Thursday, April 28, 2016

Time to rethink lion interactions?

Running a trade association is not always easy. With over 600 members everyone has a right to a view. Certainly all associations should represent their members. But when the issues are highly inflammatory our intervention can sometimes fuel the flames rather than put them out. The cry is nearly always that our association, promoting tourism to Africa, should only spread positive images of our industry, never negative. For that reason despite requests from some members we have not openly engaged in the debate on canned hunting in Southern Africa.


Then last November the Born Free Foundation partnered with the film ‘Blood Lions, Bred for the Bullet’, which was screened in London in front of leading members of the tourist industry at the Royal Geographical Society, of which I am a proud Fellow. Having seen the film and after a detailed briefing at ITB Berlin, I am convinced that our industry must speak out about this appalling practice.

So what is it all about? The answer is simply the way we humans interact with wild animals. In this case canned hunting, the breeding of lions for slaughter, a huge business in South Africa. The film tells the story of a safari operator and an American hunter on their journey to uncover predator breeding for canned hunting. The figures are unbelievable, with over 6 000 lions hand reared, of which 99% are being bred for the bullet.

Will Travers, son of Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna, the actors who played George and Joy Adamson, and who is now President of The Born Free Foundation, commented at the RGS screening of Blood Lions, saying: “It lays bare the truth behind the canned hunting industry, which, far from contributing to the future survival of the species, may, in fact, accelerate extinction in the wild, leaving behind a trail littered with rotting corpses of its helpless and hopeless victims.”
This is indeed a multimillion-dollar industry, fuelled by a few with no regard for human or animal rights. But how can it possibly reap such huge rewards for the operator, you might ask? Well, to start with it’s a quick easy kill for the hunter, who pays around $5 000 for a lioness and $65 000 for a big black-maned lion. I say partly, as that is not their only source of revenue. The hand-reared cubs are first used as tourist attractions, nursed by paying volunteers, who naively believe they are saving ‘Africa’s lions’. These well-meaning animal lovers, mostly gap-year students in their teens or early twenties, have no idea what really is going on. They innocently pay up to $3 300 per month to work on game farms, bottle feeding and hand rearing these cubs like pets. The figures are staggering, with some (and there are over 200 breeding facilities across the country) employing 35 students at a time, which alone earns $115 000 per month, well over $1million per year.
 

Hosting a networking event at ITB Berlin, I publicly spoke on this subject for the first time. I was amazed when afterwards one delegate came up and explained that in her gap year, she was one of two students working on one of these farms. At first she believed she was contributing to conservation, dazzled by the whole ‘lion king’ media hype. She left disillusioned, as many of her questions were not answered. Returning for a few hours the following year she found not two, but over 20 students at this one small farm, all bottle feeding and petting the cubs. They were captive breeding for commercial return as those cubs are eventually sold to fenced game farms where they cannot escape the inevitable bullet.

Another offshoot of this industry, which has developed dramatically over the last few years, is ‘walking with lions’.  Unsuspecting tourists are paying $30 to $45 to walk with lions that have literally been trained like circus animals to pose on rocks and tree trunks so that tourists can stop to take photographs and selfies for their Facebook pages. The lions have very often been taught to climb trees for chunks of meat, offered to them at the end of sticks, for the same social media purposes. These tours run throughout the day, catering for around 12 to 15 tourists at a time. This continues until the animal is around two years of age when they are fully grown. Most of these lions are then shot for trophy and their bones shipped to the East to support the ‘tiger bone wine industry’.

These malpractices overshadow all conservation efforts and are beginning to do untold damage to Brand South Africa, where the revenue from tourism provides food for one in seven of the population. This is one reason why I believe we must all get involved.
The industry should come together to put huge pressure on the South African government to make canned hunting illegal. The questions these farms must be asked are: do they breed, do they trade, do they interact with wildlife? If the answer is yes, they are linked to canned hunting. The proof being that none of these breeding facilities are able to say where the ‘orphaned’ cubs come from, or where the adult lions have been ‘rewilded’, as they tell tourists and volunteers alike. In addition, as an association based in Europe we too must work to raise awareness across the gap year industry through print and social media.

We all know the well-publicised slogan ‘a dog is not just for Christmas’. Perhaps this message should be that ‘Wildlife must be kept wild – if you pet a cub, you kill a lion’.

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