From The Sunday Times
February 10, 2008
African lion encounters: a bloody
Chris Haslam reveals the gruesome truth
behind big-cat conservation projects which British holiday firms
It’s the latest attraction for tourists
visiting southern Africa, but conservationists are warning that walking
with lions is – quite literally – a bloody con.
Dozens of private game parks across South Africa and Zimbabwe offer, or
have offered, tourists the opportunity to walk with, handle and be
photographed with lion cubs.
Excursions to some, such as the Aquila Private Game Reserve, outside
Cape Town, and the Seaview Game and Lion Park, in Port Elizabeth, are
offered by tour operators such as Kuoni, Virgin Holidays and the Holland
America cruise line.
Antelope Park, in Zimbabwe, charges about £20 for a 90-minute lion
encounter it describes as “not just a very privileged photo opportunity,
[but] the chance for you to become a conservationist”. The park’s
African Lion Environmental Research Trust (Alert) programme is
enthusiastically supported by Sir Ranulph Fiennes, who, on his
www.7summits.com website, praises its efforts “to help steadily
increase the number of lions into areas carefully protected from
The Sunday Times, however, has learnt
that, far from being released into the wild, as many as 59 lion cubs
raised at Antelope Park have been sold to big-game-hunting operations to
be shot for sport.
So-called “canned hunting”, where rich trophy-hunters pay thousands of
pounds to shoot big game in fenced enclosures, is big business in
southern Africa. The price of shooting a lion bred in captivity ranges
from about £9,000 to £16,000, and the breeders who supply the trade are
struggling to keep up with demand.
While some estimates suggest that there are less than 20,000 wild lions
remaining in Africa, the International Fund for Animal Welfare reports
that another 3,000 languish in captivity, bred as targets for
trophy-hunters. But breeders have found a lucrative sideline to the
bloody business of feeding canned hunts. By removing cubs from mothers
after about four days – to induce another breeding cycle – they can rent
them out to tourist parks to participate in lion-walking attractions.
Tourists and the gap-year students employed as guides – many of whom
have paid up to £2,000 for conservation placements with agencies such as
Real Gap and All Africa Volunteers – are told that the lion cubs are
being raised for release in the wild, but big-cat expert Dr Sarel van
der Merwe, of the African Lion Working Group, says this is impossible.
“Captive-bred lions can be released only into relatively small areas,
such as fenced-off game farms and private nature reserves. Invasive
management will always be necessary, such as removing the breeding males
to prevent inbreeding,” he says. “In such cases, the older males will
have to be placed elsewhere – and where will that be? I’m of the opinion
that such males will have to be hunted for trophy purposes.”
In fact, there’s not much else you can do with a hand-reared lion.
“Hand-rearing of lion cubs will ensure that these animals are imprinted
to humans, and that they will thereafter lack natural avoidance
behaviours,” warns Dr Luke Hunter of the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Put another way, captive-bred, hand-reared lions have the potential to
become man-eaters, and thus can never be allowed to roam free.
Daniel Turner, of the animal-welfare group the Born Free Foundation,
says that captive-bred lion cubs often have their teeth and claws
removed, and are drugged before meeting tourists. “These animals are
bred entirely for entertainment and derive no benefit whatsoever from
these operations,” he said. “We urge people not to participate in any
form of interaction with lions or other big cats.”
Neither the Alert programme nor Sir Ranulph Fiennes could be reached for
comment, but the Aquila game reserve, in South Africa, said that,
following complaints from tour operators, it had now ceased offering
lion-cub petting. In an e-mail to The Sunday Times, the park said: “We
do not have lion cubs at the moment, but we do have cheetahs you could
Kuoni said that it works with the Born Free Foundation to ensure that
the excursions it offered were ethical, but that it is sometimes
impossible to stop customers being offered unapproved products by
Kuoni currently features Aquila as an overnight excursion from Cape
Town, as a safari experience,” it added. “Given the allegations
regarding cub petting, which is condemned by Born Free, Kuoni has
withdrawn Aquila from sale until further notice while investigations are
being carried out.”
