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It’s a feel good experience petting a cute and cuddly lion or cheetah cub, or riding an elephant. The experience for the animals, however, can be quite different. For some, it leads to certain death

“Petting cute cubs seems completely innocent as an exercise, but behind the scenes it’s very different:’ says Dr Paul Funston, Senior Director for Lion and Cheetah Programmes at Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organisation. “Realistically, cubs have to be bred at a high rate for petting demand; these cubs aren’t orphans but are bred to be removed from their mothers at birth and hand reared. Then, when the cubs grow too big to be petted, they’re used for walking experiences with tourists, and when they’re too dangerous for such interactions, they’re sold on to canned lion operators to be shot mostly by American trophy hunters. There’s currently an import ban to the USA on captive raised lion trophies, so their bones are instead exported to Asia and their teeth and claws are turned into jewellery. Captive bred lions can’t be released into the wild as they pose a threat to people and livestock, so it’s a no go.”

Of all the wildlife petting and interaction offerings, lions are the most adversely affected. Lion bone, like rhino horn, is a massive and lucrative industry. A lion skeleton sells for over $2 000 2017 and Cites has permitted the South African government to export 800 lion skeletons per year, though this is likely an underestimation in reality. Once these skeletons have been turned into tiger cake and tiger wine for the Asian market, the 800 skeletons will be worth at least $48 million. Lion bones are also passed off as tiger bones, as they’re indistinguishable. There’s no legal industry to hunt other iconic species in captivity, like elephant or dolphins, but the hunting of captive bred lions is legal in SA.

Cheetah cub petting is also prevalent. When too big to be petted, cubs are returned to breeding farms for further breeding, or sold to zoos and exotic pet collectors in the Middle East. It’s believed there are at least 600 cheetahs in captivity across 80 facilities in SA. The South African Predator Association (SAPA) says there are at least 200 predator breeders in the country. These are concentrated in Limpopo, North West and the Free State, with the captive lion population estimated at 8 000. In the wild, there are only 20 000 lions.

Interestingly, in 2015, the Professional Hunters’ Association of SA (PHASA) distanced itself from canned lion hunting and then reversed this decision late last year after an apparent hijacking of the organisation by lion breeders. In reaction, the Operators & Professional Hunting Associations of Africa (OPHAA) immediately terminated PHASA’s membership, showing emphatic disapproval for unethical hunting practices.

A further concern of conservationists is that there’s been a massive rise in the poaching of lions for the body part market, which is driven by the legal captive trade in SA. “It’s far deeper than just the ethical issues regarding whether you should be touching wild animals or not:’ says Funston. “It’s the consequences of these practices for wild populations that concern us. Lions weren’t being poached 10 years ago because there was no market for lion body parts; now the market in Asia is huge. In the past two years, 69 lions in captivity in SA were poached and had their faces and paws hacked off. It all spawns from captive bred lion cubs and ultimately becomes a massive threat to wild lion populations in Africa.”

After two years of research for his newly released book Cuddle Me, Kill Me (Penguin Random House), conservationist Richard Peirce has a clear picture of the wildlife petting industry. “Lions are definitely the CONSERVATION most affected by the petting trade:’ he says, “but so are leopards, tigers and cheetahs, as the cubs are cute and particularly attract women and children. The petting trade is huge. It’s a profit conveyor belt and these lions will ultimately be shot in canned hunts and for body parts because what else can be done with them? They’ve been habituated to humans, so they can’t be released into the wild.”

Regarding elephants, he says: “They don’t normally get down on their knees so you can get on their backs. They’re trained to do this by chaining their legs and stretching them, often using a cattle prod. There’s nothing educational about riding an elephant that’s a marketing ploy. Wildlife interactions are just for kicks. There are also plenty of accidents and fatalities during interactions with wild animals. Great white cage diving may be the exception, because the sharks are wild, approach only if they want to, aren’t bred or fed, and humans are safe in cages. Interactions aren’t ethical if animals are trained or restrained, as with elephants and big cats.”

