Oudtshoorn – the home of animal encounters or a tourist trap?

Footprints and Photos - Oudtshoorn an animal encounter heaven or tourist trap

When the chance presented itself recently to head to Oudtshoorn I leapt at it. Not because I had any great desire to visit the town, but because it is used as a base for many wildlife encounters for visitors to South Africa.


Located about five hours from Cape Town in the Klein Karoo, Oudtshoorn is surrounded by mountains, plains and scrubland. This has made it the ideal location for game reserves, ostrich farms and a range of wildlife ‘ranches’ to pop up. With all these options on offer, I was intrigued to find out if any of them were legitimate for tourists looking for responsible facilities.

What I found was a sad mix. Wildlife ranches offering petting experiences, elephant walks reminiscent of trained circus performances and stressed out ostriches with missing feathers.

Not all is lost with Oudtshoorn though. With tourists driving a more responsible approach to animal encounters and international pressure requiring facilities to life their game, there is hope that Oudtshoorn can still thrive on the back of some select facilities.

Buffelsdrift Game Reserve

The business of animal conservation is a complex, financially rewarding system whereby species survival is often rated second to making a dollar. Buffelsdrift appears on the surface to be one of those places openly gaining off the back of successful animal trading.

With animals (usually herbivores) bought from nature reserves and national parks to prevent overpopulation in the limited land space, they are saved from culling and the meat trade. These ‘rescued’ animals are then kept in paddocks; with enough space to roam and feed they appear happy enough, however, the usual migratory and herd behaviours exhibited by most African herbivores can’t be displayed here. A fence and the owners desire for animals to be  on display in the right paddock at the right time for his guests is what determines where the animals are kept. It’s no surprise that those animals that are exciting to see are kept in the grounds nearest accommodation and restaurant facilities.

Footprints and Photos - is Oudtshoorn animal encounter heaven or a tourist trap

Clearly well fed but not an active hunter this fully grown male lion was enjoying his leg of beef.

These game reserves, however, do prevent mass culls. They do allow tourists who wouldn’t ordinarily make it out to Kruger National Park for example, be able to connect with the African landscape and all that it has to offer. It’s just a shame that this particular park finds it appropriate to sell the skins of ‘naturally deceased’ herbivores, including Zebras, in their gift shop. I’m be interested to know if one of their elephants died would the tusk be for sale???

Elephant Walk

The tear inducing story of three baby elephants, barely days old, being orphaned by poachers in a nearby park and facing almost certain death is what grabs you first. Then the hero comes in, the game reserve owner who felt they had the expertise, the land and the money to save those elephants. And that’s exactly what happens, the elephants are hand reared towards adulthood. Now who wouldn’t want to go and meet three hand-raised adolescent elephants?

Well, me. I was so skeptical of this encounter. African elephants are the biggest. They are the most dangerous (being a member of the Big 5 actually means something!). They are also touted as being untameable compared to their Asian counterparts. So off I went to see how hand rearing and not releasing these elephants had gone.

With very little information prior to starting this walk (other than repeating the same tear-jerking story that had alerted me to this encounter in the first place) we were taken down to meet the three elephants. They were incredible. Big, majestic, gorgeous, and totally… tame! Being asked to follow behind the elephants whilst they walked next to their 24hr-a-day keepers along a well worn path down to a waterhole was the experience of a lifetime. They drank a little, broke a head for a quick run and then peeled off into the scrub to commence munching – a task they need to do 16-18 hours a day to maintain weight and a healthy growth rate.

Footprints and Photos - is Oudtshoorn an animal encounter heaven or a tourist trap

Why not let them feed themselves as visitors watch on?

It was during this time that the tide on the experience turned. Being asked to step one at a time in front of the elephant for a trunk hug was next on the agenda. The elephants were constantly praised by their handler and fed treats, the nature of which I was unable to determine. The elephants did not seem phased at all, and returned to munching after the hugs were done. Whilst this was definitely positive reinforcement at work it was still sad to see.

The last part of the interaction was the saddest. If the encounter had stopped here, I would have still been hesitant of the intentions of the facility, but it got worse. Following the elephants back to the starting point after barely 15 minutes and to see them lined up in what could be described as a sand filled, horse training square made me cringe. Next came a basket of carrots and other vegetables not known to make up the elephants natural diet and participants were offered the chance to hand feed the elephants – with the elephants posing after each tasty morsel. Then to ensure participants would tip handsomely, a group cuddle by three elephants was offered much to the squeal of delight from those watching.

This is what made it so sad. Regardless of the requests of tour companies, of regulation boards or of responsible travellers, it is the response of all those other travellers, the ones who don’t quite know the implications of this behaviour that drive it to continue. The tourists LOVED posing with the elephants. They LOVED feeding them. They all thought I was so strange for saying no. The photos went straight on to social media for the world to see and to perpetuate this kind of encounter. It is time we took a moment before leaping into these encounters to assess if they are actually right.

