Wildlife Tourism In South Africa: Ethics, Experience, And Eyes-open Travel

2nd October 2012

Wildlife Tourism in South Africa: Ethics, Experience, and Eyes-Open Travel

I was maybe thirteen when I overheard an adult bragging about his hunting trip to Africa. I honestly don’t remember the details, but his slick mustached smile and grand hand gestures illustrated the point: he had spent big bucks to have big fun in hopes of bringing big bragging rights back to Oregon.

[I'm going to go out on a limb and be candid: I've hunted wild game in my life. I don't mind eating meat from an animal that's had a healthy, natural life; it's much preferred to feed-lot cattle and extremely-caged fowl. But I believe there's a deeply troubling side to the trophy hunting industry.]

South Africa’s animals are caught in the cross-hairs of a giant money-grab.

Ted and I came into the country much the same as average (read: naïve) tourists from around the world, anticipating the chance to encounter wildlife in a region where indigenous species are so curiously different from animals in our homeland. But over the course of multiple visits, conversations, and interviews with men and women in the wildlife tourism industry, we’ve emerged a little wiser and a lot more worried.

If you don’t know to look deeper, glossy animal tales begin innocently enough: brochures on the wall, billboards along the road advertise opportunities to meet baby cheetah cubs, or baby tiger cubs, or baby lion cubs. Family-friendly activities! they proclaim. Come pet the cute, tame animals. Connect with African wildlife in a safe and easy non-safari environment.

But the truth is ugly.

There’s plenty of information online for those who wish to educate themselves further, but the gist is this:

Baby cat cubs are bred and sold. ($)

Buyers either keep them as pets (in conditions not at all conducive to an intrinsically wild animal’s make-up) or use them for profit, exploiting their animals in the Pay, Pet, and Play industry. ($$)

Once the kiddies and the tourists have had their chance to maul the animals to the point of damaged-health (stories of traumatized cats in diarrhea covered cages after-hours are enough to churn any stomach) and once the little cubs have outgrown their cuteness, owners breed them for more cubs and/or sell them up the food chain. ($$$)

From here, the Canned Hunting industry makes a pretty penny selling foreign visitors the opportunity to best “ferocious” beasts with a rifle and take home a trophy. ($$$$)

You’d think that putting a practically domesticated animal in a cage and then conquering it with a gun would be the end of the line on this spectrum of ill-gotten-gains, but the story goes one step further: after the hunter has disappeared, the animal remnants are sold one final time for the last flush of cash: Chinese supplement demand for ground tiger bones is a booming industry. ($$$$$)

Striving to be responsible tourists, we had to learn to be honest with ourselves and ask the deeper questions:

Where are these animals coming from?
Why are they being kept here?
Who is benefiting and what are they doing with proceeds?
How healthy are animal living conditions?
What future awaits these animals after we leave?
When money making schemes are at stake, genuine answers are not so easily found.

Visitors may be told they’re witnessing a rehabilitation program preparing animals for re-introduction into the wild, or perhaps a comfortable home at a game farm. In rare cases, this may be true, but think carefully:

Is an animal that’s programmed to live with feeding schedules and overly-familiar human interaction truly going to a) be released to the wild b) thrive and have a healthy life?

Is that “comfortable home at a game farm” likely to be a death-row pen at a lucrative hunting operation?

It’s a rare thing to find people housing these animals out of the goodness of their hearts; if they’re making a profit beyond the reasonable cost of caring for the animals, there are other financial strings typing up ethics and decision making.

To be honest, we visited more than one place in South Africa which we believe operated under questionable practices. We didn’t witness outright animal cruelty or abuse, but we believe the companies withheld from us a level of transparency about their practices and the long-term welfare of the animals in their charge.

On the other hand, we were able to visit a few places offering thorough transparency in practices, operating out of care and compassion for wildlife. We spent time with a few honest folk who took time to sit and explain their work and their perspectives.

