Recent controversy surrounding the death of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe at the hands of a big-game hunter has raised an important debate: What is the best way to protect African wildlife? On one side, pro-hunting advocates argue that exorbitant hunting fees fund conservation efforts that would otherwise be underfunded or nonexistent. Meanwhile, other argue that going on game drives (and thereby pumping money into local economies) benefits the animals. But not all safari outfitters are created equally, and some are much less conscious of respecting animals and the environment than others. If you're a responsible traveler who wants to plan an African safari, work with one of these top-rated tour operators, most of which have dedicated philanthropic causes.
This luxury tour operator offers ready-made trips and tours to all parts of Southern or East Africa or can tailor a safari to your needs. It offers some of the best destinations and accommodations in Africa (and manages thirty-three of its own highly regarded properties) from the Okavango Delta to remote Indian Ocean islands. Unique trips for the discerning traveler can be planned around learning, conservation, and sustainability, or “luxury in the bush,” which includes more holistic activities, such as yoga safaris. This outfitter also offers active adventures such as rhino darting for conservation, walking safaris, and turtle-hatching expeditions.
Popular packages: Treasures of Tanzania, eight nights, from $6,685; Grand Botswana, ten nights, from $9,967.
Philanthropy: It has raised and committed R100 million (US$11.5 million) to implement and operate projects in six African countries.
What they do best: Luxury in the bush, impeccable attention to detail, and honeymoons.
Abercrombie & Kent
In business since 1962, this company is considered one of the best in the business and is consistently given high marks by former clients. From your first decision to go on safari to its successful conclusion, A&K offers seamless service. Its tailor-made safaris hearken back to days past when intrepid adventurers such as Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway relied on private guides to create a safari program and escort them through the bush from start to finish. The company has a professional network of local A&K offices in all of its destination countries, staffed by full-time A&K experts; maintains its own fleet of four-wheel-drive safari vehicles; and trains its own drivers. The head office in the U.S. is in Illinois.
Popular package: Kenya & Tanzania, twelve days, from $5,995.
Philanthropy: Extensive projects benefit ecosystems and wildlife, communities and cultures, and health and education. Guests can meet local people making a difference in their communities. Many guests build their safari around several of these projects.
What They Do Best: Destination knowledge—they have some of the most experienced guides on the continent.
This New York-based company has excellent Africa-based operators and specializes in Kenya and Tanzania exclusively. Although it offers suggested itineraries, the trip is ultimately custom-designed for the client and dependent on the time of the year and bud- get. Clients often combine Kenya and Tanzania into one trip. Africa Serendipity is flexible, as it offers prospective clients what they wish and at a price that meets their budget.
Popular packages: Serengeti and/or Masai Migration, twelve to fourteen days, from $6,100; a beach escape can be added to the end of any safari.
Philanthropy: They have no direct involvement with any charities, but the ground outfitters it uses only employ local residents and are involved in community schemes.
What They Do Best: Kenya and Tanzania. Their focus on these two countries truly makes them experts.
African Portfolio’s team members visit each in-country operator annually and are on a first-name basis with the managers of the properties they use. They pride themselves on discovering the best places, whether they’re hidden gems, up-and-coming properties, or well-established classics. With each client, they’re committed to providing a safari reminiscent of what captivates them about Africa. Their mission is to provide unique and memorable experiences through nature-based travel that educate, entertain, inspire, and provide participants with opportunities to directly contribute to conservation.
Popular package: Great Rift Valley Safari, Tanzania, 10 days, from $6,000.
Philanthropy: African Portfolio was started in Zimbabwe and its philanthropic efforts are directed there; this includes support for orphanages and a wildlife sanctuary.
What they do best: Assisting travelers with “off the beaten path” trips.
This Nairobi-based company specializes in delivering luxury, tailor-made safaris to small camps and lodges in the top game-viewing areas of East Africa. Every traveler is guaranteed a personal, authentic safari and the opportunity to experience the magic of the African bush while helping protect Africa’s wildlife, ecosystems, and cultures. Gamewatchers runs its own ground operations, ensuring guests are well looked after from the start of their trip to the finish. Guests often add beach trips to the end of their safaris.
Popular packages: African Splendours Safari, twelve nights, from $5,895; Gamewatchers Adventure Camping Safari, six nights, from $1,995.
Philanthropy: It supports a school in Kibera, Nairobi, and more than 1,000 Maasai families are directly benefiting as a result of its conservancies. It has also set up outreach pro-grams to assist with water provision, education, and predator protection.
What they do best: A personal, authentic experience, as far from mass-market tourism as it’s possible to get.
