#ShockWildlifeTruths: UK volunteer reveals state of SA predator breeding farm

Cape Town – We’ve all known for a long time that the voluntourism industry has a dark side to it and that there are a number of ethical concerns around the practices taking place at predator breeding facilities.

South African’s canned trophy hunting industry has been in the spotlight for a while now as theBlood Lions documentary takes global audiences by the neck and shakes up the industry at large.

Here Traveller24 shares a detailed account from a UK volunteer who contacted Blood Lions about her time volunteering at what she describes as one of South Africa’s largest breeding farms just outside Kroonstad in the Free State.

The intern who calls herself Dee, has not disclosed her full name for obvious reasons, highlights how she witnessed a number of questionable practices, including poor upkeep of a sickly cheetah, enclosures that house different species resulting in fatal fights and alleged trade in animal bones.

While we have contacted the NSPCA Wildlife division for advice on what volunteers should do if they find themselves in situations like this, they have yet to respond.

If anything, Dee’s account will make those wanting to spend their time and energy doing good, thoroughly research the organisations they plan to get involved with.

The Lion in the Tiger’s den… 

“During my time at this predator breeding facility near Kroonstad in the Free State, there was a male lion cub, approximately 15-months-old, which was hand-reared and enclosed in a camp with other lions and tigers.”

According to Dee this lion cub ended up being killed by tigers.

“I was alerted to some fighting noises and upon arriving at the enclosure and witnessed the lion cub being attacked by three tigers, the oldest of which was about 2.5-year. I informed the owner and then drove into the enclosure to ascertain the situation.”

Together with another vehicle, Dee explains how the volunteers attempted to make a barrier between the tigers and the badly injured lion.

Dee recounts how she could only watch helplessly in the bakkie as a long stand-off ensued between the animals in the pen. It was only when the owner finally arrived that the badly injured animal was able to be rescued and then taken into another vacant enclosure.

“What little medical aid that could be provided, we did, but the severe injuries sustained resulted in the death of the lion within a few hours.”

Dee confirmed she also took pictures of the punctured marks on the neck and body of the de-skinned carcass, but they are too gruesome to publish. “I never saw the whole carcass again after the incident,” says Dee.

A major cause for concern for Dee was that there was little to no professional medical attention taking place on the farm.

“During my time at the breeding ‘facility’, I never once saw a vet visit to tend to any of the big cats. Any darting of the big cats was done by the owner’s son. To my knowledge he was not a qualified Vet.” Dee also claims to have witnessed how the owners allowed “unqualified volunteers to dart the animals” at the facility.

Cheating a cheetah through poor living conditions

Dee says she formed a special attachment to a certain cheetah, while working at the facility.

“When I arrived at the facility, it was clearly evident that very little concern was shown to this animal, judging from the state of his coat and being underweight [was] indicative of diet problems.

Dee questions why the owners nor volunteers before her had recognised the poor state of the animal.

“The owners themselves would surely have seen this, one can give the volunteers the benefit of the doubt for not recognizing this, but the owners appeared to show very little concern or didn’t care enough.”

It was then that Dee realised she would need to take it upon herself to care for the animal, as she clearly was concerned about what organisations such as the NSPCA would say if they saw the animal in such a ” poor condition”.

While nobody at the facility could confirm the animal’s age, which Dee estimates to have been between 5 to 9-years-old, she said the cheetah “clearly had osteoporosis in the right hip, a problem with the right hock, heel and tendon, which became severely inflamed” during her stay.

“At the outset, I was dismayed by what they were feeding the cheetah in terms of both quality and type of meat. I got a new feeding routine setup, varying the diet and implementing supplements such as Mobi-Flex into the diet, which I initially funded and bought from Vet Clinic.”

Dee said she could see an improvement in the animal over the course of her time there, “reflected by his coat, weight gain and general behavior”.

“It’s during this period of time, through gaining his trust, I was able to venture into his enclosure and spend time with him. I was happy to just to be a part of his world without ever needing to interact with or seek contact, the very fact I was there and he accepted my presence was sufficient.”

“I believe I fulfilled my role of being a guardian to the cheetah, I had a moral obligation to do so and I tried my best to give the cheetah respect, quality care and attention he deserved within the constraints of the farm and its owners.”

Tiger cubs skinned and deboned

Another Harrowing incident detailed by Dee involved an enclosure where a group of adult lions were being housed.

According to Dee, three tiger cubs, which she helped to hand-rear had ventured through a ‘broken/open’ gate into this enclosure with five adult male lions.

“All three cubs died from having their necks broken by the lions. I retrieved the bodies of the three tiger cubs with the help of the foreman at the time, in dangerous circumstances, as we had to ward off the five adult males,” explains Dee.

Seeing how the animals were treated after their death was an emotional battle for Dee who described what ensued as ” appalling”.