We’re happy to share about these experiences because they represent a small (but hopefully growing!) number of wildlife tourism companies in South Africa that understand the threats of animal exploitation and seek to educate visitors on responsible practices.

Monkeyland and Birds of Eden, two neighboring animal sanctuaries located on “Animal Ally” at The Crags, just outside of Plettenberg Bay, were founded by the TAHMF Foundation. (now known as SAASA.org.za) Their aim is the release of previously caged monkeys, apes, lemurs, and birds into a free-roaming environment.


Our mission is that guests leave our sanctuaries (Monkeyland and Birds of Eden) with a greater understanding of the primates of the world and the threats they are facing. One of our main goals is to educate the public about the adverse effects of keeping primates and birds as pets, in terms of both physical and psychological health. Also important is to teach visitors about the rapid decline of natural habitats due to logging, mining, agriculture and human settlements. We encourage the visiting public to buy goods wisely, ranging from second-hand or antique wood-products, to pharmaceuticals and cosmetics that were not tested on animals.

The gathering of primates and birds at these two sanctuaries are comprised of wild injury and illegal capture rescues as well as animals gathered from compromised living conditions as pets in private homes, from at-capacity zoos, and from research and experimentation schemes. Their work to rehabilitate domesticated and injured animals is admirable, and their care for the creatures upon release into their sanctuaries is commendable.

We met with Lara Mostert, one of the original founders, who shared her the history of her passionate decades dedicated to study, care, and conservation of primates. Animated and full of stories, she shared tales of coaxing baby lemurs to health with secret blends of milk and Bulgarian yogurt. She shared about the original visions becoming reality after years spent developing the grounds at Monkeyland from a dairy farm rubbish dump to the impressive facility of today. She shared her endless links and research and story finding, and her dedication to raising awareness of the corruption and mismanagement in the Wildlife Tourism industry in South Africa.

“Our main mission is really to provide the best possible environment and lifestyle for the animals in our care and to teach people that animals should not be exploited.”
-Lara Mostert

We walked through Monkeyland with Christian Schaurerte, a primate keeper who has been with the organization for many years. What struck us about the experience was how closely we could observe the animals and how much knowledge Christian shared about their intersocial behaviors and the particularities of each species.

Christian is the first to admit that Monkeyland has critics in addition to its fans. Purists argue against the unnatural mixture of species coexisting in one limited habitat.

Of course, this may be true.

The most ideal habitat is native land, among fellow undisturbed creatures.

But in a mismanaged world of destroyed ecosystems, over-farmed species, inappropriately domesticated pets, and leftover experimentation subjects, the fact remains that animals such as these need a place to live and be cared for, and these sanctuaries are doing a fine job of providing space, food, and care.

While not strictly local (or even African) species, the experience of visiting the rainbow of creatures at these two sanctuaries stands in stark contrast to other South African wildlife tourism operations.

Strict no-touching policies and patient rehabilitation and training processes ensure the highest quality life for their charges, and education of visitors is their key to help minimize the number of future poaching-victims, habitat-less creatures, and inappropriate house-pets.

Unlike other companies we visited and learned about, these sanctuaries wish they didn’t exist. “Making happy endings out of sad stories” is a telling tag-line. All too often, the trouble with wildlife tourism is that the happy ending is determined by the level of cash lining the pockets of the companies rather than the welfare of the animals.

One of The Foundation’s key visions is creation of self-sustaining tourist-driven free-roaming sanctuaries throughout the African continent housing endangered and/or critically vulnerable animals on environmentally suitable land secured and placed into trust for the sole use of such projects. In the immediate future, they’re helping re-locate and revamp another collection of rescued animals.

Jukani Wildlife Park: Coming to join Monkeyland and Birds of Eden in Animal Alley in December 2012, this cat sanctuary currently located in Mossel Bay will be providing significant habitat upgrades for their collection of rescued lions, leopards, jaguars, pumas, caracals, servals, cheetahs, hyenas, Siberian and Bengal tigers, honey badgers and more.