Captive wildlife attractions and interactions remain a complex, contentious and emotionally-charged issue. There is a growing movement, both locally and internationally, against tourism experiences that potentially harm animals, according to the South African Tourism Services Association (SATSA).

“In order to fulfil the principles of moving the conversation forward and educating to increase moral sensitivity and improve moral decision-making, a ‘Line in the Sand’ had to be drawn. It is from this line that reformation of captive wildlife attractions will be measured, thereby securing their continued approval, viability and longevity,” according to the association.

In short, there is now a line in the sand as to what interactions with animals are acceptable and what are not. According to SATSA, interactions with all infant wildlife, walking with predators or elephants, interacting with predators and riding wild animals are no longer acceptable practices and facilities offering any such activities will no longer be recommended to international operators or visitors.

“The travel industry, and tourists themselves, are clamouring for a clear marker that separates for them the acceptable (to support) from the unacceptable (to avoid). This point is where the industry’s tolerance limit is set and where to measure progress from.

“We embarked on a comprehensive research initiative to develop a long-term vision for South Africa’s tourism industry with regards to animal interactions in tourism. The vision includes designing and agreeing on a framework to guide attractions, operators and tourists; to develop high-level suggestions for legislative intervention and regulation; and ultimately to position South Africa as an ethical tourism destination.

“By providing the tourism industry with a useful tool by which to evaluate and select animal interaction activities we have moved yet another step closer with the launch of SATSA’s draft Animal Interaction guide,” said the association.

This is the result of a year of research and robust consultation with the wider tourism industry and relevant stakeholders. Nationwide public workshops and an examination of local, regional and international guidelines, research and best practice contributed to the development of the guide.

The study and resultant guide explore the intricacies of animal interactions, including the reason why the animals are in captivity in the first place; the source of the animals; the use of the animals while in captivity; and the likely destination of the animals. 

The study conveys findings and recommendations around:

  • Performing animals (all types of animals, including elephants, predators, primates, cetaceans, birds, reptiles etc. trained to perform in a public show or display)
  • Tactile interactions with infant wild animals (e.g. cub petting)
  • Tactile interactions with predators or cetaceans (any interaction with land predators or aquatic mammals)
  • Walking with predators or elephants
  • Riding of animals (including sitting on elephants, ostriches etc.)

Primarily, the research outlines a ‘home-grown’ approach to a complex problem, one which draws a line – moving the SA tourism industry forward in terms of responsible and sustainable practices.

Leveraging the findings of the robust research study, SATSA will now collaborate with its members and the broader tourism industry to translate the research findings into practice.

According to IOL. the National Department of Tourism has welcomed SATSA’s “commitment to the protection of our wildlife and environmental resources”. Spokesperson Blessing Manale said the guidelines support the existing National Standards for Responsible Tourism in “encouraging visitor behaviour that respects SA’s natural heritage and discourages exploitative wildlife industries”.

Facilities falling outside SATSA’s new criteria “will no doubt fight tooth and nail to keep the status quo,” said sustainable tourism consultant Dr Louise de Waal. “However, the wider industry has been begging for guidance on what captive wildlife interaction activities are, and are no longer acceptable.” 

The DA’s shadow tourism minister, Manny De Freitas, said “It’s not natural for humans to interact with wild animals. In South Africa we need to foster an ethical and natural approach to wildlife tourism. We should educate tourists, explaining why certain activities are no longer acceptable.”

SATSA hopes to implement the guidelines with full effect by the end of July 2020, after its AGM. “We hope to outline what the specific criteria for members who provide animal interactions will be at this meeting,” said SATSA CEO David Frost.

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