Destinations, Feature Trips, South Africa, twoOregonians Tour the Cape

The Questionable Ethics of Wildlife Tourism in South Africa

September 25, 2012

“When we think of Africa, we think of its wildlife. Yet it is the African wildlife that the tourism industry too often exploits, abuses and neglects in pursuit of profitable tourism. In order to turn a profit, the industry trades, hunts, butchers, cages, orphans and experiments on its most valuable resource.”
-Fairly Wild

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 TAHM Foundation. Their aim is the release of previously caged monkeys, apes, lemurs, and birds into a free-roaming environment.

Monkeyland, Plettenberg Bay, South Africa
Birds of Eden, Plettenberg Bay, South Africa

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.

Colorful feathered creatures rehabilitated and released in the world’s largest free-flight aviary.

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.

“The most important environmental issue is one that is rarely mentioned, and that is the lack of a conservation ethic in our culture.”
-Christian Schaurerte, curator of primates, Monkeyland

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.

We may not have made it to Madagascar to see lemurs on this trip, nor have we spotted gibbons in the wilds of Southeast Asia, but we saw them as well as Baboons and Vervet Monkeys and a host of others (see their detailed species list!).

Ring-tailed Lemurs
“Atlas” the howling Gibbon

Oh, the little guys in the Special Monkey Home! Many suffering life-long conditions resulting from mistreatment and experimention; all needing a little extra TLC, all adorable.Walking through Birds of Eden with Lee Dekker, spotting as many of the 3,500+ creatures as we could find.

One of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen: I didn’t catch it on camera, but watching these creatures soar high above the forest, wings spread wide, really made me think long and hard about the life of birds stuck in little cages…

Me with Lee and Lara, two of the fine ladies managing Birds of Eden and Monkeyland

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.

Monkeyland and Birds of Eden are situated 2km off the N2 Highway in The Crags, 16km east of Plettenberg Bay, and about 150km east of Mossel Bay and 50km east of Knysna.

Monkeyland is the world’s first multi-species free-roaming primate sanctuary, renown through the world for its rehabilitation work.
What to Experience: Hour long walking safaris with an accompanying guide offer the experience to see many species of moneys, apes and lemurs living in their forested sanctuary.
Entry: R135 per adult and R67.50 for children for guided entry for a walking safari.*
(Note: Free to access the forest deck and the Blue Monkey Cafe.)

Birds of Eden is the largest single free-flight aviary in the world, and incorporates an indigenous forest with waterfalls and elevated walkways. Previously caged birds from every corner of the globe live here in free flight.
Entry: R135 per adult and R67.50 for children.*
What to Experience: twenty-minute guided walks and an invitation to freely roam the pathway complex at your own pace.

Note: Combination tickets for both locations available for R216 per adult and R108 per child enables access to both facilities; plan on at least three hours to visit both locations. Safari guides are multi-lingual, and German, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, French, Xhosa, Swedish and Finnish tours can be arranged by contacting

“You can’t do eco-tourism with shaking a tin can; it’s not sustainable,” said Lara when explaining their (reasonable) fees. They charge what is necessary to pay for staff and facilities and fresh food for the animals. Beyond that, they’re not aiming to pocket cash.

Ultimately, wildlife tourism is a highly nuanced industry. It can take reading between the lines and asking deeper questions to get to the point of comfort with a company our tour operation.

We’d like to challenge ourselves and you to consider finding answers to the following warm-up questions the next time you encounter opportunities to visit wildlife:

Are animals being asked to do tricks for spectators? Our experience at Monkeyland and Birds of Eden: no animals are ever asked to perform or entertain. They are allowed to move and roam as they wish, and are easily able to retreat to hidden areas of habitat when they’d rather not spend time near humans.

Are visitors touching the animals? Jukani is a good example of setting appropriate boundaries; wild means wild. Why send mixed signals by letting children and adults pet essentially ferocious animals?

