A plant-based lifestyle is about more than just diet. Can African safaris meet the challenge?
Published January 30, 2023
8 min read
There are some experiences vegan travelers know they might feel uncomfortable with—such as an African safari. A typical safari serves meat-heavy cuisine, has guests lounging on leather couches, and takes diesel-fueled safari drives to observe game animals. For the growing number of Americans who follow a lifestyle that not only eschews eating meat, but also focuses on sustainability and conservation of the Earth’s resources, that means safaris can be a big turnoff.
Now, though, some outfitters are offering safaris that are more accessible to vegans. These trips do more than just serve plant-based meals; they also focus on limiting exposure to animal products, minimizing impacts to the environment, and offsetting carbon emissions from the journey itself. But how vegan-friendly can safaris really be?
What’s a vegan-friendly safari?
The first vegan safaris launched around 2017, with Vegan Safari Africa and World Vegan Travel offering experiences in Botswana, South Africa, and Rwanda. Now, with more travelers identifying as vegan or vegetarian, according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), these safaris are not only more accessible and sustainable, but also a new income stream for outfitters.
(These trends are transforming traditional safaris for the better.)
Vegan Safari Africa, based in Botswana and run by Helene and David Forward, has offered vegan safaris through partner lodges for about six years. It’s a departure from David’s history there: His father arrived in Botswana in 1959 with a group of big-game hunters, and, when David was a child, he had wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps.
Now, the Forwards take about six people at a time out on vegan safaris in Botswana and Zambia. They use a four-wheel-drive vehicle with a professional local guide and spend up to 10 nights camping in the bush. They don’t have a permanent lodge, instead partnering with existing vegan-friendly lodges when needed, to lessen their environmental impact. Campsites operate with a leave-no-trace policy. Guests have reusable water bottles; soaps are handmade by locals, biodegradable, and not tested on animals; and all the food served is vegan.
Wildlife drives go out every morning, and guests relax at camp the rest of the day. “The guides are very sensitive in the way they go around looking for animals,” says Helene. If guides need to shine a spotlight to see animals on a drive, for example, they use a red-tinted light to minimize disruption.
Another company, Vegans, Baby (in collaboration with Alluring Africa), offers safaris in South Africa and, new-for-2023, Botswana. The company uses cruelty-free toiletries (meaning they weren’t tested on animals and contain no animal products) and wool- and silk-free linens, and they avoid spaces displaying animal skins (such as leather chairs) or hunting trophies (such as horns hung on a wall).
The South African itinerary is hosted at Shamwari Private Game Reserve, where meals might incorporate vegetables from the lodge garden roasted on a bonfire. Activities include drives to spot big cats, elephants, and giraffes in reserves that limit off-roading; walks to learn about the bush ecosystem; planting trees to offset carbon emissions; and helping at sanctuaries and rehabilitation centers for orphaned wildlife.
(Will plant-based meat ever satisfy America’s hunger for the real thing?)
Other options include Kings Camp in South Africa, which provides vegan food and a safari guide who is vegan, and Emboo Camp in Kenya. Emboo is the first company in east Africa to have a full fleet of electric safari vehicles that are charged with solar power. At the lodge, which also runs on solar power, water and trash are recycled and a garden provides ingredients for meals.
Kings Camp, Vegan Safari, and Alluring Africa all won PETA awards for animal-friendly African safaris this January. It was the first time PETA has given this award.
Nevertheless, the number of vegan safari outfitters is still quite low, says Wolfgang Strasdas, a professor of sustainable tourism management at Eberswalde University for Sustainable Development in Germany. The market for this type of safari remains small, he says, but there could also be a cultural difference. “The countries where safaris take place have a meat-eating culture, partially due to the natural semi-arid conditions where growing crops may be difficult,” Strasdas says.
Opportunity or opportunistic?
Going meatless is just one aspect of vegan travel, however. All safaris impact the local ecosystem and environment, especially in the popular parks, where animal harassment, habitat destruction, pollution, and off-road driving can occur. “We have seen reduction in grazing land as well as soil erosion in certain areas of the Maasai Mara due to the intensity of off-road trucking,” says Shem Wambugu Maingi, a safari ecotourism expert and lecturer at Kenyatta University in Kenya.
Considerations of overall sustainability would also address the airline and car transportation that travelers took to arrive at their destination, as well as how far food was shipped if not grown onsite.
“I don’t want to be too pessimistic about that because it’s a contradiction that we have to live with,” Strasdas says. “Safari tourism, if it’s well managed, has a lot of benefits to the destinations.”
(Here’s how to do wildlife tourism the right way.)
Ultimately, Strasdas and Maingi agree that vegan safaris, even though they might not be completely vegan, are fairly sustainable—especially if the companies are hiring locally, the lodges are growing their own food, and the safari groups focus on habitat preservation and restoration. As long as travelers keep the environment and community top of mind, vegan safaris can be beneficial to both people and the planet.
“Connect with people from around the world, find out about their lives, explore the wilderness, and deeply appreciate what we have to lose,” recommends Helene Forward. “Get inspired by it and then work towards solutions.”
Jennifer Billock is an award-winning writer, bestselling author, and writing coach. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.