5

Trophy ‘shockumentary’: Does it really compare to Blackfish?

In 1900 there were 500,000 rhinos in the world. Today there are less than 30,000. This shocking statistic opens the controversial new documentary ‘Trophy‘ — and if there’s one thing that audiences can agree on, it’s that this represents a crisis for the species.

I imagine this divisive film, which serves primarily to promote the idea of legalising the trade in rhino horn, offers little else that audiences can universally agree on.

trophy film poster

There’s no doubt that the time is now to act to save this iconic species. Over the last couple of years I’ve seen the momentum intensify when it comes to anti-poaching responses, debates and campaigns concerning rhinos and the horn trade.

Within moments of the film opening (to a scene of father and young son shooting dead a ‘trophy’ deer), we are introduced to South Africa’s most successful rhino breeder, John Hume. I’ve previously heard Mr Hume’s position on the rhinos horn trade at a debate I attended last year. The debate actually features briefly in the film (including a split-second shot of me, holding my pen to take notes for a blog post).

In 2016, John Hume’s rhino farm comprised of more than 1,400 of the animals — also making him first in-line for a huge profit, should the ban on international sale of horn be lifted. A cause he so passionately campaigns for.

“If he had an opinion to give to you, he would say ‘I’m very happy to sacrifice my horn in order to save my life’,” John states, simplifying a somewhat complex issue to a life vs. death scenario, rather than quality of life of a sentient being vs. compromised welfare standards owing to increased exploitation.

I think most people would agree that welfare standards surrounding large scale farming are far from satisfactory (think of the dairy industry) — when money is on the table, it seems that species survival matters only for the sake of profit for the owner, not to encourage an ecosystem to flourish via a natural life for the individual.

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Rhino by George Logan

Later in the film, John acknowledges that he has a protected stockpile of horns worth at least $16 million. His words echo round my head: “Give me one animal that’s gone extinct while farmers were breeding and making money out of it. There’s not one.” And I can’t think of a single example. But nor can I think of a country whose environment and natural ecosystem hasn’t been drastically altered for the sake of farming.

Another familiar face on this documentary is ecologist Craig Packer, author of the book ‘Lions in the Balance‘. Packer, who chaired the debate last year in which I first encountered John Hume, explains the hunters’ desire to ‘collect’ the big five. That is to kill a lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and a rhino — the cost of legally hunting each of these species reflects how rare each animal is and Packer places the bill to shoot the rarest of these; the rhino, at $350,000. Significantly more than the next in line; elephants at $50,000.

african elephant in Shamwari

Safari Club International President, Joe Hosmer, claims the entire cost of an elephant hunt, which sold for $50,000, would go back into conservation. A wildly unsupported claim — as I discovered in my research for an earlier blog post about trophy hunting and canned lion hunting; the average percentage of hunting fees that make it back into conservation at the community level is more like 3%. For clarification, Safari Club International is an international organisation of hunters — not a jolly collective of tourist-ferrying safari guides; as it’s name might suggest.

At 32 minutes in, Trophy provides us with our first counter argument against the killing of animals for so-called conservation. Adam Roberts of Born Free USA examines the contradiction of Theodore Roosevelt’s hunting culture, whereby he hunted thousands of animals (reportedly 5,000 of which were mammals) and recorded each of his kills, whilst at the same time declaring national parks across the US. Roberts challenges the idea of cloaking the ‘sport’ in ideals of conservation and helping people, suggesting that the reality of the appeal is really in the rush of excitement that hunters feel when they put a bullet in something.

Ecologist Craig Packer expands on this argument: “A hunter was somebody who was willing to go out and spend three weeks walking around on foot tracking an elephant, tracking a lion, to shoot it to take home a trophy. There was a challenge, there was a sense of sport, but what has happened in the last 10 or 15 years has been a growing segment of the hunting demographic which are referred to as ‘the shooters’; the shooters may have to spend as much money as it takes to get a three-week permit, but if they can kill everything in the first two days, they’ll do it and they’ll fly home. It’s that mentality that really feeds the birth of the canned hunting industry… it’s not sport, it’s just killing.”

