park management.

“If you left the gorillas in the jungle without habituation, and without economic value, would they survive?” asks Moman. “This is where conservation has to pay for itself. If it’s isn’t and you just put it on a pedestal, the animals’ survival is questionable.”

The benefits of safari tourism on the locals runs beyond making money. Many lodges run community projects that empower and offer career opportunities for nearby residents. Volcanoes Safaris, for example, runs a bar and restaurant in the neighbouring village, attached to its Bwindi outpost, which serves as a hospitality training institution for local disadvantaged youths.

At its Kyambura Lodge, Volcanoes operates a women’s coffee cooperative, a community-based initiative designed to provide vocational training to women and an alternative, but sustainable, source of income, as well as a café that employs local youths, both male and female, who are disadvantaged as a result of the loss of parents, HIV/AIDS, or physical or mental disabilities. The company also restored the local wetlands, which was previously used as an illegal brick works, now attracting over 200 species of birds, different mammals and primates. It’s also used to train members of the community in birding and guiding.

“It’s very important to connect to the community and not to just have luxury ghettos,” he says. We don’t want to build things that are separate from our world. We want to be connected to it and that means people and animals. We’ve seen a number of people who come up within our own management and some whom have gone onto university or the children of staff who have onto university. Advancement has happened in terms of being connected to local lodges.”

Ultimately, it comes down to doing your research. Peta’s Taylor says steer clear of any companies that guarantee seeing animals up close.

“No reputable establishment that gives animals anything close to a normal life would ever make promises like that,” she says. “Photo opportunities with animals, giving them rides or bathing with animals – these aren’t normal activities for animals, even ones born in captivity. So, before you visit an establishment, make sure you look at the activities they offer and at on what other animal organisations or media outlets have reported about the park.”

“Read online information carefully and always choose established operators,” says Moman. “Ask why some drives are so much cheaper than another? Be responsible.”

Three nights at Volcanoes Safaris Kyambura Gorge and three nights at Bwindi Lodge including a gorilla trek, chimp trek and Kazinga Channel Boat cruise including all meals, drinks, transfers, internal flights and international flights on Kenya Airways from Heathrow would cost from £5,300 per person with Africa Odyssey.

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