Dorine Reinstein
Dorine Reinstein

Captive wildlife attractions and interactions are often a big drawing card for international travelers. Travelers are drawn by the prospect of playing with lion cubs or closely interacting with wild animals. However, few tourists realize the devastating consequences of these experiences.

Cubs are taken away from their mothers just days after birth. Once they reach adulthood, the lionesses are often shot for their bones to be shipped to Asia as supplements to the rapidly burgeoning "tiger wine" and "tiger cake" industries. Male lions become victims of the "canned" or "captive" hunting industry.

Wildlife interactions are a complex, contentious and emotionally charged issue, and it can be difficult for tour operators, travel advisors or travelers to know which experiences are ethical and which are not.

"Travelers are often still requesting hands-on animal interactions because they are simply not aware that what was acceptable before is now no longer acceptable, due to the social wave against animal interaction," said Jim Holden, president of Holden Safaris.

This confusion is one of the reasons the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association (Satsa) has embarked on a comprehensive research initiative to design a framework to guide attractions, operators and tourists.

This month the association released a practical guide to evaluating captive wildlife attractions and activities. An easy-to-use "decision tree" enables tourism bodies, tour operators and tourists to assess animal interaction operations and make informed decisions to support ethically sound and responsible operators in South Africa.

The travel industry has welcomed the new guidelines. Singita sustainability manager Andrea Ferry said the safari operator supports the notion that animals are best viewed in a noninteractive way in the wild. "Singita has made a public stand not to support facilities that exploit wildlife for commercial gain or entertainment purposes and have clear guidelines on which wildlife attractions and activities we recommend or book for our guests," Ferry said.

Colin Bell, co-founder of Natural Selection, said Satsa should be applauded for tackling the thorny topic of animal interactions as tourist attractions in South Africa.  He explained that after two years of consulting a wide range of stakeholders and experts, its team took a giant leap forward when it released the guidelines.

"The message is clear," Bell said. "Tourists should avoid most animal interaction facilities, especially those which involve direct interaction between tourists and lions and/or elephants.  In my opinion, history will view these captive wildlife entertainment facilities along the lines of how humanity views slavery today.  They may be legal, but they are not right.  If you want to view wildlife, rather do so in the animals' natural environment."

Sherwin Banda,  president of African Travel, said the guide is ideal for tour operators and product designers, in particular. "These kinds of guides offer answers to difficult questions around topics such animal sanctuaries, for example, which can be difficult for us in the industry to assess on our own," he said.

Holden said the guide will bring more clarity for travel advisors, tour operators and travelers. He said: "Travelers want to feel they are acting responsibly and behaving in the accepted way when going on safari. With the guidelines, especially with the one-page decision tree, travel agents, tour operators and travelers, can all be more sure of doing what is now socially acceptable when visiting South Africa."

The guide brings great clarity, added Sean Kritzinger, executive chairman at Giltedge Africa. However, he warned it is still important for tour operators to also do their own research. "If a rehabilitation facility for wild animals promotes breeding, for example, then we know it's not wildlife-friendly. It's good to have a guide, but it's also good to do your own research as an operator. Clients are more sustainability-conscious and want to make the right choices."

Robyn Stalson, USA sales representative at Giltedge Africa, echoes Kritzinger's sentiment. She noted that currently, very few travelers are asking specifically for an ecotour or an itinerary that is predominantly about conservation or sustainability. However, when informed, their interest level is elevated.

The travel advisor will have a big role to play in helping inform travelers. Said Stalson: "With some savvy positioning, the consultant can successfully weave a meaningful program into the itinerary. People respond well to the notion of 'doing good' and having a good time doing it. But we are still at the stage of needing to prompt the traveler into including voluntourism into their travels."

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