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Lion Trophy (c) Blood Lions

Having watched the point blank execution of a lion and a crocodile killed with a bullet to the head after first being injured and tied up; followed by scenes from a canned hunting lion farm and hunters posing with various kills with very little discussion and debate — and certainly no sense of a fair and balanced discussion about the ethics of such behaviour — I have to admit, it just felt rather perverse. But worse was to come as viewers bear witness to the slow, long drawn out death of a young African elephant, groaning through it’s last moments and requiring a shot to the chest at point blank to ‘finish the job’. These graphic scenes literally allow you to see the animal’s last breath.

Since the film’s release on 17th November, Born Free Foundation‘s President Will Travers OBE — who makes a brief appearance in the documentary — warns that the film, which was partly funded by the BBC, leaves viewers marooned in a no-man’s land without credible information on which to make up their minds on the highly-charged issues of trophy hunting and the dangers of promoting a legal international trade in rhino horn.

Kate on Conservation UK

Kate on Conservation

Travers said: “The film is peppered with assumptions and assertions about trophy hunting that are offered in an almost ‘fact-free’ environment. We are told (by a representative of America’s premier hunting organisation, Safari Club International) that ‘all the money [from trophy hunting] will go back into conservation’ with no evidence to back it up. Also that belief in the medical value of rhino horn ‘has been around for millions of years’. Neither is true.”

“In addition, the film presented almost no counter-argument or reliable data relating to the conservation ‘recipe’ of South African, John Hume, the most successful private rhino breeder on the planet, with 1,530 rhino to his name.”

“Mr Hume’s recipe is to breed rhino, cut off their horns and sell them — currently legal in South Africa but prohibited internationally. It is put forward by the film’s makers with almost no risk analysis, no alternative vision and no understanding of what would happen to the world’s 30,000 remaining wild rhino if his dream came true.”

Craig Packer, John Hume and Will Travers

John Hume, Craig Packer and Will Travers at the debate: ‘Should the trade in rhino horn be legalised?’

Born Free say they provided the film-makers with ample evidence drawn from history as to why legalising international rhino horn trade is likely to be a recipe for disaster. In 2008 the international community, despite the desperate pleas of Born Free and others, approved a ‘one-off’ sale of more than 100 tonnes of ivory from South Africa and several other countries to Japan and China. Far from ‘satisfying consumer demand’, as the architects of this sale hoped, it fuelled a dramatic and deadly explosion in poaching and illegal ivory trade.

The African elephant stronghold Tanzania, lost an average of 1,000 elephants a month, every month, for five years between 2009 and 2014. That’s 60,000 elephants. The poaching epidemic continues to this day with 20,000 elephants poached each year, tons of ivory being seized, and wildlife rangers and wardens — the elephants’ first line of defense — losing their lives. More than 1,000 wildlife rangers have been murdered in the last 10 years.

Mr Hume’s naive proposition, supported by pseudo-economics and a failure to understand risk, is likely to have the same impact

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Does the human race really believe you have to kill something to save it? What a sorry, greedy world. My take away thoughts were that many of the people featured in this film stand to make a lot of money from rhino horn. Many of these hunters have a God-complex. Few of the filmmaker’s points are supported with any evidence. If you ARE expecting the next ‘Blackfish‘ when you watch this, you’ll be very disappointed.

 

Learn more about the trade in rhino horn

Discover the documentary ‘Sides of a Horn’, which claims to be the first film to give an unbiased view of South Africa’s ​rhino poaching war from both sides

Want to read about the debate featuring John Hume and Will Travers?

Want to know more about CITES 2016?

Find out more about the work of Craig Packer:

Learn more about ‘Blackfish’

 

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3

Taking the lions’ share: Cecil the lion’s legacy

CITES 2016 has drawn to a close. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora held its 17th meeting in Johannesburg over the last month, and the conference — heralded as the most critical meeting in its 43-year history — delivered some surprising results.

Good news for pangolins (the most trafficked wildlife species, owing to their scales being used in traditional Asian medicine), who were uplisted to receive Appendix 1 protection, i.e. a total ban on international trade except for non-commercial import, such as scientific research.

A mixed result for elephants, as although they were not uplisted to Appendix 1, further talks to open the case for legalising the sale of ivory were quickly closed down, with parties unanimously voting to prevent a decision making mechanism for future trade.
cites-bannerI have previously written about the debate surrounding rhino horn, and, happily, CITES parties rejected Swaziland’s request to trade in white rhino horn, which to me was supported simply to allow rhino farmers to profit from long collected stockpiles of horns.

