Under the heat of the African sun I prepared for a hard day of work – bottle feeding, cuddling, bathing and playing with lion cubs. I thought I was living the dream but this was only the beginning of my worst nightmare. I knew not to swim dolphins, not to ride an elephant and not to visit a tiger sanctuary in Thailand but I was never warned about another industry, currently booming, and fuelled by lies.
In South Africa, thousands of volunteers and tourists like myself are sold the same experience under the guise of conservation; the chance to help orphaned lion cubs being hand-reared in preparation for release into the wild. I volunteered in 2015 and within days I realised that the trip had been mis-sold and I had been lied to by the travel agency and the park itself. A captive bred, hand reared lion has never been successful introduced into the wild, and probably never will.
There are an estimated 297 lion breeding parks in South Africa, around a third of which offer cub interactions to the public. The number of lions in captivity is thought to be between 6,000 – 8,000 although estimations also reach as high as 10,000. In comparison there are only 20,000 wild lions left in the world, a huge drop from 200,000 in the 1940’s. So where are the captive bred lions really going?
Within South Africa, canned hunting is entirely legal and somewhat encouraged. A canned hunt is a trophy hunt within a fenced enclosure, ensuring success for the hunter. As well as physical constraints, the lions are often hand-reared and habituated to humans therefore see no reason to flee. Normal trophy hunts can take up to 21 days with no guaranteed kill whereas with a canned hunt, you can choose a lion from a menu and be in and out in the same day. An act so deplorable, even trophy hunters are speaking out against it.
Another industry currently booming within South Africa is the trade in lion bone. The South African government has issued an annual quota of 1,500 lion skeletons to be legally exported to Asia for use in traditional medicines. The government claim that in doing so they are protecting wild populations however are yet to provide any scientific evidence to prove this. It is also impossible to tell a captive-bred lion skeleton apart from a wild, poached one so there is no way of guarantee which bones are being exported. Across Asia, the bones are being made into wine or “cakes” that supposedly have healing properties and are sometimes sold to consumers as tiger bone.
The reality of handling lion cubs or walking with lions in South Africa is that they will never be released into glorious, wild reserves. They will be hunted – their heads hung as a trophy and their bones crushed into cake.
All too often I receive messages from volunteers assuring me that the park they visited has “no involvement” with hunting however, this is false. There is absolutely no benefit to hand rearing lion cubs and volunteers should not be paying thousands to do so. Absolutely no park that offers hands on interactions is ethical – no exceptions.
Once I discovered that the cubs I had bonded with would meet such a dreadful fate I launched a blog, Claws Out, to share my experience. As a volunteer with first hand experience of the lies and deceit, my story was picked up by other NGOs and politicians resulting in articles, interviews and even a speech in European Parliament. I am now registered under International Aid for the Protection and Welfare of Animals – an incredible charity that has made Claws Out a full time job for me. We are working alongside Born Free Foundation and Olsen Animal Trust to launch a public awareness campaign to warn potential volunteers and tourists about the dangers of interacting with cubs, no matter how cute the selfie might be.