06/10/2013 04:59 pm ET Updated Aug 10, 2013

Getting Too Close

In the over 20 years that I've been living in Africa, I've watched the tourism industry grow, as more and more people come here to see and learn about Africa's natural treasures. Millions of people from around the world now travel to Africa every year to watch and photograph wild animals in their natural environment. Cheetahs, because they are so fast, and so graceful, and so rare, are often top attractions at national parks and on photo safaris.

There are a lot of things that people worry about when they travel. Do I need a vaccine? Did I forget my toothpaste? Will my phone charger work with the electric outlet in the hotel? There's another question I want travelers to ask as they explore the wonder of Africa's wildlife:

Is my tour operator being responsible towards the wildlife?

One practice I often see is safari tour vehicles driving off-road, close in to cheetahs, stopping, often allowing the cheetahs to jump up onto the vehicle itself. There are a number of videos on You Tube and other video sharing sites that show this, with the tourists surprised and in awe of their close encounter with a cheetah.

It's important to remember that when we drive into magnificent national parks like the Masai Mara, Kruger, Etosha, or even private reserves to see wildlife, we are visitors on their turf. And while it certainly is exciting to get that close to a cheetah, it's disruptive and dangerous - for humans and cheetahs alike.

When a safari jeep drives off the road, it is driving straight into the cheetah's hunting grounds, creating a disruption. Imagine a cheetah preparing to hunt when suddenly half a dozen or more noisy vehicles approach to observe it. Interrupting the crucial moments of a hunt in this way can result in the cheetah ending its day hungry. And this parade of vehicles can happen on a daily basis, several times each day. Even if the cheetah is able to complete a kill amidst all this distraction, it must have time to eat undisturbed before other, more powerful predators -- like vultures, lions or hyenas -- move in and steal the kill. The commotion created by vehicles and people often alerts these predators to the cheetah kill sooner, limiting the cheetah's ability to feed properly even further.

The problems created by intrusive safari vehicles can be even more devastating when the cheetah is a mother with cubs. Cheetah mothers usually have 4 to 6 cubs to protect and feed, and to be successful they must leave their cubs behind to hunt. Cheetah cubs are often preyed upon by larger predators, and a mother who has been diverted from her business by numerous safari vehicles can find that a hyena has taken advantage of her distraction and killed her cubs.

It is illegal to drive off the road in most national parks and protected areas in Africa, for good reason. The ongoing intrusion endangers animals, and starts to habituate the cheetahs to humans, changing their natural behavior. Conservationists have studied the detrimental effect such ongoing contact can have on different species. Studies on marine life have caused lawmakers to make dolphin feeding cruises illegal in the United States, and whale watching cruise operators are encouraged to maintain discreet distances and take other precautions so as not to disrupt migratory patterns or feeding behaviors. The same respect and distance needs to be shown to cheetahs in their habitat.

Informed travelers are the cheetah's best chance to solve this problem, and help with the survival of this charismatic species. In the travel business, tour operators that make guarantees that tourists will see rare species like cheetahs are looking for a competitive advantage. Tourists anxious to justify the expense and distance of their trip to Africa sometimes pressure drivers to "bend the rules" so they can see the animals they dreamed of, not understanding that their request poses a threat to the animals. Travelers need to use their tourism dollars on behalf of the cheetah, by patronizing tour operators that guarantee they will not harass animals by going too close. When others pressure guides to bend the rules, be the one to speak up for the cheetah, and support staying on the road.

I believe that tourism centered around wildlife, when practiced responsibly, offers one of the greatest economic opportunities for rural communities in Africa. At Cheetah Conservation Fund, I've been involved in helping communities throughout Namibia manage their lands collectively so that wildlife flourishes, with an eye to ultimately encouraging more economic growth through tourism.

Come to Africa and see our wildlife treasures. When you do, insist that your tour operators observe the rules and keep a safe distance, for both your sake, and the wildlife. The purpose of a safari is to see wildlife in their natural habitat, not harass wild animals so that their natural behaviors are thwarted and their survival is threatened. Responsible travelers need to ask themselves, and their tour providers, to consider that there is such a thing as getting too close. And remember, if there is no road, it probably isn't legal.