Lions and Bucket Lists

Sunday, August 10, 2014 -- 11:02 pm

Pretty much since I can remember, I’ve wanted to hug a lion.  A big male lion with a giant mane I can run my hands through.  It’s been up there at the top of my bucket list right along with owning my very own home, standing underneath the Eiffel Tower, and traveling to Africa: hug a lion.  Some people may think it’s a bit silly, but for me the thought makes the breath catch in my throat and brings tears to my eyes the same way that the individuals who cry for whatever reason at weddings can’t really explain to other people.  Some people’s dreams involve winning the gold, visiting the Great Wall, or swimming with dolphins.  This is mine.

While I’ve already crossed off Paris and home ownership, earlier this year I made the decision that I would finally stop saying “some day” and tackle at least one more of these dreams: in 2015 (barring complications and scary Ebola outbreaks) I will be going to South Africa to volunteer for two to four weeks at an animal sanctuary and conservation reserve.

Like many others, my original idea for doing this came from watching a series of YouTube videos showing groups of international volunteers helping out at a South African lion park, feeding and playing with the cute, furry cubs.  I was entranced.  “What?” I thought.  “You mean I could visit Africa AND have the opportunity to cuddle lion cubs at the same time?”  It wasn’t the big adult lion I had been hoping for, but it was the closest I was probably ever going to get.  The decision was obvious.

Except -- it wasn’t.  Because the more excited I got, the more looking into it I did, the more I learned. . . the more I realized I didn’t want to do this at all.  The more I realized I didn’t want anyone anywhere ever doing this.

What You Don’t Know: A World Without Lions

To understand the problem behind this idea I had of cuddling adorable lion cubs, you have to have a little bit of an understanding about the current status of lions.

Lions are everywhere -- depicted on popular branding and logos, emblazoned on our clothes, sitting outside buildings as stone facades, on children’s books and in movies.  They have become cultural icons across the world and are easily one of the first and most identifiable animals we learn to recognize at an early age.

Unfortunately, what most people are surprised to learn is that lions are in serious trouble -- in the 1940’s there were reported to be over 450,000 lions in Africa; by the 1980’s less than 100,000.  Today there are only as few as 20,000 to 35,000 left in all of Africa.  That’s nearly a staggering 95% decrease in only 70 years; and over an 80% loss of population in just the last 30 years alone.  The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) have lions currently classified as a vulnerable species, though many people argue they should officially be listed as endangered.

So where has the king of beasts gone?

Lions are suffering from a four-pronged threat:

  1. Habitat loss / human encroachment: lions have disappeared from over 75% of their former range and there’s increasingly less wild habitat for them to live in due to ever expanding human settlements.  Lion prides require a very large territory to thrive, and the decreasing space they find themselves in simply isn’t enough to support them and other wild game.
  2. Retaliatory killings: with less habitat space and less available game to hunt, lions begin preying on livestock -- and in turn are being killed by angry farmers.
  3. Poaching: lions are being illegally trapped and slaughtered almost to extinction in various national parks across Africa; their meat is sold as “bushmeat” at local African markets, while their bones are traded to China to be used for traditional medicinal purposes that have no scientific basis, and as a replacement for tiger bones in making tiger bone wine (since tigers have been practically wiped out due to the same practice.)
  4. Tourist hunting: rich tourists from overseas flock to Africa to pay for the right to shoot a lion for sport in trophy and canned hunts.

It’s both devastating and sadly not surprising at all that people are the direct root of every one of these problems.  It’s estimated that within just 20 years the lion could become completely extinct in the wild.  We are wiping out this species just as we wiped out the passenger pigeon and the Western black rhino and so many other species, all because humans can’t seem to learn that we don’t own the world -- we’re a part of it.  And if we don’t change the way we think, then generations from now parents will be explaining to their children how that fascinating and iconic animal with the beautiful mane on the front of their storybook doesn’t actually exist anymore.

Africa’s Dirty Secret: Canned Hunting

So where does lion cub cuddling factor into all of this?  Remember that four-pronged threat I mentioned above?  This is where we learn a bit more about number four on that list: canned hunting.