But in this Born Free Foundation’s Year of the Lion, I was particularly tuned in to the plight of lions. In the lead up to CITES, there were calls for the 182 Member Countries to uplist lions to Appendix 1, which would effectively ban all commercial international trade in lions and parts and products derived from them, and place far greater restrictions on the trophy hunting industry.

Instead of Appendix 1, however, a compromise agreement was reached banning only the trade in bones, teeth and claws from wild lions. Therefore, those coming from captive-bred lions can still be legally sold — which means the export of trophies from lion hunting, or canned hunting, remains legal.

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I must admit, I’m shocked at this decision, not just because of the all PR that the shocking practice of trophy hunting received via Cecil’s story, but because the population numbers of lions speak for themselves.

In 1900, there were as many as 1 million lions across Africa; today there are thought to be less than 20,000 wild lions across the whole continent. There are fewer than 2,000 wild lions left in Kenya, only 2,800 in South Africa, and numbers have declined 66% in 15 years in Tanzania.

When reasoning that both elephants and rhinos are wildly recognised as under threat, and their population numbers are at 40,000 [wild elephants] and 25,000 [wild rhinos] across Africa, it seems crazy to think that lion numbers are at 20,000 individuals, and yet hunters are still invited to kill thousands every year and vast tracts are reserved for hunting.

Kate shamwari lion photo

The species is under so much pressure that — in a silver lining to the CITES outcome — Botswana announced it would voluntarily treat its lions as though the Appendix 1 vote had been approved; making trade in all lion parts illegal within the country. The Environment Minister of Botswana, The Honourable Tsekedi Khama, released a statement during CITES, before the plight of the lions was formally discussed saying:

Botswana currently hosts a fair number of lions and we have made a conscious decision that we will not entertain holding any captive carnivores in the country. And the decision was made because it just becomes a habit, an easy area of trade. The more we don’t manage and protect our wildlife, the more they are subject to abuse. My concern is that if we don’t uplist lions to Appendix 1 we run a very real risk of lions eventually being hunted and traded as body parts by unscrupulous people around the world, into extinction.”

The thing that struck a chord with me the most from his statement is the idea that Botswana will not have any captive carnivores within their country. I recently read an interview with Born Free Foundation President Will Travers in Geographical Magazine in which he suggested that wild lions, as we might traditionally think of them; roaming free within protected areas, stalking their prey, etc. could be entirely replaced with lions that exist within fenced areas where every aspect of their lives is intensively managed.

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Within the same interview, Travers seemed to have forecast the outcome of CITES 2016; in explaining that the conference does not concern itself with conservation threats, such as habitat fragmentation, conflict resolution or loss of prey base — it can only apply itself to the impacts of international trade. “There isn’t enough evidence that international trade is the threat”, Travers is quoted as saying, “As we see lion populations decline, so we’re seeing trade in lion parts and derivatives, both legal and illegal, going up significantly from both wild and captive-bred lions.”

After CITES

Looking ahead, I’m interested in knowing what we can do to help protect and preserve lions in the wild, as they should be, between now and the next CITES meeting in 2019. I interviewed lion expert Brent Stapelkamp, who spent nearly a decade working on the Hwange Lion Research Project with the University of Oxford’s WildCRU and whose study subjects included the now infamous Cecil the lion.

Brent saw Cecil the lion’s killing as a chance to talk about conservation efforts to tackle the many threats that lions face, and with a small team of equally passionate individuals, re-visited a concept born 15 years ago, by chimpanzee expert Dr NishidaWorld Heritage Species.

The concept is for UNESCO to create World Heritage Species in the way that it establishes World Heritage Sites for areas of historical significance and/or outstanding natural beauty. “Basically, it’s a global recognition that lions have been too much part of our evolutionary and cultural history to lose,” he explained, “and for that recognition to be used to protect them and generate the massive international funding needed to save their landscapes.”

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It would mean “hands off, this animal belongs to the world and is too precious for a select few to hunt or appreciate,” Brent added. “A long lasting sense that at least somethings are sacred.”

The advantage to investing in an apex predator like a lion is that they are an umbrella species and their survival will mean the survival of their prey and habitats too.

The Cecil legacy

I asked Brent what he thought it was about Cecil, who he had tracked for years, that captured the world’s attention when he was hunted. Cecil had been radio-tracked and studied by Oxford University’s team since 2008 as part of a long-term wild lion research project. But he was lured away from the protection of Hwange National Park, shot by a bow and arrow and reportedly died 40 hours later.