Unfortunately, well meaning volunteers are often caught up in this process. “They pay substantial money to help with wildlife,” says Funston, “but they quickly see through the veneer of conservation and realise that they’re being used as labour, while paying for the experience. They want to contribute positively, but they’re actually sealing the fate of lions, which will die in the most awful ways. Both petters and volunteers are fuelling pressure on wildlife populations.

“Don’t go to petting facilities:’ he warns, “and don’t come to SA to volunteer your services to any captive breeding centre not just for lions, but for all wildlife. If folks want to experience wildlife in Africa, they should go to ethical reserves where animals are wild – like the Kruger National Park. There are no ethical physical interactions with wildlife and we shouldn’t be aspiring to them. For a closer encounter, go on a walking safari with professional guides.”

During his research, Peirce did find a small handful of ethical wildlife sanctuaries in SA. He names Drakenstein Lion Park near Paarl, Panthera Africa near Stanford, Born Free in Shamwari and Lion’s Rock near Bethlehem in the Free State as examples of genuine sanctuaries that offer animals a home for life, don’t allow breeding and don’t profit off the animals.

Drew Abrahamson, founder of conservation tourism company Captured in Africa Exclusive Safaris and the Captured in Africa Foundation, agrees and explains the difference between true sanctuaries and interaction facilities. “Sanctuaries never offer interactions to tourists – there’s a barrier between the tourist and the animal – and they don’t breed or trade wildlife. Rescues are documented and it’s rare that sanctuaries have young animals, as they don’t use them to attract tourists. On the other hand, interaction facilities allow tourists to interact with animals and these include elephant rides, lion or tiger cub petting, walking with lions or cheetahs, dolphin performances, ostrich riding, etc. These facilities can also trade their animals and often breed, though they claim their cubs are orphans. Non transparency is commonplace at interaction facilities. The bottom line is that if you’re permitted to touch an animal, you should be wary”.

She adds: “It’s incredible how many ignorant South Africans still think it’s OK to pet lion cubs and have their photo taken to put on Facebook, yet the fate of those cubs is death. This is an ego based activity and of no conservation or educational value. The more this message gets out, the more people will realise it isn’t palatable or tolerable to support places that pet cubs. There’s no need to breed lions, except for petting, walking, canned hunting and bones. You don’t need to interact or pet a wild animal to learn about it – that’s exploitation. People are becoming more aware, but there’s still a long way to go, and the tourism industry needs to know this information too. Irresponsible tourism promotes animal cruelty.”

Dr Louise de Waal is a sustainable tourism consultant for Green Girls in Africa and says there are still clients who specifically ask to have a hands on animal encounter. “Ethical tour operators will refuse these bookings, but such operators are still in the minority. Hopefully, this is a trend we’ll see more of because people around the world are starting to realise that animal interactions aren’t ethical. But there’s still a bigger group who want to have hands on interactions. I believe this is largely driven by social media and wanting to post your selfie with a lion cub.”

However, De Waal adds: “Tour operator associations, such as the British ABTA and Dutch ANVR, publishing guidelines for their members on acceptable captive wildlife interactions, will help accelerate the trend towards more hands off activities. In SA, Fair Trade Tourism is currently working on guidelines for tour operators to help them decide on acceptable captive wildlife facilities and SATSA is conducting research on wild animals in captivity”.

“The solution:’ says Peirce, “is for the South African government to step in and outlaw captive lion breeding. Awareness campaigns are also gaining momentum all the time and eventually it will be public opinion that turns the tide. The public needs to shun tour operators offering petting. There’s a listing of ethical volunteer operations in Africa Volunteers in Africa Beware on Facebook and I wish there were a similar listing for tour operators, so people could choose ethical tour companies.”

However, Funston believes “the world at large wants this unethical practice to end and public pressure can help turn it around. Tourists should be encouraged to avoid any facility where wild animals are touched. When there’s no market, there’ll be no supply. It’s that simple.”


  • Watch Blood Lions
  • Read Cuddle Me, Kill Me by Richard Peirce
  • See on Facebook: Volunteers in Africa Beware