Visitors on safari with Asilia Africa — Photo courtesy of Asilia Africa
An African safari is undoubtedly one of the most life-changing experiences in this world. Seeing the Great Migration or the Big Five is probably on your must-do list, especially after years of being mostly homebound.
Booking a safari with the right operator contributes to fueling tourism-reliant destinations affected by COVID-19 closures. “Tourism has been devastated by the pandemic, and it is more critical than ever for travelers to support safari operators who are actually doing the right thing, not just talking about doing the right thing, for their communities, the environment, and the wildlife,” says Andy Hogg, founder of Zambia-based The Bushcamp Company. He hopes travelers do their due diligence “to be sure they are spending their time and money with like-minded safari operators.”
With so many operators out there, planning your once-in-a-lifetime trip can seem daunting. To assist you in selecting the right company for an ethical and responsible safari, here’s a helpful guide of 10 things to consider.
1. Wildlife conservation
Cheetah Project, supported by Asilia Africa in Tanzania — Photo courtesy of Lavanya Sunkara
“Protecting wildlife is essential, as obviously the wildlife is the initial draw for tourists to come to the area,” says Hogg. The pandemic has left many protected areas with depleted ranger forces, leading to an increase in poaching, simply out of sheer necessity. Crucial wilderness areas need tourism revenue to survive, until alternative streams of income are established.
Simply going on a safari often helps protect wildlife. Gerard Beaton, operations director at Tanzania-based Asilia Africa, states that national park and conservancy fees that companies pay to bring visitors fund the rangers on the ground: “Park fees amount to millions of dollars annually to provide security for these wildlife areas.”
Companies like The Bushcamp Company and Asilia Africa are going even further with their commitment to wildlife conservation. The Bushcamp Company supports the Zambian Carnivore Programme, studying predators, and Conservation South Luangwa, funding their anti-snaring and anti-poaching patrols. Asilia funds multiple NGOs, such as Mara Elephant Project, Kenya Wildlife Trust, and Southern Tanzania Elephant Project, among others, to protect key species and provide scientific research.
2. Community uplift
Beadwork Project, Maa Trust, Asilia Africa Partner organization — Photo courtesy of Asilia Africa
Choosing a safari company with long-standing roots in the community makes your visit all the more worthwhile, especially in the aftermath of COVID-19 closures. “Some tourism ventures are more beneficial to indigenous Africans than others,” shares Sunit Sanghrajka, Kenyan-born founder of Alluring Africa, a Florida-based tour operator. Alluring Africa works with safari lodges that are honest about how their tourism dollars benefit the area. Sanghrajka adds, “By ensuring that the local people derive the greatest benefit, they will in turn embrace conservation, commerce and community.”
Asilia Africa employs from surrounding communities first, sources local produce and supports regional projects, whether it be beadwork projects or locally produced honey. Similarly, The Bushcamp Company shows its commitment to the local population by supporting local projects and it relies on a steady stream of visitors to do so. “We drilled nearly 200 boreholes/water wells in the nearby villages, each bringing fresh drinking water to at least 300 people daily,” shares Hogg.
3. Eco-friendly camps
Dunia Camp, Serengeti, Tanzania — Photo courtesy of Asilia Africa
Whenever possible, choose an eco-friendly, low impact safari camp, so your trip has a minimal impact on the environment. Most of the mobile and semi-permanent safari camps are located in fragile ecosystems, and the camp operations need to be low impact enough to leave little footprints.
Search for properties using solar power whenever possible, forgoing single-use plastics, and that have a carbon offset program to balance the guests’ environmental footprint. “Several years ago, we almost completely stopped using plastic water bottles, and every guest receives a reusable metal water bottle for their stay here,” shares Hogg. That measure has reduced the company’s consumption of plastic water bottles by up to 50,000 bottles per year during normal times.
4. Locally staffed
Safari guides at The Bushcamp Company, Zambia — Photo courtesy of The Bushcamp Company
The safari camp’s staff narrate and enhance the safari journey. When a camp is run by people from the region, visitors can have a more immersive and informative experience.
“Our local staff are here for the long haul, and their involvement in the community and the park enhances the guest experience. Guests often come to see and learn about the animals but leave with a much richer understanding of the layers of Zambian life and culture as well,” says Hogg.
A safari company that emphasizes local hiring shows its dedication to the area’s people. “In Africa, one full-time employee supports many dependents. If we stopped tourism to those places, the impact would be felt far beyond safari lodges,” shares Sanghrajka. Both The Bushcamp Company and Asilia Africa have 98% African staff.
In areas where tourism is the primary source of income, safeguarding wild places is easier when people in the communities are actively participating and reaping benefits from tourism through employment, fair rent and land leases, and educational opportunities. “By employing locals, the communities witness firsthand how tourism and conservation models help sustain critical ecosystems. They become stewards of the land and preserve these areas for future generations,” says Becca Fritz, Marketing Manager of Alluring Africa.
5. Women’s empowerment
Grace Matemba, Safari Guide at Dunia, Serengeti — Photo courtesy of Lavanya Sunkara
Just a decade ago, seeing a woman safari guide was not commonplace; companies like Asilia Africa are changing the landscape for women to take up non-traditional jobs working in the bush. “It’s a recurring annual objective to increase the percentage of women employed by the company,” says Beaton.
