How to Choose an Ethical Safari Operator

Choosing an ethical safari operator protects wildlife, supports local communities, and fosters sustainable tourism practices. Your choice can contribute to a positive impact on biodiversity and socio-economic development.

Sibu Szymanowska
Sibu Szymanowska

Sibu Szymanowska is a freelance writer, content creator and a full-time traveler.

How to Choose an Ethical Safari Operator

Going on a safari is the experience of a lifetime. It is the type of activity that people can spend years saving for to tick it off their travel wish list. Safaris are one of the most ethical ways in which you can interact with animals while working towards conservation and preserving their habitat. However, there are many tour operators out there that only focus on profits and not on the safety of the animals that their guests interact with.

As a seasoned traveler that has had the opportunity to work with local family-owned agencies on the ground and has personally been on safaris in more than 6 countries across Africa, I have been able to learn from experts about the impact that our travel choices have in this specific situation. This comprehensive guide will help you navigate the process of selecting an ethical safari operator, and ensure that your money is helping and not harming wildlife.

What is an Ethical Safari?

Ethical Safari in Africa

Photo courtesy of Sibu Szymanowska

A safari in itself is an adventure, and its origin comes from the word “safar” meaning journey or to travel in Arabic, and it eventually transformed into the word we know it for today: safari. A few decades ago, this word was exclusively used for hunting. People would pay to go on trips to try and hunt any of the big 5 (elephants, buffalos, rhinoceros, lions and leopards).

Thanks to a shift in mindset and a massive change in conservation policies, safaris now mostly refer to a wide variety of journeys in which wildlife can be viewed and admired. A real ethical safari promotes conservation, responsible tourism, and the preservation of the ecosystems where their guests tread.

Why Choose an Ethical Safari Operator?

African lion couple and safari jeep in Kenya - Ethical Safari Operator

Photo: Ana Gram/Shutterstock 

Choosing a safari operator who doesn’t adhere to ethical practices can be as harmful as visiting a zoo. One of the main reasons to go on safari is to see animals in their natural habitat and ensure that your interaction with them inflicts no harm. By not taking the extra step to ensure that you choose an operator upholds ethical standards, your visit might inadvertently contribute to the disruption of the animals’ well-being.

Safaris are often considered to be high-priced experiences. Isn’t it only fitting that your investment in this adventure of a lifetime should also contribute to the well-being of the wildlife that you will be admiring? Here are some of the benefits of choosing an ethical safari operator:

  • Wildlife protection: an ethical safari company will prioritize the conservation efforts for the animals by ensuring their safety at all times
  • Responsible tourism: our visits can positively or negatively impact a destination. By engaging in responsible tourism, you choose operators that work with local communities, support conservation efforts and aim to be as sustainable as possible.
  • Cultural respect: the right safari operator will not only work with locals, but also respect their cultures, traditions, and ensure that their actions do not harm or displace them.
  • Sustainable Practices: ethical operators normally adopt sustainable practices that will help reduce their and their guests’ ecological footprints.

The Wrong Types of Safaris

The Wrong Types of Safaris

Photo courtesy of Sibu Szymanowska

There are unfortunately many companies that claim to be ethical, and yet, have adopted practices that only harm the animals that they work with. While many of these activities are slowly being phased out and are not as popular as they used to be, they can still be found while traveling in the southern African region. Here are some examples:

  • Walking with Lions: there are many activities that involve walking safaris, these are highly recommended experiences. However, some operators might offer opportunities like walking with lions during a walking safari, disguised as a conservation effort. In reality, many of these lions are bred exclusively for this purpose. They are not able to be released into the wild because they cannot fend for themselves. The cubs are usually separated from their mothers, and once they’re too large and dangerous to be walked with, they can be sold for hunting purposes.
  • Interacting with elephants: Elephants often endure harsh training techniques to accommodate activities such as riding or bathing, which are popular among tourists. It’s not uncommon to see these interactions promoted on social media. However, it’s important to remember that elephants aren’t naturally accustomed to human contact. To guarantee the safety of tourists interacting with them, these majestic creatures typically undergo training methods that can be severely inhumane.
  • Selfies and/or petting: Some tour operators offer the chance to photograph creatures like tigers and other wild animals. However, there is nothing natural about being able to touch or get extremely close to these animals, whether it’s for a picture, to hold or sit next to them. In many cases, the animals are not only born and raised in captivity, but they are also often sedated to maintain their calm demeanor.
  • Products made from endangered species: There are tour operators that will pretend to be ethical just to take you to a shop at the end of the day where you can find products made from some of the endangered species that you just encountered. This is another instance where profit is prioritized over conservation.

Tips for Choosing an Ethical Safari Operator

Tips for Choosing an Ethical Safari Operator

Photo: Vova Shevchuk/Shutterstock

We have explored the many ways in which your choice of a safari operator can have a positive or negative impact. This not only applies to the wildlife, but also to the communities in which these companies operate, as well as the surrounding environments.

Now, let’s go into some practical tips to help you choose an ethical safari operator:

  • Proper research: if an operator is engaging in ethical practices, it is expected for them to want to highlight this, since it will set them aside from their competition. Look for information on their websites or social media to see what their priorities are. Not all companies who are ethical have been operating long enough to gain certifications, so do not discard these operators as an option. But If they do have any accreditation, you will likely be able to easily find these on their website.
  • Respectful wildlife interactions: true ethical operators will offer safaris that are non-invasive and do not include any direct interactions with the wildlife. Do not forget that wild animals can be distressed by our mere presence. An ethical operator’s priority will be for you to experience the best of what a destination has to offer by observing it.

A group of chimpanzees at Rubondo Island National Park

Photo: Jan Schneckenhaus/Shutterstock

  • Prioritize Sustainability: if a safari operator is making an extra effort to engage in sustainable practices, they will surely let you know. This is their pride, and what allows them to cohabit peacefully with the communities and wildlife that they work with. You can also ask about their eco-friendly practices, including waste reduction, energy and water preservation, especially if they own a lodge and offer accommodation as part of their services.
  • Community engagement: one of the main benefits of tourism is being able to support the local communities, and this is something that all ethical safari operators strive for. By working with local guides, supporting small local businesses and even contributing to community development projects (whenever possible), this is how a company will make sure that their efforts are having a positive impact on their peers.
  • Read the reviews: what better way to make an informed decision than by reading what fellow travelers have to say about a company. While it is possible to book one-day safaris, most people will book a multiple-day adventure with one operator. It is enough time to understand how that company operates, and if they work in an ethical manner, expect guests to rave about it in their reviews. Make sure to read reviews from multiple platforms to have a better understanding of what a company is all about.

safari in the Serengeti

Photo: Delbars/Shutterstock

Choosing an ethical safari operator is not just a responsible choice but also a rewarding one. Tourism can be so beneficial if done properly. By prioritizing ethical and sustainable practices, you can ensure that your safari adventure is not only memorable but also impactful in the best way possible.

This journey of a lifetime is even more rewarding to you on a personal level when you know that your actions are helping and not harming the wildlife and communities that live around it. A little research can go a long way. Be a responsible traveler, and make a difference through a safari experience – your choices matter.

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