“Cecil’s demise was not a unique event and indeed I saw maybe a dozen such hunts during my decade. I think what made it “blow up” was that those that work around here, be they safari guides, lodge owners or researcher, just said enough is enough. Not again! This hunt was the straw that broke the donkeys back and a lot of people worked very hard to make sure the story saw the light of day. The world just needed to hear it and the rest was, I believe, a natural manifestation around the global attachment to lions.”

The sentiment of this was recently echoed by Mark Jones, Associate Director of Wildlife Policy at Born Free Foundation, who is quoted as saying: “until very recently, everybody seemed to think that there were loads of lions in Africa. What the Cecil incident did was bring to people’s consciousness the reality that these animals are actually being shot by rich Westerners paying lots of money”.

Cecil the Lion

Cecil the Lion

Several countries have been inspired to take significant action since Cecil’s death. France announced a ban on lion trophy imports in November 2015, and in April 2016, The Netherlands announced a ban on the import of hunting trophies from around 200 species, including lions. In January 2016, the US Fish and Wildlife Service added lions to the Endangered Species Act, making it more difficult for American lion trophy hunters to ship their trophies home.

But even Cecil’s story is not without its conflict amongst conservationists. Stapelkamp explained in our conversation that it was common practice to name their study subjects at Oxford. “It was based on the fact that it was easy to speak about Cecil or Jericho than MAGM1 or GUVbM2; their database identities. Guides and members of the public wouldn’t know what you were on about. We enjoyed naming them too. Some had a lot to do with each personality of the story behind them.”

The concept of naming animals has always divided opinion. Renowned ecologist and lion expert, Craig Packer finds the whole idea of naming lions bizarre. “Normally lions are called things like MH3T or lion LGB,” he said in a recent Guardian article.

“The Cecil story tells me that we, as a species, can only show empathy with individual organisms.”

Craig Packer chairing a debate at the Royal Geographical Society in London

Craig Packer chairing a debate at the Royal Geographical Society in London

But nonetheless, Cecil’s story has helped Packer to lobby the US and EU for control of trophy imports, and he has asked the EU to take into account the corruption in Tanzania and consider banning all trophies from there.

The canned hunting dilemma

“The hunting industry is scared to death they’ll lose the lion.” This sentence, said by Craig Packer at the 2004 CITES conference — where he argued against animal welfare groups that trophy hunting has an indisputable impact on population numbers of wild lions — pretty much sums up the conflict that prevents lions from gaining Appendix 1 CITES protection.

“While your arguments may be flawed, I agree that trophy hunters should be kept on a tight leash.” He reportedly added, back at that 2004 meeting.

Packer, who has since been banned from entering Tanzania for speaking out against corruption in the trophy hunting industry, first went there to study baboons with legendary primatologist Jane Goodall. Since then, he has dedicated his life to study lions.

His book, Lions in the Balance: Man-Eaters, Manes, and Men with Guns, reflects on studies of lions carried out to see whether the trophy hunting industry harms the local populations with its continuous removal of adult males: causing frequent takeovers and infanticide (killing of other males’ cubs) by replacement males, who in turn live only until the next hunting season, and are then shot and replaced themselves.

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He champions regulating hunting using a minimum age (a male should be at least 6 years old before it is hunted) instead of quotas. “In the long term, there is no conflict between business and conservation,” he writes in his book. “Lions are like a crop. Look after them properly, and you can harvest more of them, making lots more money. Just be patient and let the lions grow up.”

To me personally, the exploitation of lions in this way leaves the door open to the same amount of animal welfare issues, as selling off rhino horn stocks and farming rhinos. But Packer believes hunting could provide the best incentive for conserving vast tracks of land.

This is something that Born Free’s Mark Jones has drawn attention to, citing in Geographical Magazine that we don’t understand animal populations well enough to understand what the value of an individual is to its population — regardless of its breeding age — as breeding isn’t the only thing that social animals, like elephants and lions, bring to their population.

He also argues against giving value to trophy hunting outfitters, as he believes that land management will inevitably then prioritise providing trophies over benefiting wider biodiversity — which is essentially what the entire ‘canned hunting’ industry is (i.e. shooting lions in the ‘can’; enclosed areas of unregulated conditions).

canned-hunting

Packer, at a recent event I attended at the Royal Geographical Society in London, also confessed to having seen photos of lion farms where conditions are ‘far below the reasonable minimum standard’.  “Whatever you think of someone who pays to shoot a lion,” he said, “the conditions those lions are kept in have no regulation and should have a minimum standard.”

