How to make a positive impact on African wildlife

Africa offers some of the most extraordinary wildlife experiences on the planet. It’s not always easy, however, to identify wildlife-based activities available across the continent that exploit or endanger animals and their habitat. Ensure your impact on Africa’s wildlife will be a positive one by following these responsible wildlife tourism guidelines on your next trip.

The best way to view lions – in the wild © Sarah Reid

Avoid opportunities to touch or ‘walk with’ big cats or other wildlife

If you can’t fathom how cuddling a baby lion (or simply walking alongside one) could be cruel, download the heartbreaking 2015 documentary Blood Lions. A must-watch before a trip to Africa, the film exposes the truths of the canned hunting industry, which typically begins with lions raised in captivity for tourist experiences before being sold on to canned hunting farms to die horrible deaths. Even if the facility claims it doesn’t send its animals to canned hunting farms (many do anyway), be wary of conservation claims. No legitimate sanctuary would ever pimp an apex predator (or any wild animal) out for photographs, no matter how ‘tame’ the animal is.

Choose volunteer programs carefully

Volunteers play an integral role in conserving Africa’s wildlife, but be aware that some wildlife volunteer opportunities are not conducted in the best interests of the wildlife involved. There are dozens of bogus ‘sanctuaries’  across the continent run unsustainable tourism experiences (such as ‘walking with lions’), which relegates volunteers to unpaid staffers doing more harm than good. It’s not always easy separating meaningful opportunities from the frauds, so be prepared to do some research. You may wish to consider booking through UK-based Responsible Travel, which vets every tour/volunteering opportunity it sells against its own strict responsible travel policy.

Riding an African elephant is pretty much a death wish © Sarah Reid

Skip the elephant ride

While the global travel industry has largely turned against elephant rides due to overwhelming evidence that the activity is harmful to these gentle giants, it hasn’t stopped a handful of African operators (particularly in South Africa) offering the experience. Not only are African elephants much bigger (read: much more dangerous) than Asian elephants, they are a migratory species, which makes keeping them in captivity for the purpose of human entertainment particularly cruel.

Don’t touch, feed or attract wild animals

Not only can you risk injury or death by touching or feeding African wildlife, but feeding wildlife is known to make animals dependent on human handouts, which messes with their natural behaviours. Similarly, making noises to attract animals (a tactic often used by tourists to entice animals to look at their camera) can startle or irritate wildlife, not to mention put you in potential danger.

This rhino in Zimbabwe’s Matobo National Park has had its horn filed down to deter poachers © Sarah Reid

Think before you post that ‘gram

Sadly, poachers have been known to trawl social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook to identify where rhino and other prized game have been spotted by tourists. To avoid your profiles being viewed for all the wrong reasons, ensure you never identify the exact place (if you must use a geotag, choose a vague one), date and time you spotted the animal you’re posting about.

Avoid flash photography on night drives

Experiments have shown that cats’ eyes can take 35 minutes to recover from just 60 seconds of bright light flashed into them, and with most nighttime game drives targeting nocturnal cat species such as leopards, that’s a lot of potential light interrupting their hunting time. Some African games parks (including Namibia’s Etosha National Park) now use red LED searchlights on night drives to lessen the impact on wildlife. You can do your bit by turning off your camera flash while photographing wildlife at night.

This poor leopard was not impressed by the headlights on my safari vehicle in Zambia © Sarah Reid

Never get out of your vehicle in a safari park

It should go without saying that leaving your vehicle in a safari park is asking for trouble, but year after year, videos documenting tourists alighting from safari vehicles (or their own vehicles in self-drive parks) for various reasons – often with horrific consequences – appear online. In many cases, animals that attack or kill people are terminated by park rangers. And that’s on you.

Choose souvenirs carefully

While souvenirs made from endangered animal parts (such as ivory, teeth, and skins) are less commonly found in African souvenir stalls these days, they still exist, and by purchasing them, you contribute to a brutal industry responsible for driving various species to extinction. It’s also worth avoiding woodcarvings made from ebony, a slow-growing wood listed as endangered by the ICUN.

Heed the signage © Sarah Reid

Stick to neutral coloured clothing in game parks

In the African bush, predators associate the colour red with wounded animals. Avoid attracting unnecessary attention (and putting yourself and wildlife in potential danger) by sticking to neutral tones such as tan and khaki. Note that black clothing can attract bitey tsetse flies.

Leave no trace

While a handful of African countries (including Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya) have banned plastic bags, plastic (and general) pollution remains a huge problem in Africa, and there’s nothing like stopping for a bush toilet break to find a mountain of toilet paper and wet wipes to remind you of the role tourism plays in contributing to the issue. Help minimise your impact by avoiding single-use plastics, depositing your toilet paper in a sanitary bag to dispose of more responsibly later, and if you’re on a short trip, consider packing out all your rubbish (or at least recyclables and batteries) to dispose of responsibly in your home country.

I travelled across Africa with Intrepid Travel, one of the world’s leading responsible travel operators © Sarah Reid

Choose a responsible tour operator

Responsible travel operators provide meaningful travel experiences while keeping their impact on the environment to a minimum. You can find out how responsible your preferred operator is by reading the company’s responsible tourism policy, which can typically be found on the company’s website. If it doesn’t have a website (or a listed policy), ask questions. If it supports any of the activities mentioned in this article, alarm bells should be ringing.

Thanks to Intrepid Travel for supporting my Zanzibar to Cape Town overland trip. To read more of my articles about responsible travel across Africa, head over to The Journal by Intrepid Travel