Why we don't (and won't) get involved in big cat and predator tourism

17 November 2017

The hard-hitting 2015 documentary, Blood Lions, opening up the truth behind the canned hunting industry in Southern Africa, has raised serious ethical questions about the role of captive lions in conservation and the role of volunteers in hugely popular lion “conservation” programmes.

The volunteering industry remains largely unregulated, and scrutiny of the hundreds of volunteer programmes on offer has only recently begun, thanks to the Blood Lions work and also in part to the hard work put in by social media sites such as Volunteers in Africa Beware. VIAB work with ex-volunteers and conservation experts to give unbiased reviews of volunteer programmes, and expose those who do have the animals interests at heart.

Despite the recent scrutiny of ethics in Southern African volunteering, there are still many unethical volunteer programmes out there; varying from the misguided, through to the irresponsible and downright cruel.

What's our policy?

Conservation Travel Africa will never offer volunteer experiences that:

  • Are involved in predator breeding
  • Offer interaction with cats, such as cub petting or lion walks
  • Offer elephant rides

In 2017 we signed the Born to Live Wild pledge and committed to only offering predator and elephant friendly volunteer programmes.

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But some of your programmes have captive predators?

Correct. Whilst we do work with wildlife sanctuaries that have captive predators (lions, leopards, cheetah, wild dog and hyena are the main large predators), we ensure that they have good reason to have these animals in their care, and that, where possible, their goal is to release them back into their natural environment.

The Zimbabwe Animal Sanctuary is home to six rescued lions. These were victims of the very lion tourism industry that we do not support. The lions became too large to be handled and too old and therefore unpredictable to be used for lion walks. So they were placed in cages too small for them and left to become traumatised. The Sanctuary rescued them in very bad condition - some severely overweight and all with some psychological problems - two females had been separated from their mothers at birth, and had their own cubs removed after birth. And because they had been habituated to humans, none could ever be released. They now have a forever home at the sanctuary; the females are all on a contraceptive, and they will never be bred from. The lions are not handled by anyone, the volunteers are responsible for feeding, reading to them and making enrichment toys.

Our Rhino & Elephant Conservation Programme has one rescued lion, a male, who was also a victim of lion tourism. He became a problem lion who could not be put with other lions, so the project took him and gave him a large enclosure to himself.

In Namibia, cheetah and leopard have long been victims of the human-wildlife conflict and are often looked upon as pests and shot or trapped because they target farmers livestock. The sanctuaries work hard with local land-owners and try to release trapped animals away from their animals and encourage farmers to contact the sanctuaries if there is a problem animal, rather than them taking matters into their own hands.

Our two sanctuary programmes in Namibia are home to several lions, leopard, cheetah and wild dog, who have all been rescued from conflict situations or were orphaned and brought to the sanctuary by members of the public or local wildlife rescue teams.

The goal of the sanctuaries is to release animals where possible, either locally or in other parts of Namibia, and for those who are too habituated to humans and unable to be released, the sanctuary remains their home.

Projects in Namibia must adhere to strict laws set down by the government regarding predator care and it is illegal in Namibia to breed captive large carnivores.

If you would like specific information on the animals at any of our programmes, you’re welcome to get in touch and we are happy to share their stories.

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How do you assess new volunteer programmes?

When we consider accepting a new volunteer programme, we research the project’s history, the animals present at the programme, how they are kept, what interaction they have with humans (staff and volunteers) and what the conservation objectives and values are of the organisation.

When it comes to wildlife sanctuaries, we are especially careful. Here we try to understand clearly WHY they may have captive predators and what the long term plan is for each individual animal.

There are responsible wildlife sanctuaries out there, but unfortunately there are so many which put volunteers and tourists ahead of the welfare of the animals in their care.

When volunteers are thousands of miles away, looking at projects on the internet, amazing photos of participants with lions and elephants may sway their decision to join, more than the project’s somewhat shaky conservation ethos. There is so much ignorance out there from potential volunteers. For example, I was recently with a client from the UK who was well-travelled in Africa, well-educated, thoughtful and conservation-minded. She had no idea of the issues surrounding predator breeding and handling.

We advise volunteers to seriously research the projects they are interested in, and do some wider reading about the issues surrounding sanctuaries and volunteering with animals. We recommend everyone take a look at the Blood Lions website before they commit to volunteering with predators.

Sadly, so many potential volunteers want their photos, of them riding elephants and handling cute lion cubs, to define their trip, rather than considering what happens to these animals once they have returned home; and cub petting remains a hugely popular volunteer activity - if not, the most popular.

When travelling in Southern Africa, please THINK before you VISIT, CUDDLE, WALK or VOLUNTEER.

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From Blood Lions: What you need to know:

On Volunteerism and Conservation

1. Very few, if any of the private lion farms and predator breeding facilities in South Africa can be regarded as genuine conservation undertakings, as they do not work in conjunction with recognized lion ecologists and scientists or any of the global predator conservation agencies.

2. Most are simply breeding or holding predators for a variety of commercial purposes and making use of volunteers has become one of the most lucrative revenue streams. Some facilities are earning in excess of US$100,000 in some months from their volunteer programmes alone.

3. There has not been a successful lion reintroduction programme using captive bred and reared lions in South Africa. Lion conservationists warn that captive bred lions are not suitable for reintroduction programmes.

4. There are only a handful of authentic wildlife sanctuaries in South Africa and they do not breed, trade (they mostly receive animals rather than going out to acquire them) or interact with the animals in any way.

5. South Africa has no need to be breeding lions for release into wilderness areas. In addition, if there was such a need, using hand-reared or human-imprinted and genetically contaminated lions is not an acceptable way of doing this.

6. Taking lion cubs away from their mothers is not a natural process and is only done to exploit the animals and you as the visitor or volunteer.

7. Very few, if any of the cubs you pet and cuddle have been ‘abandoned’ or rescued in the wild.

8. Using breeding farms as an educational facility is like using fast-food outlets as a venue to teach about nutrition and good eating habits. In other words, breeding farms and petting facilities do not serve any educational purpose. Instead, they promote the cycle of breeding and captivity.

9. In general, the quality and validity of information being given out to visitors on South Africa’s predator farms and facilities is poor. It is also confusing vital conservation messages and priorities.

10. These operations are taking in significant sums of money, which in some ways is a misdirection of valuable conservation funding.

11. If you do find yourself on a breeding farm or predator facility, be sure to ask the following 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?
  • Who is their recognized predator ecologist or scientist?
  • Have any of their animals been released into the wild? And if so, where and when?

12. Before enrolling as a volunteer or going as a visitor, check the social media sites and blogs for comments and feedback on the particular farm or facility.

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