Where is the entry fee going? In many places, there is a disparity between the amount paid and the amount necessary to support the work. Beware of for-profit establishments simply using animals to create an income stream. Responsible non-profits keep wheels turning, reinvesting gathered funds back into quality wildlife care and visitor education.

After visiting these operations aimed at educating visitors about current needs for wildlife protection, conservation, and ongoing care of rehabilitated animals, and after learning more about the dark side of the wildlife money-mill in South Africa, Ted and I are committed to paying closer attention to the places we visit and to the treatment of animals in the wild and in captivity, both in South Africa and around the world.

Your turn: Have you experienced high-quality, respectful wildlife tourism? Any recommendations to share?

This post is part of our €œtwoOregonians Tour the Cape€ series featuring quintessential and offbeat South African experiences, one-of-a-kind accommodations and beautiful B&Bs, respectful wildlife programs, social service projects, and landscape photography from the South African Cape. As always, all opinions, photos, and stories are our own; many thanks to our kind hosts and partners along the way. It was our pleasure to experience such genuine kindness and hospitality!

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  • Reply inka September 26, 2012 at 12:03 am

    Thanks very much for this brilliant article! I hope some drops of it will reach some parts of the world – I´ll try to do my best on that too.
    And thanks for your writing anyway, you catch me with nearly every post. /inka

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians September 28, 2012 at 6:40 am

      Inka, thank you so much for reading and for helping spread awareness. All the best xx

  • Reply Margyle September 26, 2012 at 4:27 am

    I have an issue with this kind of thing as well – I actually wrote something briefly about it a while ago. A good book I read somewhat on the issue of poaching and conservation that rang true with a lot of what you brought up was ‘The Tiger’ By John Vaillant. Really good true story about the Amur (Siberian) Tiger in Russia if you haven’t read it already.
    Thanks for the post!

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians September 28, 2012 at 6:43 am

      Thank you for the book recommendation, Margyle. I’ve not read it, but I’d be interested. The deep, dark tunnel of corruption and greed intimidates me, but the more we learn, the more we can avoid participating in the schemes and instead stand in praise of people being good stewards.

  • Reply Nomadic Samuel September 26, 2012 at 9:13 am

    It’s unsettling to hear about some of the abuses that are going on with the animals but equally encouraging to hear from those passionate about changing, such as Lara Mossert. You captured some brilliant candid moments of the animals here with your photos :)

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians September 28, 2012 at 9:15 am

      Hey, thanks for that, Samuel. It really is frustrating to realize how deep the damages go in this industry, but like you said, it’s encouraging to find good examples as well. I hope sharing about Lara’s work will encourage others to a) make similar efforts in conservation and management and b) support the good work being done by responsible caretakers. Glad you liked the pictures! Fun to be able to see so many types of creatures in one place.

  • Reply Joel September 26, 2012 at 7:34 pm

    1. :( (for the abused animals and the money grubbers)

    2. I know this is a dumb question before I ask it, but did you take all these pictures yourself? So many animals!

    3. Maybe someday a matching game made up with pictures of the lemurs? As in, match the lemur to the sibling of yours it most resembles? A Christmas reunion activity maybe?

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians September 28, 2012 at 9:17 am

      1) I agree
      2) I did! : ) Ted took the one of the lion on top and about half of the ones from Jukani
      3) I like this. You know I do.

  • Reply Tamara September 27, 2012 at 2:33 am

    Thanks for posting this thoughtful, detailed article on an important topic. Even with the most thorough research before you get to a destination, it’s sometimes hard to find the truly responsible tour operator/guide/project. There’s so much competition, and so many tourists opting for the easy choice of what looks exciting in the brochure or on the hostel wall. A little poking around reveals the folks you really want to get to know and support. There are good ones out there, offering rehabilitation, reintegration into natural environments (when possible) and refuge. Some of those are not open to visitors, in the best interest of the animals, and they deserve a mention as well. Keep up the good work, and enjoy your travels!!

