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#ShockWildlifeTruths: Lion cub petting industry lies you need to stop believing

Cape Town – The prospect of playing with lions is easy to sell to foreign tourists who visit South Africa and other African countries.

Most foreigners are led to believe that wildlife roam free “in our backyards” – and even with globalisation and social media proving otherwise, a majority of foreign visitors fail to understand that wildlife, in most parts of Africa, aren’t quite “free” and face the plight of survival amid growing human interaction.

Money-making enterprises often put on the facade of being sanctuaries, and sadly, tourists who don’t know any better are led to believe that the animal interactions on offer as part of tourist attractions and safari packages, help to conserve wildlife.

However, many tourists – local and international – are caught up in the excitement of having to play with cute cheetah cubs or touch a massive lion, that they fail to understand the behind-the-scenes treatment of these animals that permit such interactions, as well as the consequences of supporting industries that promote animal interactions.

When you’re cuddling a lion cub, bottle-feeding one, or going on walks with various big cats, you’re indirectly funding the canned lion industry.

Wildlife should not be confined to small spaces

Not only are there many organisations, such as Blood Lions, fighting for the total eradication of animal interactions, but South African Tourism and other tourism bodies are on-board to make travellers aware of how detrimental cub petting really is to the Big Cat species.

South African Tourism (SAT) says that it is important for wildlife to remain and roam freely in their natural habitat and not be confined to small spaces “in so-called sanctuaries or parks that promote cub petting and rehabilitation centres”. SAT says that while tourists want an adventure, many have the perception that adventure “comes in the form of animal interaction” which is why tourists flood to animal-petting centres. “These centres mislead visitors to believe that they’re promoting conservation and sadly, this is not the case,” says SAT, which was once also guilty of promoting cub petting at OR Tambo International Airport and has since removed the advertising campaign.

“Did you know that a wildlife institution should meet the mandates of conservation, release, education and wildlife awareness, and not promote the captivity of and interaction with animals? Unfortunately, there are many establishments in South Africa that do not adhere to this mandate and have been known to use wild animals for commercial exploitation,” says SAT.

“It’s assumed there are roughly 200 facilities holding approximately 6 000 – 8 000 animals in cages and captivity.”

Avoid visiting breeding farms and captive facilities

SAT encourages tourists to avoid visiting breeding farms and captive facilities that offer animal interaction experiences.

Travel organisations such as African Travel & Tourism Association (ATTA) and Thomas Cook have already voiced their disapproval by not offering animal encounter packages.

South African Tourism CEO, Sisa Ntshona, says that ”South African Tourism does not promote or endorse any interaction with wild animals such as petting of wild cats, interacting with elephants and walking with lions, cheetahs and so on.”

Ntshona says that “reasons to say NO to animal interactions include the realisation that breeding lions in captivity has no conservation value; captive-bred lions are tame and therefore unable to survive in the wild; fake wildlife sanctuaries easily mislead volunteers and visitors to believe that they’re authentic and promote animal ecology and conservation.”

Ian Michler, co-campaign leader to the feature documentary Blood Lions, says that over 100 of the world’s leading safari and ecotourism operators signed up to the Born to Live Wild pledge in 2016.

In the pledge, they’re committed to promote the wildness of predators, endorse responsible and authentic tourism destinations, and give support to the legitimate conservation community. Tourists are encouraged to rather find out more about one of these organisations and book an ecotourism experience through these operators.

“Say NO to the exploitation of wild animals,” says Ntshona, adding that “it may be thrilling to touch them, but you must know that it is even more exciting to see them thriving in their natural habitats on a proper safari”.

Sadly, the road to wildlife interaction-free tourism is far from reach as some organisations have back-tracked on their decisions regarding ethical wildlife interactions – such as the Professional Hunters’ Association of SA “voted to allow the hunting of captive bred lions as a legitimate form of hunting”. Another cause for concern is that many “wildlife parks” that are housing captive-bred animals, are getting the nod from local authorities to open – such as the recently opened George Wildlife and Animal Park in Garden Route.

Lies travellers are being told about animal interactions

Lie #1: Volunteering at these ‘animal sanctuaries’ promotes conservation

There are many establishments offering the chance to interact with lion cubs, while “contributing towards conservation and research” – however, not all of these organisations are what they claim to be.