Even though Packer doesn’t agree that trophy hunting has to necessarily impact the population of wild lions, he does suggest that the hunting industry greatly exaggerates its ‘positive’ impact on wildlife conservation, stating that ‘hunters lie’.

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 “A lot of clients head off into the bush believing that their $50,000 will save the world — when in fact virtually none of that money goes to conservation and the true costs of conservation are far higher.”

According to Mark Jones, the actual data suggests that only around 3% of the money generated by trophy hunting  actually ends up at the community level for development. During one area of Craig Packer’s research, he surveyed 26 villages from Mount Kilimanjaro to the shores of Lake Victoria, and found almost no benefits to local communities from either ecotourism or trophy hunting.

Other threats to the African lion

Canned hunting isn’t the only threat that lions face. Habitat loss has caused the numbers of traditional ‘lion prey’ — herbivores such as zebra, wildebeest and buffalo — to drop by as much as 52% in East Africa, and 85% in West Central Africa.

As prey becomes harder to find, some lions have instead turned to preying on livestock, which can have a major impact on small-scale African farmers. To these people, cattle can represent a life’s savings — creating a direct human-lion conflict, which often leads on to retaliatory killing.

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Packer has encountered lions poisoned with rat poison as intolerance grows. The people poisoning the lions live in fear, or hatred, as the predators have eaten their husbands, wives or children.

As a result, he favours the South African system of conservation, with wildlife effectively kept behind fences and strict regulation. Indeed he ‘unwild’ wild that Will Travers predicted may be the future for the African Lion. “It may feel controlled and over-managed, but it works”, Packer says “and people do not get killed.”

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Solutions

After viewing the issue from all angles, it seems that over the next few years, there will be tough times ahead for Africa’s most iconic predator. “I do think that academia sometimes gets lost within itself and the production of papers, etc. can distract from conservation work,” Stapelkamp contemplates, “that has to be guarded against”.

He has set up a new initiative, The Soft Foot Alliance trust with wife Laurie to help mitigate conflict between man and lion, hyena, elephant, baboon and honey-badger. The aim is to improve local people’s everyday lives with conservation outcomes cleverly designed into each action.

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The positive is that even scientists who remain at odds in their approach ultimately reach a very similar solution. Brent and the World Heritage Species initiative position themselves as neither an organisation, nor an NGO (non-governmental organisation, i.e. non-profit, or charity), but a grass roots, ‘citizen campaign’ and believes that NGOs, such as the Born Free Foundation and research scientists, like Packer can successfully work together under a common goal, like the WHS movement.

“Unless we find a common direction we speak different languages and aim for different targets, and to be quite frank, we can’t afford to waste time anymore.”

Even Packer, who has expressed that ‘animal groups tend to seem religious’, concedes “There are two sides to every argument and both sides are right on certain points.”

“The wider solution is for the world to recognise that the great African wildlife reserves are true world heritage sites and that their protection should be paid out of global funds. They are world treasures yet UNESCO gives no money – there’s no revenue at all. A lot of people have been duped into thinking that just by being a tourist or a hunter, it is enough. It’s not.”

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If you want to sign the petition that calls on the United Nations to establish a World Heritage Species program, you can do so HERE. Keep up-to-date with WHS by following them on Facebook.

Learn more about trophy hunting

Have you heard about the documentary ‘Trophy’?

Want to know more about CITES 2016?

Want to hear more on Cecil’s story?

5

‘Should the global trade of rhino horn be legalised?’ Debate review

In a packed out theatre room in the Royal Institute of Great Britain, I attended my first ever formal debate this time last month; ‘Should the global trade of rhino horn be legalised?’

As was so rightfully and significantly acknowledged at the end of the evening, the debate was far more than exploring whether or not to commodify an essentially useless (to humans) animal product, but was about our relationship with the natural world.
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A rhino and calf. A photograph I took at Shamwari Game Reserve

To contextualise the debate, rhino horn has a similar street value to heroine; it is used largely for traditional Asian medicine, believed to have properties that provide headache relief in China, and increasingly as cancer treatment in Vietnam. In some countries it is also used ornamentally, as a status symbol. In literal terms, it is made of keratin, the same substance that is found in human hair and fingernails, and likewise, it can regrow.

