As someone who works in the conservation industry and is passionate about South Africa’s wildlife and its well being, I thought I would reflect on the importance of being a responsible “tourist”. We are all, from time to time, tourists in our own country, visiting new places and seeing what South Africa has to offer, and I like to think we are benefiting the country, its people and its wildlife in the process.
Although we will be blogging about eco-friendly and community run destinations in the future, for this blog I wanted to focus on the captive wildlife industry. While people, both local and foreign, love visiting wildlife “sanctuaries” to see our magnificent wildlife up close and often personally, do we really understand what industry we are supporting and the ripple effect we are having when we do this?
Many wildlife ranches operate under the guise of being a “sanctuary” and by ”supporting conservation”. However, the unfortunate reality is that many of these places are purely money making enterprises, taking advantage of our unique wildlife and unknowing visitors, and not contributing to conservation whatsoever.
The best example of this is the captive lion industry. This industry can be incredibly lucrative for wildlife ranches and game farms, as these facilities are able to generate revenue from any or all of the various steps in the process:
- Through tourists visiting the facility – and particularly through popular cub petting.
- Through volunteers who pay to come out and assist under the impression that they are contributing to conservation (voluntourism).
- Through canned or captive hunting (the practice of shooting a lion that has been raised in captivity).
- Through the sale of the trophy and bones to the lion bone industry.
The way this cycle usually plays out is as follows:
- Lions are encouraged to breed and have cubs. The cubs are then taken away from their mothers at an early age so that the lionesses come into eostrus again, fall pregnant and ensure a continuous supply of cute cuddly cubs.
- The cubs are then hand reared and tourists pay to go and pet them. When these cubs eventually reach maturity and become too dangerous to expose to tourists, they are removed and the new litter of cubs is brought in.
- So what happens to the older cubs? They cannot be released back into the wild as they have been hand raised in captivity and don’t know how to survive in the wild as predators. They will have also lost their fear of humans, making them dangerous. Even if they were able to be released and survive, they are most likely so inbred that introducing their genetic make up into the wild would be detrimental to the wild lion population. The older lions, which now cost the ranch/game farm money to feed, are therefore sold off to private zoos or hunters from around the world. Hunters pay to shoot these poor tame lions, who have trusted humans until that point and have no reason to fear them. This is your typical canned hunting scenario.
- The hunter (who hasn’t exerted themselves much by shooting a tame lion) takes their trophy home to boost their ego and the remainder of the lion that was shot is sold to the lion bone and “muti” industry. And so the cycle continues….
There are also increasing incidents of captive big cats mauling tourists at these facilities. This year alone I have heard of at LEAST 5 incidents in South Africa. Is it their fault? Are we surprised? If your domestic cat still shows its hunting instincts by attacking your slippers, hand or a piece of string, then WHY are we surprised when their BIGGER and WILDER cousins do it?
The reality is that genuine sanctuaries, set up to give previously abused or injured wildlife a better quality of life, do not breed with these animals. Similarly, those breeding projects that are set up to try and save critically endangered species usually limit the amount of contact these animals have with humans. Especially if they are to have any chance of being successfully re-introduced into the wild.
Largely thanks to a campaign called Blood Lions, the captive lion industry in South Africa has lately been the topic of much conversation and I highly recommend that you watch this documentary (trailer below) for more information. This story can be similarly applied to various other species too, particularly elephants (ever been on an elephant ride? Same thing!) and other big cats.
What you can do?
- Do some homework and research before you visit/support wildlife sanctuaries and parks to make sure they are legitimate.
- Before enrolling as a volunteer or going as a visitor, check social media sites and blogs for comments and feedback on the particular farm or facility.
- When looking into a facility ask these questions:
- Do they offer any activities based on animal and human interaction?
- If it claims to be a sanctuary, do they offer life-long care for the animals?
- Are they trading in animals?
- Where did all the animals come from and where do some of them go?
- Have any of their animals been released into the wild? And if so, where and when?
- Try and educate international tourists about the industry and encourage them to make informed decisions.
- The same goes for things like circuses or dolphin shows that still use wild animals – is this really necessary in the 21st Century? Think before your support the exploitation of wild animals.
- Make an effort to enjoy and appreciate our wildlife in their natural environment by visiting and helping to support national parks and protected areas like the Kruger.
- Support the Blood Lions campaign and their approved tourism partners (http://www.bloodlions.org/born-to-live-wild/).
- There are about 200 farms and breeding facilities holding somewhere between 6 000 and 8 000 predators in captivity in South Africa.
- Over 800 captive-bred lions are killed annually in South Africa by trophy hunters.
- The lion bone trade is a relatively new revenue stream for the breeders and farmers and has come about as lion bones are now used as an alternative to tiger bones in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
- Over 1 000 lions are killed annually for the growing lion bone trade.
- There has not been a successful lion reintroduction programme using captive bred and reared lions in South Africa. Captive bred lions are not suitable for reintroduction programmes.
- Taking lion cubs away from their mothers is not a natural process and is only done to exploit the animals and take advantage of volunteers, visitors and tourists who don’t know any better.