Beverly Pervan, director of the Campaign Against Canned Hunting explains that some lion farmers rent out their cubs to tourist resorts and “voluntourism projects”.

“There is an insatiable demand for cub petting by tourists.  All the tourists who indulge in cub petting are supporting the canned hunting industry,” says Pervan.

“When the cubs are too big to be handled by humans any longer, they are sent back to the lion farmer to be hunted.

“Basically lion farmers use the profits they make from cub petting to externalise the cost of rearing the cub to a huntable size. Once you understand that there is virtually no market for adult lions other than hunting and that more than a thousand lions are canned hunted every year you begin to understand the scale of the tragedy.”

SAT advises that if someone would like to volunteer at animal centres, it’s best to “contact a conservation agency for a referral to a recognised operation”.

Lie #2: The cubs are orphans rejected by their mother, or were killed by poachers

Most of these establishments spin sob stories to gullible tourists about the animal’s mothers abandoning them at birth, or parents being killed by poachers.

There are genuine sad stories but they are very rare,” says Fiona Miles, South Africa’s manager of the FOUR PAWS Animal Welfare Foundation. They run LIONSROCK, a sanctuary in Bethlehem for big cats that were kept in inadequate conditions in zoos, circuses or private captivity.

“The majority of cubs encountered at facilities, where interaction is provided, are the product of intensive captive breeding or farming,” says Miles.

“These cubs are removed from their mother as young as possible and hand-raised. The reason this is done is twofold: The cubs raise funds through interaction, the second reason is that the mother will go into season again and will reproduce more rapidly than if she was allowed to raise her own young,” Miles explains.

Lie #3: When they are adults, cubs will be re-introduced into the wild

As social animals lion cubs learn from their parents how to hunt and interact with other lions. A hand-raised animal will not have gained this experience. There is a certain instinctual knowledge on hunting but not successful hunting.

According to Miles, it is highly improbable that a lion raised in captivity by man will be able to survive for any extensive period, once it’s placed back into a wild environment.

The best goal for lions currently in captivity would be a situation like LIONSROCK where they are provided with ample space and minimal human contact.

Lie #4: Lion breeders are contributing towards the dwindling numbers of lions in the wild

“Firstly it is unlawful for any registered sanctuary to breed with animals other than in carefully controlled specific programmes for endangered species,” say Pervan.

“Otherwise breeding is prohibited for sanctuaries,” says Pervan.

In 2010 the Lion Breeders Association won a court case in the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) against the (then) Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Marthinus van Schalkwyk. Van Schalkwyk successfully imposed a verdict that semi-tame animals may only be hunted 24 months after being set free from their breeding cages, but the Lion Breeder’s Organisation took the case to the SCA, where they won.

The SCA proved that lion farming was “a closed circuit”, since no captive-bred lions have ever been released back to the wild, thereby showing that lion farming has nothing to do with conservation.

Accordingly, the Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism had no jurisdiction to impose any restrictions on them. Lion breeders are farmers, not conservationists,” the Campaign Against Canned Lion Hunting explains.

“Therefore, no captive-bred lions have ever been released back to the wild, nor would conservation authorities ever allow it because of genetic and veterinary reasons,” Pervan says.

Lie #5: Posing with animals teaches children value of conservation and makes them appreciate animals

“Interaction with wild animals serves no positive influence on the animals. Animals that are utilised for human interaction will invariably become habituated and lose any fear of humans,” says Miles.

With habituation, the risk of the animal causing injury to another person is increased, as is the risk of disease transfer. Ethically any interaction between a human and an animal merely opens the door to risk to the animal and ultimately lowers the welfare of the animal.

“A hands-off approach would be just as beneficial towards any conservation programme, while also maintaining the welfare of the animals. A direct interaction operation will claim that it aids conservation and ignore the fact that it does this at the cost of the welfare of every animal that passes through its doors.”

Nicola Gerrard from the Blood Lions campaign says “South Africa has a great network of world famous national parks protecting significant biodiversity and heritage and we should be encouraging people to visit these wilderness areas. Conservation professionals agree that captive bred predators do not contribute to conservation targets,” explains Gerrard.