INTERACTIVE TOURISM AND VOLUNTOURISM: DOES THE INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL INDUSTRY HAVE A ROLE TO PLAY?

It seems to be becoming more and more apparent that the international tourism industry is moving away from all forms of exploitative wildlife interactive tourism and voluntourism. Following on from the recent SATSA conference where the issue of wild animal interactions was vigorously debated,

South African leading tourism organizations are now engaged in discussions around what is deemed to be “responsible and ethical tourism”. It is estimated that there are approximately 8000 captive bred predators being held in small enclosures on 200 breeding farms across the country, very often in cramped conditions with few welfare protocols in place. Most of these facilities offer cub petting, bottle feeding and/or lion walking tourism activities, as well as volunteer opportunities whereby young volunteers may pay up to US$4,000 per month to look after these young animals until such time as they can be killed (for their trophies and/or their bones to be exported to Asia for the bone trade) or shipped off to zoos around the world.

Scientists have repeatedly stated that most of these predator breeding programs have nothing to do with conservation and that they are purely commercial operations making no contribution to the conservation of free roaming lion populations, and that they also do not contribute to education as they do not offer scientifically accepted practices of teaching conservation and animal ecology.

Simply put, these lions are not “orphans” as they have been removed from their mothers within days of birth to induce rapid breeding cycles.

Furthermore, ecologists say it is not practical to rehabilitate captive-bred lions which have not only been hand-raised and bottle fed, but have also lost their fear of humans. Research also shows us that captive bred predators are unlikely to be able to survive in the wild, and that even if this were possible, it would not be considered a viable conservation option as most are genetically compromised due to inbreeding.

So what are some of the questions now being asked by the international tourism industry? What is the reason that South Africa has so many of these facilities… so many sanctuaries… so many rehabilitation and wildlife centers? Are international tourists and volunteers being misled by claims that the animals are “orphans and will be re-wilded” once adults? Where do all the cubs come from, and where do all the adult lions go? Do the breeding facilities meet conservation, scientific and welfare mandates…

or are they purely commercial operations? Are critical conservation funds and volunteer efforts being diverted from wild conservation and scientific research projects? Are the volunteer recruitment agencies being secretive about divulging full details of these projects? How do tourists and volunteers find recognized, authentic projects to support?”

It is true that bona fide sanctuaries around the world offer their animals a “home for life”, with no breeding, trading or any kind of interactive tourism activities.

At the end of the day, no international tourist or volunteer would voluntarily support any cycle of exploitation such as that faced by these predators… and other species. It is crucial that proper research
is conducted by before visiting any of these facilities, and that appropriate answers are provided.

The feature documentary Blood Lions™ and subsequent Blood Lions Campaign (www.bloodlions.org) have played an important role in highlighting these issues and stimulating the debate. And this can be measured by the fact that many key travel organizations from around the world have now distanced themselves from these types of activities. Over 100 leading tourism operators have already signed the Blood Lions “Born to Live Wild” Pledge committing to: endorse responsible and authentic tourism activities; promote South Africa as a wild, rewarding and authentic destination; and to support the conservation of wild lions in their natural habitat.

Earlier this year the Blood Lions “Born to Live Wild” Campaign won Joint “Overall Winner” at the African Responsible Tourism Awards (ARTA17) at WTM Cape Town, as well as the Gold Award for “Best Responsible Tourism Campaign”