Canned hunting (also called “put and take” hunting) was first exposed back in 1997 by the Cook Report, a British exposé program.  It is the disturbing practice of placing a lion or other captive animal in an area to be shot for sport with no means of escape – this can be due to being fenced in a small enclosed space, being preemptively drugged or lured in, or by having all natural fear of people removed from being hand-raised and tamed by humans.  They’re incredibly popular as they ensure a virtually guaranteed kill for even first time hunters with little to no effort on their part.

These captive bred hunts are a lucrative, rapidly flourishing, and un-policed industry, particularly in South Africa where there have been over 160 canned lion breeding farms established in the last 15 years.  In South Africa alone, there are more lions bred and raised in cages than there are in the wild – at last count only about 2,700 lions existed on game reserves in South Africa compared to the more than 8,000 in captivity, most of them destined to end up in canned hunts.

The Con of Conservation Volunteering: Cub Petting

If that’s not upsetting enough, here’s where the innocent, well-meaning and animal loving general public falls in -- specifically, international tourists and volunteers who come to Africa to pet and raise lion cubs.

Petting lion cubs is a popular tourist attraction and attracts droves of visitors to animal parks every year, in addition to hundreds of overseas volunteers and gap year students eager to lend a hand and their time in helping to raise and take care of animals -- and willing to pay thousands of dollars a month for the privilege.  Unfortunately, the truth that so few are aware of is that the parks offering these opportunities serve as direct or indirect breeding centers for canned hunting establishments.  They essentially have lions raised by tourists to later be killed by tourists -- and they profit from it every step of the way.

The life cycle of a single captive bred lion can bring in thousands or even millions of dollars in profit for a facility:

  1. Cubs are bred and taken from the mother days after being born, which is traumatic for both mother and cub.  The cubs are then raised by paying volunteers; tourists pay to pet them and take pictures with them.  This constant handling is actually detrimental to the cubs’ health, extremely stressful, and often leads to health problems.
  2. When the cubs are older, tourists can pay to walk with them for “enrichment purposes.”
  3. When the lions reach adulthood and are too large to be pet or walked with anymore, females are taken to breed more cubs; cubs are pulled from the mothers 3 - 10 days after being born in order to immediately put the lioness back into estrus so she can be mated again.  Adult males are sent to hunting farms.
  4. The bones of killed lions are sold to East Asian markets.

Volunteers and tourists are often none the wiser, lured into supporting such establishments parading as animal sanctuaries or rescues.  These facilities advertise under claims of conservation breeding and purposely misinform visitors that the lions raised are being re-introduced back into the wild.

The fact of the matter is that it is not possible for lions bred and raised in captivity to be released into the wild.  It has never been successfully done, because lions in captive breeding programs have compromised genetics and are often too inbred to be released -- doing so would genetically harm wild populations and introduce disease.  In addition to this, basic conservation practices will not allow animals that have been raised by and habituated to humans to be returned to the wild, as they have lost their fear of people which is a critical survival instinct.  Do not believe any establishment that tries to tell you otherwise.

I can’t blame past volunteers.  My heart goes out to them, devoting their money, time, and passion into an apparent cause they care so much about and animals they become so bonded to, only to find out afterward that they’ve been duped.  There have been some instances in which volunteers have rallied and petitioned through social media in an effort to save certain lions that are being put up for a hunt; one volunteer went so far as to purchase her lion cubs and relocate them to a legitimate sanctuary.

Aside from being a cruel and unethical business practice, the cub petting and canned hunting cycle actually harms legitimate conservation efforts for wild lions.  It not only takes international tourism and donation dollars away from real conservation projects seeking funding, but also whereas breeding farms misinform the public that their lions are being re-introduced back into the wild, lions are in fact being caught and removed from the wild in effort to add genetic diversity to the farm stock.

If you are considering visiting Africa in the future and are planning on engaging in cub petting, please reconsider and avoid supporting any facility that offers lion cub interactions.  For those who have visited Africa and have come home with pictures of themselves cuddling lion cubs -- the cub in your photo is probably dead by now.  If it’s a female, she has been force bred into litter after litter of cubs that are repeatedly taken away once their born, and bought for thousands of dollars to be slaughtered.  Not for their meat, but for entertainment.  And all at the cost of the lions themselves, both captive and wild.

