In the fourth piece of a multi-part series on responsible tourism, scientist and travel expert Louise de Waal details ways that individual travelers can minimize their impact on the sensitive natural environment of Africa.
Africa is blessed with some of the most beautiful, prime wilderness areas in the world. Many of these have received some form of protection under national and/or international legislation, and countries like Botswana and Tanzania, which boast some of the greatest biodiversity on the continent, have established large networks of protected areas.
From marine protected areas like the Mafia Island Archipelago, the savannah habitats of the Serengeti, the rainforests of Bwindi and Kibale, to Mount Kilimanjaro, these often fragile ecosystems support not only many endemic species, but also the most iconic and endangered species, such as the rhino, elephant, lion, African wild dog, chimpanzee, and gorilla.
People are the biggest threat to Africa’s natural habitats and biodiversity, creating some serious challenges for conservation, such as human-wildlife conflicts, deforestation, wildlife trafficking, and poaching. In the last decade, poaching incidents around Africa have soared to unprecedented and shocking levels, putting wildlife at even further risk.
Many of these fragile ecosystems rely on tourism for their protection with income from national park fees and tourism’s considerable contribution to GDP being vital for their survival. When visiting areas of nature conservation value or getting involved in environmentally sensitive activities, such as scuba-diving and whale watching, please prevent and minimise any negative impacts on the environment.
Sitting behind your computer, some of these might come across a little puerile and fatuous, but believe me common sense often goes out of the window when faced with the excitement of your first safari experience.
Always follow relevant park rules and regulations
Every protected area has a set of rules and regulations. Take a moment to read and understand these rules. Make sure you or your guide stick to the speed limit. I have seen too many cars injuring and even killing wildlife, especially slow creatures, like tortoises and snakes. Enjoy the ride, but at a responsible speed.
Never touch, feed or disturb wild animals or plants
Although tempting, never feed wild animals, as your small action can have huge consequences for wildlife. Our rich foods may upset their diet and can lead to habituation. In South Africa for example baboons in Cape Point National Park have become habituated to humans, opening cars and snatching food from visitors’ hands. Funny as it may seem, many of these baboons are now considered problem animals, raiding not only cars, but people’s houses too, and the authorities have sadly euthanized a considerable number of these ‘problem’ baboons.
Even though wildlife can be seemingly be sleepy and docile, stay at a safe distance for your own safety and the animal’s sanity. Invest in a good zoom lens or pair of binoculars. Be reasonably quiet and switch off the engine. Never get out of your vehicle, unless you are in a designated area, where it is safe to do so.
Observe reasonable distances from wildlife
Don’t be tempted to get too close to that lion kill for a National Geographic photo opportunity. Wildlife can easily be disturbed, abandoning their kill or young when they feel threatened. It is not uncommon in confined areas, such as the Ngorongoro Crater (Tanzania), to have 10+ safari vehicles parked around a pride of lions. Take control and tell your guide that you do not want to be part of this kind of behaviour and come back later, when rush hour is over.
Stay on designated tracks and hiking trails
Whether you are on a game drive or hiking, please always stay on the designated tracks, even if that means that you are not going to get the best photographs. Off-road driving causes irreparable damage to the vegetation and may kill or injure young animals hiding in the grass.
Do not litter
Never litter. What you managed to bring in, you can carry out too. Animals can become ill or even die should they digest waste, especially food wrapped in plastic. If camping, ensure that you leave no food lying around camp, as this will encourage scavengers to enter.
We all occasionally need to use the great outdoors for a quick sanitary stop, when proper loos are just not available. Please carry some brown paper bags for used toilet paper, which you can dispose of properly later.
If you smoke, please take care not to start a fire with your cigarette butts or matches and pop that cigarette butt in the same brown paper bag to be thrown away later.
Avoid walking on shallow reefs, as corals and other fragile reef species can easily break. Maintain perfect buoyancy control and avoid any equipment, such as octopus & consoles, dragging across the reef.
Never stand, sit, rest on or touch living reef species. Coral may have a hard skeleton, but the soft-tissue polyp may be injured and die from infections. If you need to steady yourself, use your fingertips on bare rock.
Avoid using sunscreen before getting in the water. The chemicals in sunscreen react with substances in the water to produce a toxic compound that can kill essential phytoplankton.
Arts & Crafts
Africa has a fantastic variety of good quality arts and crafts that make great souvenirs and gifts. Some specialities to look out for include wood carvings, Tinga Tinga paintings, Maasai jewellery, basket ware, bead work, and batiks. However, be careful what you purchase and avoid anything made of coral, large shells, endangered animals or plants, or rare hard woods, such as Ebony. Think twice before buying any curio with porcupine quills.
Louise de Waal is the founder and former MD of Baobab Travel, which was one of the first tour operators to become Fair Trade in Tourism Approved by South Africa’s Fair Trade Tourism organization. She currently blogs for Green Girls in Africa, and the Good Holiday community. She holds a PhD in environmental management.
Read the rest of Louise’s series here:
Part 2: Traversing the Continent With Cultural Sensitivity