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Responsible Tourism, How & Where (Part 1)


Knowing what responsible tourism is can be a mine field of contrasting views. So how can travellers know how to travel and to where?

We begin our 2-part blog by focussing on captive animal facilities and the differences between them, in order to better educate tourists and the industry (yes, sadly the tourism industry needs help also).

One key factor in understanding that those who want you to believe something, can often be the ones who misguide you. Our team at Captured In Africa believe in research and gaining varying opinions on destinations, facilities and service providers. It’s why our customers can be safe when booking with us, because we do this research before offering any product or service. Our team are also heavily involved in conservation and have campaigned these issues for many years.

Here, we are going to simply outline two areas with contrasting responsible tourism, conservation and ethical benefits.

Responsible tourism can benefit conservation, local people and wildlife.

Irresponsible tourism does not benefit conservation and local people, whilst contributing to animal cruelty.

Let’s start with Captive Animal Facilities

There are two types of captive animal facilities;

Interaction’ facilities which allow tourists to interact with its animals, such as elephant rides, lion or tiger cub petting, walking with lions or cheetahs, dolphin performances, ostrich riding and so on. These facilities can also trade their animals and often breed. If there are young animals such as lion cubs or cheetah cubs around often, then breeding and/or trading is taking place to ensure there is a constant supply of cute animals to attract & for tourists to play with – we call this the “cuteness factor”,  it could also be described as a USP (Unique Selling Point) because it grabs a buyers’ (tourists’) attention.


If you are permitted to touch, then tourists should be wary.

Sanctuary’ facilities provide a life long home to rescued animals, they do not offer interactions to tourists and they also do not breed or trade wildlife. Rescues are clearly shown with evidence such as campaigns/photos and videos documenting the rescue from start to finish. It’s rare that sanctuaries have young animals (unless evidently rescued by a legitimate organisation such as this current rescue effort by Born Free) as they don’t require cute animals to attract tourists.

Ethical sanctuaries place barriers between the tourist and the animal (Image: FourPaws Lions Rock Big Cat Sanctuary)

You can see from the above descriptions and images, how tourists can either help captive animals in need, or tourists can inadvertently be assisting in cruelty.

Be Careful Who You Listen To

In our experience, ‘interaction’ facilities want one thing and that is for you to visit and spend your money. Sanctuaries also want one thing, yet that is vastly different than interaction facilities and that is to safeguard animals. So we have two very contrasting approaches, yet tourists can often and blatantly be deceived.

Here’s why;

  • Interaction facilities regularly state that their young animals are “orphans”, rejected by their mother. We find this to be 100% untrue. Whilst animals such as lions, cheetahs and tigers can orphan their young, it’s extremely rare and is more common in captive situations. What in fact happens, due to interaction facilities requiring a constant supply of young cubs, is that once birth has taken place, those young cubs will be forcibly removed from their mother (usually only a few days following birth – this is to prevent the cub being able to open its eyes and seeing its mother).
  • Interaction facilities often suggest to tourists that their animals will be released into a game reserve. We find this to be 100% untrue for lions, cheetahs and other animals. If a facility is breeding and allowing interactions, then often they are also trading. In South Africa once there is breeding and trading occurring, there is a connection to canned hunting and the lion bone trade industries, as the interaction facility with trade with anyone with a permit – the lion (for example) then ends up in the notorious canned hunting industry and the interaction facility has simply washed their hands of that lion.
  • (a small number of captive cheetah have been released into small reserves and tend to be maintained on a soft release program and not 100% fully wild. Again be wary of what facilities state and ensure they back their statements up)
  • Interaction facilities will go to great lengths to disguise what they do and the reason they exist. Some lion cub petting facilities for example may even be associated with universities for “research” not supported by leading conservation organisations. Some facilities even fraudulently place legitimate company logos on their website to make out that they are in some way connected to that company. South Africa’s lion and big cat breeding industry is one of the most deceitful we have ever come across.

In both of the above circumstances, the ‘interaction’ facility will not show any evidence of where their animals have gone to. The trading of lions particularly is well hidden, but there have been very good exposé highlighting trade permits from ‘interaction’ facilities to known wildlife traders and canned hunting outfits (Google is your friend on this matter to view such exposé articles linking cub petting to canned hunting).

Interaction facilities will have tourists believe this is an “orphan”. 99% of lion cubs are forcibly removed from their mothers when only days old.

So what would a ‘sanctuary’ tell you?

  • Sanctuaries are clear, they would firstly have a policy for all visitors on their website and entrance, that they do not allow interactions to members of the public. They will also clearly show their rescues, where their animals come from and where they go (in the case of sanctuaries, the animals remain at the sanctuary and are not sold or traded). When rescues occur, sanctuaries and attached non-profit organisations demonstrate the rescue with images and video of the rescue effort, from on location to the arrival of that animal to their sanctuary. Sanctuaries are generally official, non-profit registered facilities that will show visitors all registration certificates and documents (ie a Non-Profit Organisation will show an NPO Certificate).
  • Sanctuaries and rescue organisations are very happy to tell you information.

It can be very difficult for tourists to tell the difference, because most facilities will visibly show some form of “caring” of their animals. Yet when we look closer, we can see a huge indifference between a positive and a negative facility.

Positive Facilities (Sanctuaries): will not only actively rescue and take in rescued animals, they ensure that the animals are free from human constraints such as interactions. Sanctuaries also go to lengths for the animals to have space, food, clean water and nourishment.

Negative Facilities (Interaction): don’t display evidence of any actual rescue, provide interactions (animals are therefore UNFREE from human constraints) and can often house multiple animals within one enclosure (ie 20-30 lions in one space).

Tourists don’t need to touch to learn.

The word “ambassador” is used often for captive cheetah. Ambassadors can exist behind a fence in an ethical sanctuary, tourists don’t need to touch to learn.

In order to ride elephants (and other animal interactions), training of that animal must occur.

There are occasions where some light interactions may occur in an “okay” setting, where the animals are free to come and go – an example of this would be the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi, where visitors can only lightly touch an elephant when it comes near a dividing boundary separating the elephants from visitors. Such circumstances can be differentiated because the facility (in this case David Sheldrick, has a visible and active rescue & release program and the animals are not in a forced environment such as a cage. So tourists know they are supporting genuine non-exploitive efforts).

Rule of thumb 

If the facility offers close interactions with their animals. Avoid.

Facilities offering interactions will outright lie and deceive. Interacting with captive predators and elephants is also dangerous for both you the tourist and the animals – multiple attacks have been documented (including deaths) and often following such animal attacks, the animal will pay the ultimate consequence.

Therefore tourists and the tourism industry must be wary of believing what they are told by the facility themselves, always independently research and gain insight before participating in cruelty. By researching, tourists can also have an amazing positive impact in the right place – legitimate and ethical sanctuaries for rescued animals need all the help they can get. So please choose wisely and please do not be conned into believing what you are told by interaction facilities.

Read Part 2 Here: Responsible Tourism, How & Where (part 2) / Wild

Thank you for learning, educating and travelling responsibly. If you would like more information, or you are a member of media/press and would like to look into this matter further, Captured In Africa are always happy to assist.



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