Family-owned and -operated, this New York-based operator offers ultra luxurious trips driven by a sustainable ethos. Safari lodges enchant with such unadulterated luxuries as private plunge pools and personal butlers. Cultured safari guides educate, instruct, and amuse, while itineraries offer an irresistible array of experiences from the sophisticated pleasures of Cape Town to the celebrated savannas of the Serengeti and the near-spiritual beauty of the Kalahari. Micato has long been praised for its ability to deliver seamless personalized “un-group-like” service and over-the-top luxury without sacrificing true immersion in the “real Africa.” Standout inclusions on Micato programs include timesaving bush flights between lodges and an “all tips included” policy.
Popular package: The Hemingway Wing Safari, Kenya, fourteen days, from $13,175 per person.
Philanthropy: Its charitable endeavors are impressive, with visits to the Micato-AmericaShare Harambee Community Center a highlight for many clients. In addition, every safari sold puts one Kenyan child in school through Micato-AmericaShare’s One for One program.
What They Do Best: Impeccable service from start to finish alongside excellent community projects.
Natural Habitat Adventures
Nicknamed “The Nature People,” this operator is known for its focus on wildlife and conservation. Nat Hab’s headquarters are in Colorado, and although it organizes trips to destinations around the world, it has a good reputation for arranging incredible safari itineraries. It always chooses the best destinations for viewing wildlife in its natural habitat and focuses on small groups and intimate lodges in secluded, off-the-beaten-track settings. Its online safari-building tool, iSafari.com, is a useful starting point for getting an idea of what’s possible before speaking to one of the experts in its team. The operator can also arrange photo expeditions and family safaris.
Popular package: Secluded Botswana (includes Victoria Falls on the Zambia side), thirteen days, from $10,995.
Philanthropy: The Natural Habitat Foundation focuses on conservation and arranges voluntourism programs. They’re the first carbon-neutral travel company and the travel partner for the World Wildlife Fund.
What they do best: Sustainable ecotourism for small groups with a focus on wildlife and conservation.
Nomad Tanzania owns and operates its own collection of unique camps and privately guided safaris across the most geographically diverse areas in Tanzania. It also offers an efficient ground-handling and safari-planning service throughout Tanzania and Zanzibar and uses its experience and approach to recommend other camps that it feels meet its exacting standards. They have a reputation for employing excellent guides and for always going the extra mile for guests. All of its team members have a deep love for the African bush and a desire to share their passion with others. Its website has some sample itineraries for inspiration, but each trip is fully customized.
Popular package: Serengeti Safari, eight nights, from $5,000.
Philanthropy: A microfinance scheme allows guides to purchase their own safari vehicles, which Nomad then rents from them. Nomad has also introduced steel water bottles for all guests so as to reduce the use of plastic. The Nomad Trust raises charitable donations for a range of community projects.
What they do best: Excellent guides, camps, comprehensive itineraries, and service in a specialized region.
Based in Arusha, Tanzania, and going strong for more than twenty-five years, Roy Safaris maintains a midsize operation with a clear focus on adding value at every stage of your trip. It is dependable and responsive, offering both tailor-made and small group tours, and more than 70 percent of its business comes from repeat customers or referrals. It can also arrange photographic safaris with specially customized vehicles. The company owns a hotel, The African Tulip in Arusha, and it is about to open its second, although it does not influence clients to stay at its properties.
Popular packages: Majestic Tanzania, eleven days, from $4,500; Tanzania Migration Safari, twelve days, from $4,900.
Philanthropy: Its Sasha Foundation has an annual budget of about $40,000 and picks one project to see through per year. This includes education grants, building classrooms, and clean water development. Unused marketing funds from the company and hotel, as well as parts of the proceeds of safari and room sales, are allocated to the foundation.
What they do best: Excellent, personalized service and good value.
One of Africa’s most respected and innovative tour operators, Wilderness Safaris assures you impeccable service, pristine wilderness destinations, spacious safari camps, and wildlife galore. The company operates a wide array of safari camps and lodges, from “seven star” premier accommodation to mobile safaris known as Explorations to tailor-made itineraries and honeymoon packages. Wilderness has more than seventy lodges and camps, all with different styles, so there is something for everyone. It has a regional office in each country in which it operates, as well as a head office in Gaborone, Botswana, ensuring that its ground operations run very smoothly.
Popular packages: The Great Wilderness Journey, Botswana, eleven days, from $9,773; Desert Dune Safari, ten days, from $5,000.
Philanthropy: In addition to a 4 Cs sustainability program (Conservation, Community, Culture and Commerce), Wilderness has also created two nonprofit programs to further its aims of helping children in Africa: Children in the Wilderness and the Wilderness Wildlife Trust.
What they do best: Incredible destinations, authentic experiences, and seamless service from start to finish.