Animal interactions seem like a fun thing to do while lending a hand to conservation, but there’s a dark side to it.

We’ve all done it, or at least wanted to cuddle a lion cub, stroke a cheetah’s coarse fur, ride an elephant or peer through the cage at a shark, and all in the name of experience, education and even conservation.

But recent years have exposed a dark side to these attractions that speaks of animal exploitation, unbridled greed and poor ethical practices and prompts us to ask important questions: where does the never-ending supply of lion cubs come from; how are elephants broken in; why are caged predatory cats attacking tourists who have come to pet them? All is not as it seems.

On my first visit to Zimbabwe a decade ago, I was offered an elephant safari at Zambezi National Park. I signed up for the encounter with an animal I adore. The project charaded as a conservation project that helped rescued and orphaned animals and it felt good to support it, but the elephants were prodded and spoken to harshly, back at the camp they were chained to posts and forced, with bull hooks, to do tricks.

It was a turning point for me, the more I researched and visited such animal interaction service providers the more it became apparent that few had anything to do with conservation or rehabilitation.

Elephant interactions remain a popular tourist attraction in Asia and there’s a growing demand in Southern Africa. According to World Animal Protection (WAP), there are at least 39 commercial elephant venues across Southern Africa with at least 215 captive elephants.

No matter whether they are bred in captivity or taken from the wild, elephants used for human interaction suffer a cruel breaking in process, which involves being tightly restrained with ropes or chains. Elephants are trained to respond in a certain way to the commands of their handlers and pain is inflicted with bull hooks, wooden battens and whips until they respond appropriately. They are also often deprived of food and water as punishment for inappropriate behavior. The breaking in process traumatises the young elephants and creates a fear of humans. The elephants are confined to elephant camps leaving them unable to form natural social relationships. Although most captive elephants are allowed to forage in the bush during the day, their nights are spent chained in small enclosures.

In May 2014, the National Council of SPCAs (NSPCA) laid police complaints against the Knysna Elephant Park when footage emerged of their calves being chained, roped and stretched, shocked with electric cattle prods and hit with bull hooks. In August, the Director of Public Prosecution decided not to prosecute, stating these training methods didn’t constitute “cruel treatment or cause unnecessary suffering” to the elephants. On the back of this court case Pilanesberg Elephant Back Safaris closed its doors in the same month and committed to integrate their five elephants with wild herds in the Pilansberg National Park, a process that may take years.

Murky Waters

Looking toward the ocean, shark cage diving sits firmly on the fence. Sharks are timid animals, divers attest to them being curious, but cautious. Shark cage diving operators want to guarantee their clients close sightings of great whites. In Gansbaai, where up to 10 operators offer tours three times a day, sharks need to be baited. This is done by pouring blood and fish oils in the water. This chum triggers a response from sharks in the area, but without delivering food as the creatures expect in the wild. The great white shark is listed as ‘vulnerable’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, but many operators feed the Jaws mindset, rather than educate the public about the plight of these prehistoric creatures.

If you’d like to do shark cave diving, ensure it’s with an ecotourism registered company, such as Marine Dynamics, who are linked to the Dyer Island Conservation Trust and African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary. When it comes to any animal interactions, look for a Fair Trade Tourism accredited member, which means the operator is committed to conserve, appropriately train their staff and give back to nearby communities. They have a listing of activities on their website that ensures a guilt-free holiday as all members are vetted and comply to a strict code of conduct.

Biting the bullet

Of all the animals caught up in the business, it seems big cats are the most susceptible to exploitation. The South African documentary Blood Lion, which aired to millions of audiences across 175 countries in 2015, exposed the link between captive and hand-raised lions and the canned, or captive, hunting industry.

The expose, which coined the phrase “bred for the bullet”, discourages all human interaction. It shows young cubs being taken from their mothers to lion parks, where they are hand-raised to be petted by visitors. Once they pass the cute and cuddly stage they are replaced by younger cubs and are often recruited for ‘walking with lions’ wildlife experiences, and eventually end in enclosed hunting reserves, where they become easy targets for hunters who pay around $25 000 per lion.

It’s a multimillion-dollar industry. According to Blood Lion, 70% of South Africa’s lions are captive and there are around 200 lion farms and breeding facilities in the country that hold around 8 000 lions and other predatory cats, such as leopards, cheetahs, tigers, jaguars and pumas. Breeding farms make use of paying wildlife volunteers that help raise the young lions, some breeding farms earn $100 000 monthly. Due to weak legislation South Africa is the only African country where canned hunting is legal. In 2007 the government tried to regulate captive lion breeding and canned hunting, but the Predator Breeders Association of South Africa took it to court and the proposed legislation was overturned.

These lion and wildlife parks often pose under the pretense of conservation to lure unsuspecting volunteers. Blood Lion researcher Ian Michler says animal sanctuaries involved in conservation will never breed or trade in animals and won’t allow human interaction because such animals cannot be released into the wild. Blood Lions joins films like Gorillas in the Mist, Echo of the Elephants, The Cove and Blackfish that Will Travers, Born Free Foundation president, says “have truly influenced the way we interact with wild animals”. Indeed, Blood Lions has been screened for presidents and parliaments. Australia has already banned the import of lion parts; France, among other countries, will follow suit shortly. Numerous global airlines have stopped canying animal trophies and a public outcry has caused various tourism companies and booking agencies to remove breeding facilities from their websites and itineraries.

There is hope, the Panthera Africa sanctuary in Gansbaai and the Drakenstien Lion Park in Paarl are a haven for rescued bred, captive or performing predatory cats and both offer lifetime care to their animals. To quote Marcelle Meredith of the National Council of SPCAs (NSPCA): “Animals are sentient beings, and we have a moral obligation not to cause them harm in the name of our entertainment.”