The growing appetite for ‘conservation holidays’ has shone a light on the dark – and poorly regulated – industry of lion farming, where felines are destined not to be ‘released into the wild’ – but to be shot by trophy hunters and their bones exported to Asia for use in traditional medicine.
Beth Jennings, 25, is mad about animals. After leaving school she worked for Dogs Trust, and then opted to spend a holiday looking after lion cubs rather than lying on a beach. Though it was called ‘volunteering’ she had to pay to do it: £1,500 for two weeks working at a game park in South Africa, plus £1,000 for flights and jabs. But she knew the wild lion population was in crisis, and this was her chance, according to the UK agency that sold it to her, to prepare orphaned cubs ‘for their eventual release into the wild’. She saved for more than a year, using her 21st-birthday money.
In South Africa, Jennings found about two dozen volunteers at the safari park, mainly girls in their early 20s, many from Scandinavia. But she was happy to be there. ‘Under the African sun I prepared for a hard day of work – bottle-feeding, cuddling, bathing and playing with lion cubs,’ she later wrote.
Yet by the second day she was worried. The lion cubs, it turned out, were not orphans. Staff took them away from their mothers when they were two weeks old so tourists could pet them and give them bottles.
‘The cubs make all these noises, which sound cute when you don’t know what’s happening. But then you realise it’s them calling out for their mothers,’ Jennings says.