How Tourists’ Phones Are Threatening South Africa’s Wildlife

Apps designed to share real-time animal sightings are leading to increases in road rage, speeding, and roadkill in the country’s national parks.
Madikwe Game Reserve, South Africa. (Photo: Godong/Getty Images)
Jun 11, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

There are a growing number of people who want to see South Africa’s famous “Big Five” wildlife—the lion, elephant, leopard, rhino, and African buffalo—without the wait.

Tourists are using mobile phone apps that allow users to share tips on animal sightings in South Africa’s national parks, and that’s a cause for concern, according to park officials.

South African National Parks is looking for a way to shut down such apps, claiming they “induce an unhealthy sense of eagerness for visitors to break the rules.”

“As an organization, we appreciate the fact that technology has evolved and that guests are taking advantage of it,” Hapiloe Sello, SANParks managing executive of marketing, said in a statement. “However, this is compromising the values of good game viewing in national parks.”

Parks officials said that since people starting using these mobile apps, incidents of speeding, wildlife roadkill, and road rage have all increased around animal sightings.

The issue is heightened at Kruger National Park, the country’s most famous spot for viewing wildlife and home to around 1,500 lions; 12,000 elephants; 2,500 buffalo; 1,000 leopards; and 5,000 rhinos.

One app that has gained popularity is called Latest Sightings. On iTunes, it’s described as a mobile app that allows users to “share their wildlife sightings, in real time, with other visitors in the game reserve and to users worldwide.”

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Posts from users of the app often give real-time updates on where and when animals have been spotted. That can lead to vehicles rushing around the park and crowding wildlife encounters, SANParks officials say.

“Most guests appreciate the leisurely drive through the parks and the potential reward of a good sighting as a key element of the visitor experience,” Sello said. “This is an experience that SANParks commits to protecting, and therefore the usage of these mobile applications is in direct contradiction to the ethos of responsible tourism espoused by SANParks.”

According to Latest Sightings’ website, the app was launched in 2011, and “the community of tourists and wildlife lovers grew beyond anything we ever expected,” the company wrote in a statement released Friday. “With it, we discovered the good that social media communities can do with the education about wildlife.”

The site touts the app’s ability to allow tourists to alert park officials to injured animals caught in poaching snares. It also notes that posts describing rhino sightings are not allowed because of the high number of poachers targeting the endangered species for its prized horn.

“Benefits of sightings apps and social media to wildlife and tourism should not be discounted,” the Latest Sightings statement said. “If in fact there are unforeseen consequences of their use, we would like to work with SANParks to solve the problem. Attempting to ban wildlife apps and social media is tantamount to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

Sello said SANParks is looking at its legal options for removing the use of sightings apps in South Africa’s national parks.