“The three dead tiger cubs’ bodies were taken to the meat chiller where I identified them and awaited the owner. I was advised by the owner that a vet would come later that afternoon to certify the deaths as ‘natural causes’.”

But it was the ‘Lesson in de-skinning a dead tiger’ that got Dee even more upset.

“With one of the tiger’s hanging up on a chain by its hind legs, I was present as the owner showed the ground staff personnel how to remove the coat from the paws down and remove from the whole body intact. That afternoon the tiger’s were skinned, de-boned and the flesh burnt. The ground staff were getting a step by step introduction and lesson from the owner.

Dee reconciled herself with the fate of the animals and their bones but could accept the response she got when she suggested to the owner that she’d like to email an Australian volunteer who was very fond of one of the tigers.

“The volunteer had been to the facility numerous times and helped hand-rear the tiger and always inquired on his well being.”

The owner advised Dee not to tell the Australian volunteer saying, ” Just point to another male tiger when she comes here again, she won’t know.”

It was then that Dee understood the real value of her efforts.

Blood Lions

The hard-hitting expose, Blood Lions — Bred for the bullet, will be screened at the Masque Theatre at the end of the month to raise funds for the Zandvlei Trust. Marina da Gama resident, environmental activist and poet, Ian McCallum is interviewed in the documentary, which he describes as a brutal expose of layers of deceit.

The documentary is informed by more than 15 years of work by Ian Michler, the main producer, and it lifts the lid on the canned hunting industry.

The story is told by producers Mr. Michler, Pippa Hankinson and film-maker Nick Chevallier.

Mr. McCallum said that within months of its first screening in September last year in Durban, the documentary caused the Professional Hunting Association of South Africa to make a colossal shift, to distance themselves completely from captive breeding programmes. The vote against this industry by the association was 60 to 40 in favour of a move away from canned hunting.

In addition, the documentary’s impact has caused the Australian government to ban the import of any lion parts, including trophies, into their country.

Dr Simon Morgan of conservation organisation, Wildlife ACT, says there are estimated to be between 6 000 to 8 000 predators living in captivity, “mostly living in appalling conditions with inadequate breeding and welfare protocols in place to protect them”.

He says, however, that lion ecologists have “expressly stated that captive breeding plays no role in the conservation of this species, and that to date no captive bred, hand reared lions have successfully been rehabilitated into the wild”.

Mr. McCallum says that Blood Lions reveals layers of deceit, from the idea that the lion cub you pet in captivity was abandoned, all the way through to the international trophy hunters whose kill is guaranteed within two days.

“What is doubly deceptive is that volunteers believe they are supporting bona fide conservation projects and that the cubs will one day be re-wilded, as do supporters of these projects,” he said.

“Although the wild lion population of Africa is in decline, it is important to note that the captive breeding of lions plays no role in the conservation of this species, in any way, and this is scientific fact,” Dr Morgan says.

The organisers of ITB — a major international tourism trade fair in Berlin, Germany — asked for the documentary to be shown at the World Youth Travel Conference, as well as for panel discussions and a workshop to take place, to figure out how tourism and travel activities can play a part in ensuring that the exploitation of predators is no longer an acceptable practice.

Mr. McCallum says he readily agreed to speak in the documentary and emphasises that he speaks only about that which he feels he is qualified to, and in relation to the documentary, his focus is on the psychological relevance of wild animals in our lives, what we learn about ourselves through that, and he asks who will be a voice for the voiceless.

Mr. Michler and Mr. McCallum undertook the Tracks of Giants trans-Africa trek in 2012, crossing five southern African countries and travelling 5 000km on kayak, foot and bicycle.

“We must ask if we cannot protect the flagship species such as elephants and lion, then how can we do any better with the others, the littler ones, or ourselves for that matter,” Mr. McCallum said.

He said the documentary is also a subtle invitation to examine our inner selves and our own propensity for human cruelty, and deception. “There are times when there is a need for rage and outrage, from these spaces we can effect constructive change,” he says.

He will be on hand on Thursday, March 31, at 6.30pm at the Masque Theatre screening, to introduce the documentary and to answer questions from the audience. The tickets cost R150 a person. Contact: signet@webafrica.org.za

  • Ian Michler is a safari operator, specialist wilderness guide, consultant and environmental photo-journalist. He is an ecotourism consultant and currently channels his conservation work through The Conservation Action Trust. He is also director of Eden to Addo , a successful regional corridor conservation initiative.

Producer Pippa Hankinson was the driving force behind the documentary’s financing. Pippa’s career in high-end eco-tourism across southern Africa spanned more than 20 years. In 2013 Pippa founded the production company Regulus Vision to produce the feature documentary, Blood Lions.

Cape Town based film-maker Nick Chevallier is a director and cameraman with 30 years of experience in filming socio-environmental documentaries around Africa.