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians September 28, 2012 at 9:22 am

      You’re absolutely right, Tamara. It can be so easy for places to slap pretty titles and pictures together and appear harmless. One of the spots I appreciated back near Cape Town was SANCCOB (Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds) – they have all sorts of penguins and sea birds in their care, and it is possible to make arrangements ahead of time and visit, but you can tell that their first priority is the care of the animals. Tourism is secondary.

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment – and happy travel-planning to you two these days : )

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  • Reply MzansiGirl September 28, 2012 at 5:38 am

    Excellent post Bethany. The topic of ethics in wildlife tourism has bothered me for a while, also that of wildlife volunteering at the pet and play farms. There are so many dodgy operators out there, but also lots doing great conservation work too. Definitely some form of regulation needed in the industry.

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians September 28, 2012 at 11:29 am

      Yep Meruschka, the volunteering bit is especially troubling. I appreciated this one woman’s write up after she spent time volunteering with lion cubs:
      Her experience is shared along with a write-up on the dangers and ethics of petting wildlife:

      I believe educating people to become wise, compassionate tourists is the other side of the regulation coin. Hopefully as travelers grow to appreciate and respect wildlife and see through the rubbish, the demand for the dark side of the industry will shrivel away.

      Thanks for reading!

  • Reply Stephanie - The Travel Chica September 29, 2012 at 12:37 am

    Great info. I think wildlife tourism is a difficult issue. It is very easy to just listen to what the companies say about their services, but asking the questions you’ve posed here is necessary.

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians September 30, 2012 at 6:35 pm

      Asking the questions can be a bit like asking about food at the farmers’ markets – they know how to tell you what you want to hear, but “organic” and “natural” and whatever else can be such an easy sound-good label. It really does take a little extra effort and discernment to really understand just what it is that they’re selling. But it’s worth it! When you find the source of something really great, you can’t help but want to support their work : )

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  • Reply Arianwen September 30, 2012 at 8:59 pm

    You took some amazing photos! I love seeing animals in the wild and hearing about rehabilitation and breeding centres. It’s such a shame that not everyone shares the same desire to protect these species and ensure they have a life worth living.

  • Reply Lara Mostert October 2, 2012 at 6:01 pm

    Hello Bethany :-)

    Thanks so much for the thoughtful, insightful, interesting and easy to read BLOG you wrote. You sent me an email, but I somehow missplaced it :-(

    I have been searching for the email frantically, but figured I could contact you via your BLOG. What awesome response you have had. It makes me so happy.

    It’s ‘baby season’ here at Monkeyland now, so it’s a pity you missed it…so far we have Ringtail Lemur twins, many Vervet monkey babies and 4 Capuchin babies. Nothing is as cute as a newborn primate :-)

    I will search frantically for your email tonight (I cannot understand how I managed to missplace / missfile it on my laptop – sorry about that.

    I just wanted to thank you once again for your visit with your wonderful husband Ted.

    Until later – Lara X

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  • Reply Anne January 26, 2015 at 2:52 am

    Thanks for making this information available outside SA. It should be our national shame, and for some of us it is!! Glad you found some good sanctuaries also.

  • Reply Shane Dallas (The Travel Camel) January 27, 2015 at 1:15 am

    A very good and thoughtful piece of writing. This issue is not just restricted to South Africa – it sadly occurs elsewhere in the world. It’s detailed articles like this that increase people’s awareness of the situation.

  • Reply Koshika S August 30, 2017 at 9:50 am

    Thank you for posting this – really helpful and I’m going to share this. In Sri Lanka and India tourists blindly visit elephant orphanages, the deplorable zoos and ride elephants. No one takes the time to shine a light on the terrible conditions the “friendly” elephant in chains that you are riding, endures. Again – people like you who take time to research and educate are performing a great service – thank you!

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