“....imagine the impact if one billion tourists can indeed become one billion global stewards – one united, global force protecting the future of our planet and all people…” – Taleb Rifai, Secretary General of the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO)

Rifai highlights the influence that a billion tourists can have: “Tourism is much more than a leisure activity; tourism holds an immense potential to set new paradigms of thinking, to encourage social and cultural changes and to inspire a more sustainable behaviour.”  

For this to happen, tourism practitioners need a sound understanding of the system they operate within because, through their referrals, demand shapes what happens at grass roots, the space where tourists ultimately hand over their dollars to a guide, a service provider or an experience.

The tourist buying the experience assumes that all systems within the supply chain are compliant and that what is being said by the guide or at the experience is the truth.

This is a reasonable assumption one would think. Driving along our beautiful roads in South Africa we pass many signs that advertise animal sanctuaries, rehabilitation centres and parks, but did you know that those words or definitions are very specific and should only be used by places properly registered as a sanctuary or rehabilitation centre? Places registered to perform a particular function have a particular purpose in the conservation system. And places registered as an exhibition centre are just that. They are there only to exhibit wild animals to tourists.

However, there is no  easy way for the trade or tourists to make an informed choice. The current effort to close places that keep wild animals for ‘edutainment’ is short sighted and does nothing to educate the tourist about the core discussion we should be having, and that is about conserving biodiversity.

People need to ask themselves whether they really are conservationists, because central to  keeping wild animals in captivity is why they are being kept in captivity. Where do they come from and is this ‘where’ verified?

I know of places that advertise that they are providing sanctuary for a particular species that was orphaned. In their minds the animal(s) might be orphaned, but in the regulations (the Act) the concept of an orphan is clearly defined, and those operators are lying to the public (the regulations define a genuine orphaned calf, because people were taking the calves from their mothers and forcing an orphaned scenario. This loophole has now closed). Sadly, since this definition was built into the captive elephant sector norms and standards, there have been cases of young calves being taken from their mothers (despite the regulations defining a genuine orphaned elephant).

This series of articles seeks not to take sides but to present you with the facts of the industry. To help you to  make informed decisions and to understand the value of the foundation of our thinking, which is always being about conservation achievement first.

Over the past five years, my journey with Padova Universities Prof de Mori (Italy), a Bio-ethicist, has enabled us to conceptualise a tool that will make a difference. I have played a significant role in tourism and conservation for over twenty years, and  have learned that, with the best intentions, the regulators (government), owners of facilities keeping wild animals, small game reserves and other places have been adhering to their own concept of conservation.

One of the successes of the MTN Whale Route was the inclusion of  tourism representation it had in its conception. Research, business and education, all blended towards creating a triple bottom line for the species, the economy and educating people about our oceans and the animals that live within those marine ecosystems.

We have conceptualised  a scientific assessment tool that  is a very simple grading mechanism that will enable you to make an informed choice of where to refer your clients to.

During my series of articles, I will talk of the ugly realities within the industry, but will highlight the integrity that exists within the business of keeping wild animals in captivity as well.

As Rifai said, the travel trade has the ability to make a massive difference in culling those in the supply chain that are rotten and rewarding those with integrity.

The main objective however, will be to promote places with a high conservation achievement, because, ultimately, that objective will be the goose that lays the golden egg for our nature tourism to thrive in this country. But, more importantly, conserving biodiversity will enable us to hand over a healthy planet to our children and their children.

In closing, I will be introducing technical terms and concepts that might sound complicated in the beginning, however they will make sense in the context of the journey we will be embarking on. But most importantly, this process we are introducing will make a difference, it is objective and looks towards conservation principles, and not the shallow outlook on the merits of keeping wild animals in cages, because there are instances when there is a conservation purpose and reasonable case for that animal to be in a cage, but let’s test that objectively in context of the bigger picture.