“I remember the heat and that heavy atmosphere which made me certain that at any moment there would be a crash of thunder and the heavens would open. The air smelled like mud, but the ground below my heavy walking boots was solid as a rock. I didn’t care if it rained, I’m not even sure I’d have noticed if it did, because the ranger in front was beckoning me forward. My heart was racing and my eyes were fixed. About 10ft ahead was a wild lioness looking right at me. I wasn’t in a vehicle or behind a fence, but I was there in the African wild, with nothing between us. It was my first game walk and I knew that moment would never leave me.”
Written almost five years ago, this is how my first ever post on this blog reads. It’s true that I was in awe, and those kinds of moments never leave you. Painfully, they come back all the more prominently when you watch a documentary like Blood Lions.
Blood Lions, a film associated with Born Free Foundation, had its official launch at the Royal Geographical Society last Friday, having been initially screened on the Discovery Channel on 28th October.
It follows environmental journalist and safari operator Ian Michler, and American hunter Rick Swazey to expose the grim details of South Africa’s hunting industry.
Unlike the well documented hunt of Cecil the lion, most of the lions that get shot for ‘sport’ (apparently two to three a DAY!) are bred for the bullet.
I protested against the practice; commonly know as ‘canned hunting’ back in March, and for those who missed that, ‘canned hunting’ or ‘bred for bullet’ refers to lions born and raised in captivity for the sole purpose of being shot for large sums of money.
Prices for these canned hunts start at about $17,500 and go as high as $50,000, and the lions involved are always killed within an enclosed area, or whilst sedated, meaning the kill is guaranteed – the lions literally have no escape (see ‘canned’).
The practice also falls under the name ‘trophy hunting’, as hunters pay for the privilege to take the heads and skins home, while many of the bones reportedly make their way to China and other countries for use in traditional Asian medicine; a huge and damaging trade.
Whilst these details are awful enough, Blood Lions goes further to expose an even more shocking reality; that many volunteer organisations and walk with/pet the lions tourist attractions in South Africa feed into this vile industry.
Unsuspecting wildlife-loving volunteers and tourists looking for an authentic experience with the local wildlife could find themselves duped into being involved in a cycle that sees cubs snatched from their mothers at just days old (allowing her to come back into season quicker); hand-reared, cuddled and fed by humans (so that they become accustomed to us and build a relationship of trust); and used for ‘walk with lions’ experiences — just to ensure that breeders (aka lion farmers) get every last penny from their ‘product’, before they are forced to live their last few moments (sometimes hours, if it’s not a clean kill) writhing in agony, or staring down the barrel of a gun held by the very hands that they trust to feed them: human hands.
Conscious that my previous post was a review of the press screening of Racing Extinction, I want to refrain from talking too much about the film itself, though I’d urge you to watch it; its impact deserves to mirror that of The Cove (prior to the release of The Cove, 23,000 dolphins were killed each year in Japan; now that number has been slashed to 6,000). Instead, I’d like to talk about the events it inspired.
The day after the screening and panel talk at the Royal Geographic Society, I joined the next instalment of The Global March for Lions.
Numbers had certainly grown since March’s demonstration and the message (fuelled by Cecil the lion‘s fate and the previous day’s screening of Blood Lions) was clear: the UK does not support the canned hunting industry!
I took the chance to enforce my #Startwith1thing pledge; to promote animal-friendly tourism, as I can’t think of anything any more damaging to both animals and the tourism industry than canned hunting and the lie that it parades.
Learning that many places that promote themselves as offering conservation-based volunteer work are actually duping well-meaning animal advocates into supporting a trade that depends upon lions trusting humans, in order to make them an easy target, is a hard pill to swallow.
And one that forces me to look back on my time spent volunteering at Shamwari Game Reserve in 2008.
I’d chosen Shamwari as it’s home to two Born Free Foundation sanctuaries (one of which is the Julie Ward Education Centre), and the package deal I’d booked using Worldwide Experience was linked directly to the Born Free website. Everything was legitimate and trustworthy in terms of my volunteering. But I can’t help but wonder, in light of a new understanding of the trophy hunting industry, whether some of my independently booked weekend day trips were a little questionable.
I believe that if I speak about these issues, I have a duty to expose my own ignorance and mistakes, because taking responsibility is the first step in moving forward.
The weekend trips I booked on my days off from the reserve in South Africa were discovered mainly through leaflets left at Madolas Lodge (my accomodation during my three month volunteer period), mainly by former volunteers.
