Ukutula, an industrial-sized predator facility outside Johannesburg, South Africa, has been in the firing line from conservationists and animal activists for over a decade. The place runs one of the most sophisticated lion cub petting, ‘voluntourism’ and trading operations, and on countless occasions they have been exposed for selling their lions on to other operators once they are no longer good for their commercial operations.

The explosive documentary Blood Lions has exposed how the predator industry operates, with scenes shot at Ukutula clearly showing as many as 27 lions cubs being handled by visitors and volunteers. The film asks the leading question, “where do these cubs come from and where do they go?”

Ian Michler, lead role in the documentary, states: “There is absolutely no conservation value whatsoever to breeding lions in captivity under these conditions, and especially so if they have been hand-reared. These lions can never be released to the wild, and volunteers are being conned into believing they are making a contribution to securing the future of lions.”

Volunteers are paying up to US$1,000 a week for the experience of handling cubs, and Ukutula can have up to 25 volunteers at any given time – clearly a significant money spinner for the operation.

Ukutula has implemented a system of tracking their lions to assure buyers that they’re not destined for the canned hunting industry but, given the information is confidential, you have to question how effective this is.  In addition, not a single recognised lion ecologist or predator conservation agency is working with them.

But it seems a private zoo in New South Wales has been able to import cubs from Ukutula in South Africa. Billabong Zoo in Port Macquarie publicly states that it wishes to breed from these cubs. The Billabong Zoo Facebook page statement reads as follows:

“In order to import lions to Australia, both the Australian authorities and the South African authorities have a strict permitting process to ensure the animals are sourced from a legitimate and licensed facility and to ensure they are going to be used for conservation purposes. In Australia, lions are treated as a CITES 1 species, a higher level of protection than anywhere else in the world. This means that they can only be imported as part of a conservation breeding and education programme. The Australia CITES office did research Ukutula and were satisfied that they were not part of the canned hunting industry – if they weren’t satisfied we would never have been granted our import permit. These cubs were also approved by the Zoo Aquarium Association to be accepted into the Australian breeding programme for lions – this approval process included the scrutiny of, and acceptance by a number of individuals involved in this organisation.

“Secondly, Ukutula themselves insisted that Billabong Zoo become a member of EcoScan, a programme that offers lifetime tracking of individual animals to ensure they are only used for ethical purposes and are not part of the hunting industry. Ukutula could not be a member of EcoScan if they hadn’t already proven themselves to not be part of the canned hunting industry.

“Thirdly, our zoo vet personally visited Ukutula to inspect the lion cubs and the facility prior to the transfer, and returned with nothing but praise for the operators, the staff, the facility and the animals. The process for Billabong Zoo to import lion cubs has been a huge undertaking, and one that we have spent years bringing together. These animals and the sending facility, Ukutula, have been researched and accepted by various government bodies and zoo industry officials. Throughout the entire process, Billabong Zoo has remained transparent with the sourcing and importation of these animals, and at no time has any government or zoo official raised concerns with how these animals were sourced. The cubs, Milo and Misty have travelled and settled extremely well, and we are so proud of the impact these little ambassadors have already had in raising awareness about the plight of the African lion.”