A spokesman for Virgin Holidays said: “Since learning of this practice
at the reserve, we have taken immediate action by taking the excursion
off-sale pending further investigation, and will no longer offer it to
our customers. Virgin Holidays takes such issues very seriously”
Have your say
Having been a volunteer on one of the
larger Lion Breeding and Reintroductory programs in Zimbabwe I became
very sceptical about the aim of the project very quickly. The project
has been in operation for many years now and to date no lions have been
released into the wild only into larger controlled areas. There were no
trained conservationists working on a daily basis at the project either
which I found odd for a project of this size and kind. When questioned
about the whereabouts of lions that were pictured walking years ago the
question was brushed under the carpet and no answer was given. I
personally believed at this stage that they were being sold for hunting
as did many of my fellow volunteers. As the park had links to hunting in
the past I began to wonder if perhaps the operators of the park had
decided to cash in on the money to be made from cheating people into
believing that they were actually doing something in the name of
T. Nugent, Dublin, Ireland
Programs like this do not help the lions. They are perfectly capable of
learning to hunt etc by themselves. Interacting with humans means they
lose their natural inbuilt fear of people and as such become too
dangerous to be released into the wild, so are doomed to a life in
captivity - the only thing that can change is the size of their
Anthony May, Milton Keynes,
This is the most ridiculous article I have ever read. The African Lion
population is under serious threat and there is very little been done to
stop this decline. I have worked on the project in Zimbabwe and I can
see that there was great work being done there. These animals are not
being raised as pets, they are put in a social structure due to the fact
that is how lions operate, they have a social hierarchy. Walking with
people is the only way that lion cubs will be able to understand a
social system, thereby making it easier for them to be released at a
later date. The writer of this article has failed to get a balanced
opinion on the work that is being done there. They have already released
lions in August this year and they are managing to sustain themselves,
that alone is a success that captive bred lions are able to hunt and
create a social order. Programmes like this are neccessary for the
continued survival of the lion.
Craig Aldridge, Stockton-On-Tees,
I have visited Antelope Park and I have to say I recall thinking that
the whole thing was a bit dodgy. I saw the cubs and older lions in
various petting enclosures etc, and remember thinking that the
enclosures were too small and the cats seemed a bit stressed..... we
were also told about a member of staff who was petting one of the older
lions through a wire mesh fence when it grabbed hold of his arm in its
jaws and yanked it all the way through, and practically ripped it out of
its socket- apparantly he had to have it amputated and had damage to his
lungs as well. Yet another reminder as to why rearing wild animals as
tame cuddlies is simply ludicrous. Frankly, I think the whole scam is
disgusting and they really ought to be closed down. It's tarnishing the
name of conservation and is frankly an insult to all the volunteers and
real conservationists who's lifelong efforts are being held back by this
I have to agree with you VP. It sounds silly but I've two cats at home
and there is no way on this earth that I'd want to hurt either of them.
I really don't understand how people can do this to other animals.
Humans are only the superior race because of the violence and
forcefulness of the acts to not have the competition. Why are people
that naive to believe that you can pet a lion cub without being hurt?
Its disgraceful and I hope both that and trophy hunting stops.
Anon , Luxembourg ,
Leave Nature alone!:leave Africa to her people and to her wildlife!
Take a (small) cat home instead.
So much entrepreneurship makes you sick!
Spyridon, ATHENS, Greece
It is a disgrace - animals should be left in the wild where they belong,
not used as sport to people who are happy to waste their money hurting
animals. What does one gain from shooting a big cat? They are not used
as food nor testing to prevent diseases. Instead a beautiful creature is
killed merely for the pleasure of killing. It is not all that different
from murdering humans, other than a more active and intelligent brain
and different DNA humans are species like big cats are. Murder is
violent unnecessary and says a lot about the people who choose to do it.
I feel ashamed that in the 21st century people are still like this.