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Written by: Sharon Gilbert-Rivett

Is the animal empire striking back? It’s one of the most salient talking points in the safari and ecotourism industry, and it boils down to one simple question: how close to wild animals is close enough?

Getting close to animals during a bush walk can sometimes be unavoidable, especially if they approach you, in which case a safari guide needs to know how to correctly handle the situation.
Getting close to wild animals during a bush walk can sometimes be unavoidable, especially if they approach you, in which case a safari guide needs to know how to correctly handle the situation. © Megan Alves

In a recent report published in the US journal, Trends in Ecology and Evolution, researchers found that some eight billion people visit protected areas around the world each year and this human activity changes the way that animals behave.

In South African game reserves and national parks many game species have become habituated to a constant human presence. While this may be great for game viewing and thrilling for tourists who are increasingly looking for “up close and personal” game encounters, is it having a negative impact on the animals themselves?

“It’s a tricky question, and one that we constantly ask ourselves when out on game drives and walks,” says safari guide Amos Nyati who works at Umlani Bushcamp in the Timbavati Private Game Reserve, which is part of the Greater Kruger National Park. “We constantly monitor animal behaviour when we approach them in a vehicle, especially where predators like lion and leopard are concerned, and do our best to remain at a discreet distance so as not to affect behaviour,” he adds.

“If an animal comes towards us, and gets closer by choice, then it’s sometimes hard to maintain a respectful and safe distance,” adds Amos’ colleague, student guide Adam Mohr. “This is especially true when elephants are concerned, because they will often approach the vehicle voluntarily, especially if the engine is off and guests remain quiet and still. Is this negatively affecting their behaviour? I don’t think so.”

The Sabi Sand, in the Greater Kruger, is one of the first choices for guests who want close encounters with the Big Five.
The Sabi Sand in the Greater Kruger is one of the first choices for guests who want close encounters with the Big Five © Janine Avery

Nyati agrees. “In instances like this I think habituation, or an animal feeling comfortable around humans, allows us to see behaviour that we would not normally witness.”

In game reserves like the Timbavati and the nearby Sabi Sand, a high density of safari lodges and game viewing vehicles has led to habituation of wild animals, which appear to ignore their human viewers. This apparently relaxed attitude to human presence is passed on to their young, which learn not to see humans or vehicles as a threat. While this is good for tourism, it is not good when poaching is factored into the equation. And there are definitely limits, as is evident in incidents where game drive vehicles and tourists driving themselves have been attacked by wild animals.

While the ethics of approaching wildlife, both in a vehicle and on foot, are taught as part of a safari guide’s professional training, when the pressure is on to produce Big Five sightings, these ethics can often be compromised and often to an animal’s detriment.

“Pressure (perceived or real) is being placed on the shoulders of relatively young ranger guides to show guests as much as possible in a comparatively short period of time,” says guiding expert and sustainable tourism consultant Michel Girardin.

“If you look at the marketing collateral of game lodges, which are full of images of close encounters with the Big Five, this raises the expectations of guests as to what they are going to see,” he says.

According to Girardin, the game lodge industry has come a long way over the past 30 years, and the advent of guiding bodies such as the Field Guides Association of Southern Africa (FGASA) has helped to raise both standards and professionalisation of the guiding industry.

“Many game lodges also have their own formal training programmes for nature guides, which focus specifically on managing the impact on game viewing and avoiding potentially dangerous situations,” says Girardin. “For example, Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve in the Sabi Sand has ongoing training interventions for their guides and was one of the first lodges in South Africa to introduce a strict protocol managing how many vehicles are allowed at the same sighting. Sabi Sabi also focuses on the management of safaris, placing major focus on game sightings and the handling of dangerous game sightings in particular,” he adds.

The ethics of approaching animals safely and in a way which does not impact them needs to be included in ongoing training programmes for professional safari guides.
The ethics of approaching animals safely and in a way that does not impact them needs to be included in ongoing training programmes for professional safari guides. © Megan Alves

Girardin explains that many game lodges do not have any formal training programmes and merely require that a guide be FGASA qualified. This can often result in a guide not having sufficient experience of the particular game reserve in which he or she is working and the specific animals that occur there.

“It is incumbent on all game lodges to have more of a professional guide training induction and supplementary training programmes in order to ensure that guides obtain the requisite experience of a specific area before actually guiding tourists,” says Girardin, adding that more emphasis needs to be placed on animal behaviour. “There needs to be more time spent on how to approach and position yourself and your guests in relation to the animal, thereby ensuring a great game sighting whilst at the same time limiting the impact on the animal itself.”

Umlani Bushcamp and Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve are both Fair Trade Tourism certified game lodges. For more information on them and other Fair Trade Tourism destinations, please visit www.fairtrade.travel.

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Fair Trade Tourism is pioneering the development of sustainable and responsible tourism in southern Africa and beyond. A non-profit organisation, it grows awareness about responsible tourism, helps tourism businesses operate more sustainably and facilitates the Fair Trade Tourism certification programme.