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How to: Sustainable animal encounters in Nairobi, Kenya

I have mixed feelings when it comes to zoos.

On one hand, they protect and preserve endangered species and rehabilitate needy animals. On the other hand, they cut wild animals off from their native habitats and exploit them all at the pleasure of humanity.

Of course, all zoos and animal exhibits aren’t created equal. Some, like Zoo Atlanta in my native state of Georgia, have earned a good reputation for conservation practices. Others, like the infamous Surbaya Zoo in Indonesia, are notorious for poor animal habitats and general cruelty.

Fortunately for animal lovers and eco-tourists, there are ways to experience the majesty of wild and exotic animals without the risk and/or guilt of contributing to a zoo. And when it comes to wildlife encounters, there’s no better place to go than the birthplace of life itself.

Great Rift Valley, Kenya.

East Africa is renowned for its safaris and wildlife drives. From iconic savannas to forested highlands, the region is one of the most diverse biospheres in the world. It’s no wonder millions of tourists flock to Kenyan and Tanzanian national parks every year. But while safaris are a good way to see animals in their natural habitats, they can be extremely expensive. Not to mention, you may or may not be able to get as close as you want to the animals you are hoping to see.

If you’re looking for an eco-friendly way to get up close and personal with some of Africa’s most iconic animals, head to Kenya’s capital city of Nairobi.

Giraffe Center

At Nairobi’s Giraffe Center, visitors have the opportunity to interact with the gentle, long-necked mammals in their natural habitat. The Giraffe Center is located on the edge of a vast natural reserve, however, the giraffes typically stay close by because they’ve learned to appreciate humans and the free snacks they provide.

Each visitor is provided two rations of food upon entry that they may give to any interested giraffe. The center carefully regulates the servings as not to encourage overfeeding.

Giraffe selfies? Check.

It’s a unique experience simply to touch a giraffe and even more awesome to have one eat from your hand. Some brave individuals even let the giraffes eat straight from their mouths, but I’m not sure how sanitary it is to get “Frenched” by a Giraffe.

While interacting with Giraffes and snapping selfies are the obvious main attractions, it’s worthwhile to visit the small exhibits onsite.  Be sure to ask the staff plenty of questions and you’ll learn about the importance of the center and its goals of conservation. There is also a nature trail, a café and a small gift shop located onsite.

The Giraffe Center was developed by the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife – an organization that promotes sustainable conservation through education. The Giraffe Center opened in 1983 with the goal of protecting the endangered Rothschild Giraffe, a species unique to East Africa.

The center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday.

Elephant Nursery

I never imagined I’d have the opportunity to pet a baby elephant. And once I did, I never imagined it would feel…quite like that.

The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust allows visitors to get up-close and personal with a slew of playful elephant orphans. But the trust provides much more than a once-in-a-lifetime chance to pet an elephant. The non-profit organization has successfully hand-raised over 150 infant elephants and introduced most of them back into the wild.

Playtime. Mud is so fun when you’re a baby elephant.

The DSWT’s Orphans’ Project has received world-wide acclaim through its elephant and rhino rescue and rehabilitation programs. Elephants and Rhinos are prime targets for poachers because of their ivory tusks and horns. They also struggle with loss of habitat, deforestation, conflict and drought.

While visitors to the orphanage are treated to watching the elephants eat lunch and play, the DSWT staff provides a rundown of each elephant and the circumstances that made the animal an orphan. It’s clear how passionate the staff is about their work by the way they interact with each animal.

Visitors to the orphanage are encouraged to “adopt” or sponsor an elephant for a yearly donation ($50 minimum). As the “parents” or sponsor of an orphan, you can receive monthly updates on the status of your elephant – among other news and benefits.

The DSWT was founded in 1977, by Daphne Sheldrick, in honor of her late husband, David. Since then, the trust has grown into one of the most successful conservation efforts in East Africa.

The shelter is open to the public from 11 a.m. to noon, seven days per week. Elephant “parents” can arrange special visitation hours.


Also published on Medium.

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