For me, seeing Africa’s most iconic wildlife in its natural environment (wildlife encounters) is a dream come true. There are few things in the world that make me feel happier, more at peace, and more insignificant in the great scheme of things. It’s a wonderful, powerful thing, and I often stop to remind myself how lucky I am.

But for many people out there, somehow it isn’t enough. They want a closer, more tangible encounter. They want to be able to pet and take selfies with a young lion cub. Or walk alongside a cheetah, or ride on the back of an elephant.

Right across South Africa (also in Zimbabwe and Zambia), there are some facilities and operators that cater to such desires.

The Bad and the Ugly

Many of these will refer to themselves as wildlife “sanctuaries” or similar. They assure visitors that their tourist pounds or dollars are going to a good cause. Causes such as conservation, animal rehabilitation or wildlife research. They will most likely tell tourists that the animals they are petting, walking beside or riding are orphans. And that they will one day reintroduce them into the wild.

Sadly, this is almost always a lie. And, as a general rule, you should steer clear of these places if you want to be sure of being an ethical traveller.

Looking specifically at cub petting, the cubs are generally mass bred in captivity (often under very stressful conditions). The operators separate the cubs from their mothers, so as to use them for petting. In other words, a tourist attraction. Once they are too big and/or potentially dangerous to interact with humans, they may be sold into “canned hunting”. Essentially, this means that they will be dumped in an enclosure to be shot like fish in a barrel by trophy hunters. These hunters either don’t know or don’t care that these lions are completely unfamiliar with how to survive in the wild. Even if captive-bred and essentially tame lions do not end up being used for hunting, they cannot be successfully reintroduced into the wild.

While the consequences of elephant back rides or interactions might be less bloody, there have been increasingly frequent reports of general mistreatment of elephants. This is typically what happens at a number of so-called “sanctuaries” in South Africa , Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Given these unethical and cruel practices, the prevailing sentiment is that people should avoid these kinds of questionable wildlife encounters. I tend to agree. I believe that wildlife should be wild.

The Good

This doesn’t mean you can only enjoy the African bush from the (relative) safety and distance of a safari vehicle. A number of African national parks and game reserves offer walking safaris or bush walks. This gives you the opportunity to get that little bit more intimate with the bush.Then there are special encounters, like the new rhino tracking activity – available in the small Letsatsing Game Reserve. On the fringes of South Africa’s Sun City, the Reserve allows you to track wild white rhinos on foot. And you use a telemetry device, as a tracking aid. These rhinos are relatively familiar with humans, so you can get to within around ten metres of them. And the telemetry device will guarantee you sightings.

If you want to get even closer and also directly contribute to wildlife conservation, certain reserves (Madikwe) and parks in South Africa offer a “conservation safari”.  You get a rare opportunity to help a team of experts sedate and notch rhinos. And put radio collars on big cats or wild dogs.

There is a clear difference between these kinds of wildlife encounters and the “interactions” mentioned earlier.

Close Encounters of the Right Kind

SafariBookings is actively engaged in promoting wildlife conservation and supporting the fight against poaching. If you want to experience your own wildlife encounter, make sure that you go to a reputable (and ethical) Reserve. We can assist you with that. And if you want to see some stunning wildlife photos, follow us on Instagram and Pinterest.

African Safari Tours

By Christopher Clark
United Kingdom UK

Christopher is a British travel writer and has contributed to various Fodor's guidebooks and a range of travel magazines.

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