I hesitate to use the term ‘renewable resource’, as expressed in the debate introduction by ecologist Craig Packer, as I’m not sure the tone should have been set by immediately talking in terms of harvests and exploitation, but nonetheless, the idea behind the trade would be that by ‘shaving’ the horns off of living rhino and monetising them without killing the animal, it would allow for regrowth, meaning a continuing supply of horn (and money for the rhino breeders) in attempt to meet demand.

Representing the case for legalising the trade in horn was rhino breeder and ex-property tycoon John Hume, and arguing against legalising the trade; Will Travers, president of the Born Free Foundation.

On first appearances, both of these characters appear to be at complete odds with one another; Will Travers wore a black suit and a tie that featured miniature embroidered rhinos, with shoes shined and a small ribbon pinned on his jacket, which I recognised as part of Born Free’s World Wildlife Day campaign. John Hume addressed the audience in his red checked shirt, and a pair of jeans — a more casual approach, and even the debate chair, Craig Packer, fresh from a flight from America, arrived in cargo trousers and sandals. I would be lying if I said first impressions didn’t matter to me, and I very much felt there was a deliberate tone to each person’s dress.

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But despite differing styles, Packer — who himself is known for his research on lions and the impact of trophy hunting on their population numbers — was quick to address in his introduction that both Hume and Travers were there for the sake of the rhino, both having interest in preventing the species from going extinct, and increasing rhino numbers in South Africa.

Though, to me, it seemed that they were very much on different ends of the spectrum (one advocating wild populations, the other advocating protected numbers in captive circumstances — owing to ‘wild’ areas in South Africa being targeted by poachers), their mutual concern about the boom in rhino poaching over the last decade was a welcome one. The figures quoted during the debate were 15,000 white rhino exist in South Africa today, and only 5,000 black rhino. The dire severity of the case was somewhat summarised by Packer’s statement: “Most of the world doesn’t care. We are in the room are the minority — we are the ones who care enough to come here and talk about this.”

rhino at Shamwari

“If it seems too good to be true, it probably is”

Opening the debate, Will Travers addressed the importance of this question with regards to this year’s CITES meeting at the end of this month. CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, is an international agreement between governments to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. This debate is particularly topical, as there was rumour this year of South Africa presenting the case that trade in white rhino horn should be downgraded globally from Appendix I* to Appendix II, allowing horn to be exported out of South Africa.

*Currently white rhinos are listed as Appendix II for the population of South Africa and Swaziland and for the exclusive purpose of allowing international trade in live animals to appropriate and acceptable destinations and hunting trophies.

After considering all angles, under the premise that legal trade could mean more funds, and therefore better protection for living rhinos, and that legal profit could equate to US$717,000,000 per year, South Africa chose not to present the case at CITES this year. As Travers thought-provokingly explained, “On first glance it looks like ‘win, win, win’, but if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. [Changing the annotation of the Appendix II listing in Swaziland and South Africa to include the legal sale of horn] gives the message that this animal product is back on the market, and the demand will only increase.”

There were two case studies presented to illustrate this:

i) Trade in wool from the live sheared vicuña (a llama/alpaca-like member of the camel family found in South America) was legalised under certain conditions, but figures show that in 2015, 90% of the export was still illegal (i.e. not meeting these conditions), with more numbers than ever poached for their hair. 

ii) Since the opening of bear bile farms, to extract the bile of Asiatic black bear to be used in traditional Chinese medicine, the surplus ‘stock’ of this product has begun to make its way into products such as toothpaste and cleanser — ‘new product developments’, which show that as available stock increases, as does demand!

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The realities of Asia’s bear bile farms

Added to this, Travers declared that poachers are ‘entrepreneurs’, stating; “if you legally sell [horn] at $30,000 a kilo, they’ll sell at $25,000 — it’s a huge assumption that the legal market will replace illegal trade.”

So, if South Africa have chosen not to present the case at CITES, why is the debate still relevant? Well, whereas South Africa have decided against legalising the trade in horn, Swaziland — with its population of just 73 rhinos — wants to seek CITES approval instead. To do this they will require the support of two-thirds or more of the delegates present and voting.

Swaziland doesn’t have the greatest track record to date, it previously shipped 11 of its 36 wild elephants to zoos in America, due to ‘over-population’. Travers concluded, “There are no simple solutions — legalising it will not make it better, it will only make it worse.”