Weeding the Good From the Bad: How Do You Know?

Easy.  Ask questions.  Do your research.

Before you visit or volunteer at an animal park, find out more information about it.  Search online for reviews or hints of unethical business practices or questionable associations; talk to other past visitors and volunteers; and get in touch directly with someone from the facility itself.

During your inquiry, some helpful questions to ask include:

  • How can you aim to reintroduce animals to the wild and yet allow volunteers to handle them and expose them to so much human contact?
  • What happens to the animals when they're older? Are they sold? If so, to where? What sort of assurances do you take to make sure you're not participating in canned hunting?
  • How often are lionesses giving birth to new litters?
  • Why are cubs being removed from their mothers in the first place? For what purpose/reason?
  • If you're breeding lions, what's your breeding plan? What happens when there are too many animals to support? Why breed purely for a life of confinement? If you rescue animals, why perpetuate the problem by breeding more of them?
  • Predators raised in captivity have little to no success of ever being released back into the wild. How many successful reintegration into the wild cases have you had? Do you have any specific and detailed documentation or proof of these instances?

In addition to questioning the facility itself, there are a number of other things to keep in mind when searching for a reputable place to visit or volunteer.  Based on my own experience over the last several months, my advice would be the following:

  • Dig into not only the program/facility itself, but also the travel or volunteer company offering the program.  Avoid any companies that do not specifically advertise the names of the facilities they want to send you to and list them rather as some vague "Big 5 Safari Reserve."  When inquiring about the exact location of one volunteer program, I received a reply that they were not allowed to release that information to me until after booking.  Word to the wise: if they’re not being straight with you, there’s a reason.
  • Do your research not just on the facility, but on the owners and management too.  When looking up information about one park that claimed itself a rescue sanctuary, I came across three news reports of the owner having previously been involved in supplying tame animals for canned hunts.
  • Ask for reviews from others -- but with all word-of-mouth, take other people’s words with a grain of salt.  Facebook groups devoted to responsible volunteering are helpful and can be commended for the awareness they’re trying to create – but how authoritative are all of the individuals running these groups and the people commenting?
  • When making direct inquiries, be polite but insistent.  Do not settle for vague stock replies; ask to speak to someone higher up if necessary.  And do not make accusations or begin ranting – you will get less straight answers, and instead receive a defensive reply or no reply at all.
  • If the answers you do receive convince you that the facility is bad news, respond politely telling them so.  This is actually not something I’ve done myself before, but will begin doing for the simple reason that most of the people working at these establishments don’t know any better.  More often than not, they’re fed information from park management and probably have no idea themselves what’s actually going on.  By explaining to them why you’re not interesting in supporting their business, you may just help raise awareness of the issue with that one employee.

The safest rule of thumb to follow though is to simply avoid any facility that offers cub petting or lion walks.  No true sanctuary breeds animals or has a steady supply of cubs.  And no reputable animal welfare organization will allow you to walk with predators or have any unnecessary physical interaction with wild animals or their infants – this is to protect you, the animal, and to reduce the chances of human habituation.

Knowing What You Know: How to Help

Let’s face it -- in truth, lions are not anymore deserving of our compassion and conservation efforts than any other animal.  I’m not trying to say they deserve special treatment in this regard -- rather that all animals do, native to our own land or otherwise.  But the lion is special to me.  I have spent my childhood and adult life dreaming of going to Africa and experiencing these animals, and the idea that years from now the only place anyone will be able to see a lion is behind a fence destroys me.

When these parks and reserves try to lure you in with the promise of cuddling cute cubs, be proactive.  Don’t be lazy -- do your own research. Dig deeper.  Because when you know what's going on but pretend you don't, or ignore it, or make excuses for why it's okay just this once -- you are saying you support this practice.  Because now you've read this, and now you know.

