Cape Town – Wildlife petting and animal interactions in South Africa are a hot topic right now – the latest chink in the chain being Safari Club International (SCI) slamming the door shut on South Africa’s canned lion industry.

Yet, now it seems our national carrier has stoked the debate for all the wrong reasons. South African Airways (SAA) has been accused of promoting cub petting and elephant interactions, amidst a global movement to ban these activities.

In a Facebook post, the airline sells the prospect of playing with lions and walking with elephants to its customers who are planning to visit South Africa.

“Would you rather walk with elephants, play with lion cubs, bungee jump off the Soweto towers or dive with sharks? #FlySAA” writes the airline.

While guided bush walks with an armed ranger are a thing, we strongly advise against trying to play with a wild lion – as such the advert is accused of advocating canned lion cub petting.

The airline has since removed the original post from its Facebook page, but the post was shared by on social media by those upset by its positioning.

While many tourists associate South Africa and Africa with the Big Five, advertisements suggesting cub petting inadvertently supports the lucrative canned trophy hunting industry. The SAA post has left conservationists and wildlife enthusiasts baffled by its uninformed stance.

Spokesperson from the award-winning documentary Blood Lions, Nicola Gerrard told Traveller24 that, “It is hard to understand how human and wildlife interactions are still promoted by leading tourism and travel companies.”

Gerrard says the exploitative and commercial cycle of cub petting and ‘walking with elephants’ have been exposed for many years now. South African Tourism CEO, Sisa Ntshona, says ”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.”

“Blood Lions hopes to see more travel and tour businesses following SA Tourism’s stance, as well as joining the Born to Live Wild Pledge in standing against this industry, and making a change towards ethical and responsible tourism,” says Gerrard.

Here are some of the comments post in response to the now deleted post.

Louise De Waal says “With a global call to stop interactions with wild animals, activities such as elephant back riding and lion cub petting have no longer a place in our current tourist offering.”

De Waal says “Only recently, Sisa Ntshona, CEO of South African Tourism, stated at the SATSA conference that ‘South African Tourism are (sic) fully cognisant of the global anti-petting lobby and back it unreservedly”.

“At the same time, international tour operators ban hands-on captive wildlife encounters, trade associations like the British ABTA and Dutch ANVR take a collective stance against wildlife interactions, and Blood Lions and Humane Society International in an international petition collected over 110 000 signatures against exploitative wildlife practices.

“The links between breeding farms, petting and walking facilities, volunteering, canned hunting and the lion bone trade are clear and well-established. Elephant back riding involves the cruel practice of breaking the elephant’s spirit.

“These kind of tourist activities are unacceptable and have no place in our current tourism space. They are damaging Brand SA. SAA I urge you to take this adverts down immediately and apologise unreservedly for this gross mistake. #HandsOffOurWildlife”

Paul Tully, a conservationist from Captured in Africa and the creator of a petition to stop supporting unethical wildlife interactions, says “SA Tourism have (sic) a hard stance against unethical and irresponsible activities such as walking with lions, lion cub petting, walking with elephants, and other captive animal interactions.”

“Why are (sic) SAA going directly against South African tourism protocol?

“SA Tourism have a hard stance AGAINST unethical & irresponsible activities such as walking with lions, lion cub petting, walking with elephants, and other captive animal interactions.

“SAA you will be hearing from SA Tourism CEO Sisa Ntshona once we have spoken with him regarding this outrageous and ill-advised promotion of unethical activities,” says Tully.

However, SAA is not the only one to have made headlines for unethical wildlife interactions.

Earlier this year, Nomuzi ‘Moozlie’ Mabena, a South African personality shared pictures on Instagram petting a lion at the Lion and Safari Park – an organisation that has previously stated they’d like to get rid of cub-petting but simply cannot afford to as their competitors keep doing.

This speaks to the bigger issue of regulation overall.