My Own Trip To Kenya: The Ethical Considerations of Safaris

When I was a kid, my older cousin joined the Peace Corps and spent two years in Mauritania, a country in west Africa. I thought that was incredible and spent more than a decade desperately wanting to go to the African continent. And when I was in college, I finally got the opportunity and spent three and a half months in western Kenya. It was there that I got the chance to go on a couple safaris and interact with animals I had only ever dreamed of.

The Ethics of Voluntourism and The White Savior Complex

My desire and ultimate trip to Kenya was more than a decade in the making but it was also wrapped up in my complete misunderstanding of the continent and based completely on misconceptions and stereotypes. While I had the best of intentions, my desire to go to and ultimately “help” a community in Africa heavily relied on the idea of being a ‘white savior’.

Back in 2015, Andrew Hernandez wrote an article about how humanitarian work done abroad usually reinforces the oppression it should be fighting, saying in particular that “despite the presence of so many outside charities, though, the livelihoods of most of the community members remain unchanged”. These volunteer and mission trips aren’t actually about helping any communities. They’re a photo op, a way in which people can feel better about themselves while not actually accomplishing anything.

There are so many articles and people calling out the voluntourism industry on various things, including:

Animal Safaris

Any discussion, in my opinion, about travel should also involve a discussion around privilege and how to ethically travel in a way that doesn’t harm the local people and ecosystems. That is why I bring up voluntourism and the ‘white savior complex’ in a post about safaris, especially since the history of these trips is strongly interwoven with hunting and colonialism. Now that the camera has largely (but not completely) replaced the gun on safaris, there are a different set of questions and ethics to consider.

In a 2019 Harper’s Bazaar article about the ethics of safaris, Yvonne Taylor, PETA’s corporate Project Director, is quoted as saying “It’s not only unnatural, but it’s also unsafe to habituate an animal. … These are wild animals; no matter how long they’ve been in captivity or have been around humans, they still retain a natural instinct. Even animals who have been born and bred in captivity can still attack or kill people in these facilities. This is not something working in their best interest. If the animal’s best interest is to live and full and natural life in the wild, it’s not to try and have them accustomed to human behaviour so that tourists can take selfies.”

Additionally, it’s important to take the indigenous and local people into consideration. Tourism is a multi billion dollar industry but in many places, tourists can do more harm than good. Some trips can help bring money and resources into a community while other places are facing skyrocketing living and housing costs with locals unable to live in their own communities and numerous other negative effects.

Sustainable and Ethical Options

There are ways to sustainably and ethically go on safaris but doing so involves plenty of research. This is an area of travel where the cheapest option shouldn’t be the first and immediate answer. While it can be frustrating to have to dig through a ton of information, there are so many benefits. For example, finding a great company can also mean finding a great guide, as these folks are more than just your driver. Being a safari guide takes plenty of work and knowledge and finding a great one can really add to any experience.

If you do find a good safari trip to go on, remember to be kind, respectful, open-minded, and ready for compromises. That respect should extend to people, animals, and the environment so avoid littering and don’t go off-road. While it can be tempting to do activities like elephant rides or tiger cub cuddles, remember that these are wild animals. Prolonged human contact and anthropomorphizing wild animals can be dangerous for both humans and the animals themselves. Protected contact, when there’s a barrier between animal and human, is often considered one way to be close to a wild animal without endangering anyone.


Here are some things to ask and keep in mind when looking for a guide or safari company:

  • What are their policies on holding, touching, or riding wild animals?
  • What about swimming with or feeding wild animals?
  • Do they support confining wildlife to a space too small for that species?
  • How do they interact with wildlife? Do they:
    • Encourage close proximity or give the animals space?
    • Use animals for selfies, photoshoots, or performances?
    • Use unnatural ways to attract wildlife?

Any company that allows and encourages you to be in close proximity to wild animals, like holding sea turtles, walking with or holding lion cubs, riding elephants, or have animals preform, should be avoided. In addition to learning about the local people and communities, ethical safaris are generally more focused on admiring the environment and wildlife while also giving the animals plenty of space.

Confronting the ways in which we are complicit in or actively causing harm is an uncomfortable but necessary journey. Part of that journey includes travel and as tempting it can be to interact with wild animals, remember that they are still wild animals.

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