Sunday, February 10, 2008

African lion encounters: a bloody con

By Chris Haslam
From The Sunday Times
February 10, 2008

Chris Haslam reveals the gruesome truth behind big-cat conservation projects that are championed by British tour operators

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.”