From The Sunday Times
February 10, 2008

African lion encounters: a bloody con

Chris Haslam reveals the gruesome truth behind big-cat conservation projects which British holiday firms champion

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 website, praises its efforts “to help steadily increase the number of lions into areas carefully protected from poachers”.

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 interact with.”

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 suppliers. “

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 conservation.

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 enclosure.

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 stuff. Shameful.

K.F., Southampton,

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.

V.P., London,