Ostrich Farm

Farms are farms right? How many of you would expect that farmers treat their animals with respect and dignity. I’m guessing a fair few. Farmers rely on their animals for their income and a level of respect exists for most. Again, industry regulations on farmers, abattoirs and live transport of animals has been around for years to ensure that although the animals are being bred for consumption, they are treated humanely during their time.

Outshoorn is the ostrich capital of South Africa. Ostrich feathers and meat are produced here at a staggering rate and driving through the surrounding areas showcases just how large an industry this is. In response to tourists fascination with these large birds, many facilities have popped up allowing close up encounters.

Footprints and Photos - Oudtshoorn an animal encounter heaven or tourist trap

How often can you get this close to the world’s largest bird?

Visiting an ostrich tourist farm is a way to have the ostrich industry explained and to add context to what it is these farms are doing. The ostriches life is explained from conception through to culling for meat and tourists are then taken on a tour to meet some of the resident birds. I’m actually in support of this kind of facility if, once again, the animals are treated with respect. My walk through this farm was interesting, it gave a nice interaction with the animals, and if any showed signs of not wanting to interact with visitors, we simply moved on.

What was sad was the incredible amount of feather loss, particularly on a pen of male ostriches. Being on a breeding farm they were obviously ready to meet with the females but had been separated in order to not breed during winter (although the birds can do this naturally). A number of the males were doing mating dances and were showing dominance tendencies to other birds in the pen. The feather loss on their backs was explained as stress related – well no wonder. Whilst a number of treatments and techniques had been tried to prevent this, it was still prolific. One has to wonder if keeping them on show contributes to this stress and if the animals were simply put in a back paddock, would it improve?

Cango Wildlife Ranch

What’s in a name – well everything really. We all judge based on a title and ‘wildlife ranch’ is the kind of title that has me expecting 4×4 drives through vast landscapes filled with free roaming animals. Sadly, that is not Cango Wildlife Ranch at all. Cango is a zoo… and not even a good one.

Now I’m all for zoo’s. But the right zoo’s. The ones that are internationally accredited, the ones whose breeding programs result in animals being released back into the wild, the ones that promote responsible decision making to it’s visitors.

Cango had all the right answers for my questions. They proudly advertise themselves as the back up plan, particularly for cheetahs. When asked about their breeding program Cango was quite proud of its achievements and the fact that it is breeding these cats to be hand raised, easily handled and well behaved – the intent is that they will always be in captivity and never released; “there is no more wild” in which to release them. They are creating a population with genetic diversity that can be easily kept in captivity until such a time that the space they need to roam free is available – this will kick-start the raising of more ‘wild’ animals that should behave naturally and thus flourish when released.

Cango has a point, we are rapidly running out of large areas that are safe from poachers, land grabbers and that is in suitable enough condition to support an entire food chain. What do we do whilst we wait for those issues to be under control? Allow a species to go extinct. We need a plan B, and they claim to be it.

Whilst I was still on the fence with all this, the kicker came at the end of our tour of the facility. In order to continue funding the facility, the breeding program and all the animals (including white tigers, lions, pygmy hippos and a pair of vulchers just to name a few), Cango offers wildlife encounters. Yep, not only are their cheetahs being handraised to ensure zoos can handle them safely, they are being raised to put on show and allow tourists to enter the pens to pat them.

Footprints and Photos - Oudtshoorn an animal encounter heaven or tourist trap

I prefer to see cheetahs running wild and free – like this guy in the Maasai Mara, Kenya.

Animal petting in zoos, particularly of predators, is a trend that has been increasing for years. It is a great way for money to come in the door from none-the-wiser tourists who are desperate for that selfie to top all selfies. Sadly, many facilities that offer these kinds of encounters either drug their animals, if they are adults, or take babies from their mothers far to early; hand-raising them to allow for a cute cuddling session. When the animals become too large for this, or for their enclosure, they are sold off to the canned hunting industry to allow some ‘skilled hunter’ to stalk his prey and go home with a trophy. So where do we draw the line?

Where to from here?

We’ve all made mistakes and agree to wildlife encounters that in hindsight were not ideal. I’ve done it, on more than one occasion, but the more I try to learn about the industry, the more secure I feel in my decision making in the future. I feel confident to say ‘no’ when everyone else is saying ‘yes’. I’m happy taking a photo of an elephant in the wild as opposed to one draped around my neck. As I always say, it’s about making decisions that we each feel comfortable with and if we are in a position to help others make their decision then we should speak up.

Oudtshoorn, I’m not done with you. I will return and I intend to hunt out some ethical spots so that travellers have the chance to interact in a positive way with Africa’s breathtaking beasts!


The Footprint Scale

Footprints and Photos - the footprint scale 4 out of 5

Outdshoorn’s animal encounters: 4/5 footprints

Not too much here that promotes animal welfare, ethical encounters or responsible travelling. I will endeavour to find something though!