Asilia’s Dunia Camp in the Serengeti is entirely run by women. employing them in all levels, including managerial positions, throughout their lodges in Kenya and Tanzania. Asilia also offers internships to Koiyaki Guide School's students upon graduation. It’s now not uncommon to have a woman guide or see one in training on one of your safaris when you choose Asilia.
Find the best African safari for you: 10 camps sorted by travel type
Find the best African safari for you: 10 camps sorted by travel type
6. Vaccinations and COVID testing
COVID-19 Testing, Zambia — Photo courtesy of Becca Fritz
COVID-19 is likely to impact our lives for years to come; that means vaccinations and ongoing testing may be required to travel freely. Mandatory COVID-19 testing and vaccination proofs are needed to enter some safari destinations for the safety of both travelers and staff. “Countries want to be assured that tourists crossing their borders are healthy and not a threat to their people or resources,” says Sanghrajka. “Per a Safari Pros survey, less than 1% of travelers to Africa contracted COVID-19 while traveling.”
Responsible safari companies are also doing their part to ensure that their staff are protected from COVID-19 by paying for testing, providing transportation for vaccinations and making vaccinations and vaccination education readily available.
7. Contemporary design
Namiri Plains Asilia Camp, Serengeti, Tanzania — Photo courtesy of Lavanya Sunkara
If you’ve seen "Out of Africa," you might have a certain colonial or traditional design in mind when dreaming of your African safari. In the past decade, safari lodges and camps have been moving away from this aesthetic and are embracing interior design and architectural elements that celebrate the region’s culture, people and natural surroundings.
The presence of regional textiles, weaving, and beadwork – all crafted by local artisans and artists – in the main areas and tents gives the visitor an opportunity to appreciate and connect with the land and its people, especially when coupled with guest experiences that offer visits to communities surrounding the camps.
8. Supporting conservancies
Walking Safari in Naboisho Conservancy, Kenya — Photo courtesy of Scott Josephson
Conservancies, which are owned by local residents, offer a more intimate safari experience than reserves or even national parks. The Naboisho Conservancy, which borders the Maasai Mara Reserve in Kenya, spans 53,000 acres and is owned by 694 residents.
“These pieces of land share borders with national parks, meaning animals can move freely between both areas. The benefit of conservancies is that they limit the number of vehicles and guests in the area, so there are a lot fewer people,” shares Fritz. Naboisho has a strict limit of three vehicles per animal sighting, a stark contrast from the neighboring Mara reserve.
Other benefits of visiting a conservancy include off-roading, night game drives and walking safaris. Lodges within conservancies are smaller, eco-friendly camps built in a responsible manner, leveraging clean energy. By consciously choosing to travel to locally-owned and operated camps, the benefits will directly impact local communities.
9. Off-the-beaten-path destinations
Jabali Ridge, Ruaha National Park, Tanzania — Photo courtesy of Asilia Africa
Wildlife-rich places like the Serengeti or the Maasai Mara are certainly a big draw, but choosing a safari in a lesser-known destination means your trip will have even more of a social impact, while still providing a stellar wildlife-viewing experience. “Travel investments provide employment opportunities where they didn’t exist before,” says Fritz.
Visiting these special places, especially during the peak season, further helps relieve the pressure on wildlife hot spots that often see extraordinary visitor numbers. “The first time I visited the Masai Mara, it was during peak season, and we were jockeying with several other vehicles for the best view of a leopard. It not only puts pressure on the wildlife and the land, but that’s not what the safari experience is about – it felt very inauthentic,” adds Fritz.
Some lesser-known wildlife-rich lodges include Jabali Ridge in Tanzania, Ol Donyo and Segera in Kenya, Euphorbia Villas in Botswana and Sausage Tree in Zambia.
Off-the-beaten-path destinations are home to different species that don't get as much attention as the Big Five. Tswalu Kalahari in South Africa is one of the best places to see the rare and endangered ground pangolin. Tourism to this area directly supports research projects and conservation initiatives essential to its existence.
10. Impact-conscious tour operator
Safari in Serengeti, Tanzania — Photo courtesy of Scott Josephson
You’ve read this far, and you're probably wondering, “How can I make sure I find a company that is doing tourism right?” Well, that’s when you need an impact-conscious tour operator, preferably one closer to home. A U.S.-based tour operator doesn't typically own camps or lodges, safari vehicles or planes; they are focused on providing travelers with a thoroughly vetted (and unbiased) experience, pairing them with destinations and accommodations that are doing what’s needed for the people and wildlife.
Companies like Asilia Africa do not directly book guests. A tour operator, such as Alluring Africa, can help plan a customized safari that meets your values and goals, while helping with logistics including accommodations, land/air transfers, activities and COVID-19 testing.
More importantly, the operator can tap into their partners on the ground to obtain a clear understanding of the current situation, to better inform and advise travelers. “Our extensive knowledge and deep connections in Africa allow us to turn on a dime and advocate for travelers’ best interests,” says Sanghrajka. Alluring Africa is one of 30 responsible North American-based safari outfitters part of Safari Pros, an organization dedicated to conservation and sustainable tourism to Africa.