The two places where I interacted with big cats were Daniell Cheetah Project (where the above picture was taken) and Tenikwa Wildlife Awareness Centre (see picture below); and if the advice on Bloodlions.org is anything to go by, these places are probably not what I thought they were:
Petting, Walking with Lions and Volunteering
Q: Do any of the facilities that offer petting and walking with lions have any conservation value?
A: No, these facilities are merely using lions as a lucrative revenue stream. In many cases, cubs are taken away from their mothers within the first week after birth and are then rented out or used to lure day visitors and volunteers. Once the cubs get to about four months old, they are then often used in ‘walking with lions’ programmes. Once they have reached adulthood, many will be sold to breeders and collectors, or they end up being killed for the lion bone trade or in canned hunts. None of these lions can ever be used in conservation projects.
Although I have come to understand the flaws of a ‘captivity for education‘ mentality, it’s still hard for me to comprehend this advice, especially as Daniell Cheetah Project states that its “aim of the project is to play a part in conservation of the Cheetah (Acinonyx Jubatus), the re-establishment of pure gene lines” (I’d be interested in hearing anyone who’s more educated on these things’ opinion of this), which is what attracted me to visit the centre in the first place.
A little more research suggests that although it may have a chequered history entwined with canned hunting (whether aware or not, who’s to say?), DCP has become an ambassador against canned hunting:
Whilst I can have no sure way of telling the fate of the lovely little lion cub that I held in the photo above, there is at least some sense of peace in knowing that now under the spotlight, no more of these beautiful animals can make their way from DCP to a mount on someone’s wall.
A long delve through the pages of Google this week, in preparation for this article, interestingly revealed a connection between DCP and the second centre I visited; Tenikwa Awareness Centre.
One article read:
Tenikwa, a centre just outside Plettenberg Bay that cares for and rehabilitates injured or abandoned wild animals, has been Chester’s home for the past eight years after the cheetah had a rocky start in life.
Chester was born at the Daniell Cheetah Breeding Centre near Kirkwood in the Eastern Cape. “The female cheetah was inexperienced and had her cubs out in the veld in very bad winter weather. One cub died during the night and I was asked to go up and raise the two remaining cubs. I arrived on Chester’s second day of life. The second cub was too weak to sustain and passed away, leaving only Chester,” she said.
It was a nerve-wracking experience, especially in light of the fact that mortality among cheetah cubs is about 80 percent.
“Chester, however, survived, and grew up to be a strong and healthy cheetah.”
Because he was born in captivity, Chester was not suitable for release and became part of the Tenikwa programme.
Given that the article describes the centre as rehabilitating injured or abandoned wild animals, I’m wondering where the makers of Blood Lions stand on Tenikwa, which states that its rehabilitation work is primarily funded out of gate-takings to the Awareness Centre, where it offers various programs for the public to see non–releasable indigenous Wild cats of Southern Africa and other wildlife often caught up in the human-wildlife conflict.
Its website says: “Through tourism and guests visiting Tenikwa, the Rehabilitation Centre has evolved to its present state with a specialized wildlife clinic and surgery as well as several specialised enclosures and treatment rooms. Today, Tenikwa Rehabilitation Centre is one of the largest Wildlife Rehabilitation Centres in the Western Cape, and one of the few in the world that admits both marine and terrestrial species.”
The description kind of reminds me of Australia Zoo, which on the one hand keeps animals confined to tiny cages and allows the distressing practice of petting koalas, and on the other, runs an incredible animal hospital responsible saving many individuals of various species. A contradiction in terms indeed.
Interestingly, I came across a conservation blog this week, Make extinction extinct, which contain a post on canned hunting that listed ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ of South Africa’s volunteer programmes. Daniell Cheetah Project made the good list, while Tenikwa made the ugly (owning to dubious care of monkey, rather than a mention of lions).
I would love to hear from Born Free Foundation, Lion Aid, or the makers of Blood Lions as to what they would say about these places, and what advice they would give 18 year old volunteers in need of a little guidance, like I was then!
If you get the chance to watch Blood Lions, please, please do, as it’s message is both powerful and important. A huge advocate in education, I asked Michaela Strachan, wife of Blood Lions Co-Director Nick Chevallier, at the documentary’s premiere night “How can we get such an important message to children without giving them nightmares?” and her response was: “We’d be wasting our time, as it will be too late for South Africa’s lions by the time they’re old enough to act upon it.”