It Started on Facebook
I belong to a facebook travel group with thousands of members world-wide. Recently, a young woman posted pictures of herself bottle-feeding an adorable lion cub. There was another picture where she was walking on a path alongside a juvenile lion. Her post was enthusiastic and very well-meaning. She said she just returned from volunteering at a lion sanctuary in South Africa where she helped take care of lion cubs for the past two weeks. She paid quite a bit of money for the experience, but it was “so worth it”.
Within 30 minutes or so, the post went viral with hundreds of travellers commenting “tell me more!” and “I need to do this! please share the details”. I admit, the thought of cuddling an orphaned lion cub appealed to me too. However, my decisions aren’t always made with just my heart. I began to research the “sanctuary” she mentioned, and what I found out literally made me cry.
Back to the post. I commented “Please do your research, many of these places support the canned lion hunt industry”. I was told by the poster “negative comments will be deleted!”. More travellers warned about the fate of these little cubs and how volunteers are being conned. The poster was becoming increasingly angry and insisted the park she went to was ethical.
I don’t blame her for being so upset. Obviously she loves animals with all her heart and would never volunteer if it meant hurting a lion. But the truth behind these parks was being revealed. In her strong denial, she must have begun to realize that she was conned into supporting the big business of lion hunting in South Africa. The post was removed overnight.
Wildlife Sanctuary/Breeding Farm – Tomato Tomato
There are over 200 lion breeding farms in South Africa, with approximately 5,000 lions on death row at any given time. It’s big industry, making millions of dollars. As such, the owners are extremely powerful, obscenely wealthy, and politically connected. And what they are doing is perfectly legal.
In order to market themselves as ethical, they call themselves a “wildlife sanctuary”, instead of what they really are; a breeding farm. To line their pockets even further, they’ve also become a volunteer opportunity for international travellers who believe they are doing a good thing for lions and conservation. From my research, the average price for a volunteer is about $3,000 USD for a month-long stay.
The Fate of That Cute Lion Cub, and How Money is Made
As a volunteer, you pay to help raise adorable lion cubs by bottle-feeding them, playing with them and comforting them.
Once the lions become juveniles and are too old (and dangerous) to play with, volunteers can pay to go on lion walks.
As adults, the females are sold to breeding farms. Cubs are removed from their mother from 3 to 10 days old, and given to volunteers to hand raise. Instead of a natural breeding cycle of once every two years, the female lions can now breed three times/year.
Male lions, and females too old to breed, are sold to canned hunts. A male lion can cost the hunter up to $30,000 USD.
Once dead, lion bones are sold to China to make traditional medicine for arthritis and Tiger Bone Wine. Because tigers are endangered, lion bones are now replacing tiger bones in these recipes.
A canned hunt is when a lion is prevented from escaping because he is in a fenced area. The lion is also constrained mentally because he has been habituated to humans and is not afraid of the hunter. Some camps will also drug their lions to make them an easier target.
Although canned hunting is legal, there are regulations which vary from province to province. For example:
- Lion enclosure must be 1 hectare (10,000 m2)
- Lions must be released into the enclosure 3 months before being hunted
- Bow hunting not allowed
- Lion enclosure must be 12 m2
- Lions must be released into the enclosure 96 hours before being hunted
- Bow hunting is allowed
In 2007, the Department of Environmental Affairs won a court case requiring lions bred and raised by humans, to be released on to a game farm for two years before they are hunted. This was an attempt to remove the human imprinting on the lion. On appeal, the Predator Breeder’s Association had the judgement overturned. Now a captive bred lion in the Northwest can be hunted 4 days after its release. The Association stated “No lion farmer can afford to let a lion run free for 24 months”.
The wild lion population in South Africa has declined by 80% in the past 20 years. But because lion farming is such big business, powerful hunter associations have prevented lions as being listed as endangered. They claim they are sustaining the population, and therefore are contributing to the conservation of lions in Africa.
How You Can (Really) Help
I feel bad for the facebook poster. I know she thought she was doing a good thing for lion conservation. I’m not sure if she is still promoting the farm where she volunteered, but I hope she and the likers of her post, will take some time to re-think this as a volunteer option.
Here are four things you can do if you truly want to help:
- Become Informed. Watch the documentary The Con in Conservation.
- Support animal welfare organizations like Four Paws an NGO that campaigns tirelessly against canned hunting (ethical volunteer positions available).
- Spend your tourist dollars with one of these tour operators (vetted by www.cannedlion.org)
- Speak out. Share this post.