So what can you do to help stop it?  Simple.  It’s fast, easy, and won’t cost you a cent: share what you know.  In honor of World Lion Day, spread the word about how lions are disappearing.  That cub petting attractions are scams and that canned hunting is a sickening industry that is only getting bigger and bigger, and that tourists and volunteers are unknowingly hurting the same animals they appreciate so much.  Help save lions by simply sharing an article or posting a video, because awareness is half the battle.  (And if you do by chance want to donate, check out the links at the bottom of this post!)

I’m sure some people think I’m crazy – that I’m making too much out of nothing and that I’m obviously just another silly tree hugger.  Sure, okay, maybe I am.  I’m a lion hugger, but in name only.  Because I will not ignore or pretend -- and that probably means I will never have a chance to touch a lion, which is crushing.  I'll have to give up that particular dream.  And I'm okay with that.

 

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Learn More, Do More: Extra Resources

Websites and print resources:

  • National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative
    Learn more about the plight of Big Cats across the world, including lions and learn what you can do to help through advocacy and fundraising, as well as donating to the fantastic Build a Boma campaign.
  • National Geographic Kids’ “Mission: Lion Rescue” by Ashlee Brown Blewett and Daniel Raven-Ellison
    A fantastic and very informative book for kids and adults that covers everything from lion facts and history, the threats facing them, conservation strategies, and advocacy ideas/activities.  (Check to see if your local library has a copy!)
  • Campaign Against Canned Hunting
    CACH is a non-governmental organization founded and led by Chris Mercer, the leading expert and outspoken advocate against canned hunting.
  • Volunteers Beware (Facebook group)
    If you’re planning a wildlife-based volunteer trip to South Africa, this is a Facebook group you should check out.  They aim to raise awareness about things like cub petting and canned hunting, and compile reviews and information about different SA volunteer programs in an effort to help people choose reputable volunteer placements.  It has helpful information on it though it’s mostly conjecture, so don't rely entirely on it and always do your own research.
Some excellent exploratory videos and interviews that explore in-depth the canned hunting industry, cub petting, and the lion bone trade.  Very informative, and a must-watch:
Additional informative articles discussing cub petting, canned hunting, and the lion bone trade:

 

For more posts on cub petting, canned hunting, and lion conservation, 
follow my other blog at Bucket List Lion.

 

August 11th, 2014 -- 12:14 am

I literally didnt even know such a thing existed! I'm glad I read this. its disgusting to think that's what happens. ive always loved lions and big cats.

Chris Mercer says:
August 13th, 2014 -- 3:42 am

Excellent article Brenna. I wish that the journalists who generally do such a poor job covering this issue would learn from you, and get their minds around the cub petting connection to canned hunting.

Chris Voets says:
August 25th, 2014 -- 11:25 am

This is a great article, Brenna, well done!!

Barbara Smith says:
September 16th, 2014 -- 10:33 pm

I have, and will continue to educate others about Lions, Rhinos and Elephants, the horrors of poaching, the serious risk of these magnificent animals becoming extinct.

Karen Skinner says:
December 1st, 2014 -- 11:54 am

What a really good article! I had no idea this sort of practice was going on until I saw it on 60 Minutes last night. It's absolutely heartbreaking - such cruelty at the hands of man (yet again) in pursuit of the almighty dollar. Makes me sick to my stomach! Why can't man realize that their greed is destroying what is so precious and we will never get it back again. Shame on those 'game hunters' for taking part in this brutal so called past time. The US and EU Governments should be banning this practice and restrict the importation of the lion trophies. I am sick and tired of hearing about how animals worldwide are suffering and being exploited at the hands of man all for capital gain. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. (1 Timothy 6:10) No truer words written.

Lynne Poole says:
December 1st, 2014 -- 12:36 pm

Great job Brenna on your article. I am like you have loved lions since I was a child (and I am a Leo) and want to protect them (and other animals too) as much as possible. You have brought to light a very ugly secret behind the lions that need to be exposed and so grateful for your article. I hope this helps people start to help protect our beautiful lions. Shame on everyone who allows canned hunting and all its contributors!! Thanks again Brenna!!!!

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