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“I think I have the recipe”

Second to take the floor, John Hume, ‘custodian’ to 1403 rhinos, 940 of which he has bred (making him the most successful rhino breeder in South Africa). Hume bought himself a game reserve after making his money in property, and lost his first rhino to poaching in 2007, 15 years after introducing them to the property. He now trims the horn (or rather, recruits a vet to remove then from the rhinos, under anaesthetic) as a deterrent to poachers; if there is no horn on the rhino, there is no reason to poach them.

The potentially very valuable side effect of this, is that he currently has a stockpile of 5 tons of rhino horn — as much as the collective amount of all the other private rhino owners in South Africa. On top of this, the South African government has 22 tons of horn stockpiled, which John explained is more than what is currently on the market. Thinking of the value of horn per kilo, at US$30,000 dollars, the dual narrative of conservation and business is hard to ignore.

There are currently 6200 privately owned rhinos in South Africa, meaning a further 550 per year could be bred by these private owners. The worry is, however, that they would be kept in captive conditions (so not really wild rhino numbers, after all) and private owners may not all have the same high standards of care (or financial means to provide it) — it would be the ideal scenario to enforce a regulated minimum standard, but as Packer declared ‘If we look at the examples of bear bile farms or the lion trophy hunting industry, we simply don’t regulate the standards of care’.

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Hume’s main point in this debate was that making the trade in horn illegal is not stopping it, it’s pushing it underground. “If the law doesn’t help the rhino, it should not be in place. When are we going to save the rhinos instead of the horns?” he added. “Rhinos need your local support to save them — I think I have the recipe.”

I’m currently reading Craig Packer’s book, Lions in the Balance, which examines similar issues relating to lions, and Packer challenges the conservationist to consider the survival of the species over the survival of the individual. I was willing to at least open my mind to different schools of thought over this issue and was waiting for Hume’s recipe to include all the good ingredients of a well considered plan. But it simply didn’t. It was no more complicated and considered than: ‘let’s take the risk, because the current law hasn’t caused the poaching to stop, and this way we can make money legitimately from the trade and put it back into this same system of ‘conservation’, at the standards that we have set.’

The future of African Wildlife…

It genuinely worried me that this was being considered as a legitimate option. If the numbers of rhinos being poached every year continue at the rate they are currently, the entire population could be gone in 15 years. A far more beneficial tactic would be to educate, inform and inspire the people of Africa at large to value this animal in it’s whole, live form, with no bits hacked off, and no consolation prize of captive-only populations. As Will concluded:  “The future of African wildlife lies in Africa, it’s up to them, with our support, to lead the charge.” I really hope Swaziland’s CITES proposal doesn’t set the tone.

Keep up to date with this year’s CITES meeting here: cites.org

 

2

Lions in the balance: A response from Sir David Attenborough

I am intrinsically drawn to places of nature and natural beauty, and as I sit in this very British park, barely three minutes walk from Buckingham Palace, the contrast between the book I am reading and the place in which I am reading it is not lost on me.

I am reading a fantastically insightful and honest book by the Director of the Lion Research Center at the University of Minnesota, Craig Packer, called Lions In The Balance — Man-eaters, Manes and Men with Guns. There’s a good story behind why. It was personally recommended to me by none other than Sir David Attenborough.

lions in the balance book

Last month, I did something bold (by my standards, certainly not by Craig Packer’s…), I called out my biggest idol and inspiration for promoting lion cub cuddling; despite its devastating links to the trophy hunting industry (see one of my previous posts, Bred for the bullet, for further explanation of what this industry, also known as the ‘canned hunting‘ industry, actually means).

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Naturally, the posts received a bit of a backlash. Given that I’ve written over 90 posts on this site over five years, and prior to my criticism of the Radio Times cover for Sir David’s 90th birthday, I had only received 20-odd comments, the four responses that made it onto this post are a significant portion of my audience feedback. Most of the responses were angry at me, and one even suggested that my article was “at best a publicity stunt for my blog. At worst, an insult to an honourable man who has dedicated his whole life to animals and has achieved far more in that vein than I ever will”.

Ouch. I did my best to respond diplomatically and calmly; explaining my position and my own shortcomings and former of ignorance to this issue, myself having petted lion cubs in South Africa at a place that I’ve since discovered has previously been linked with the canned hunting industry (however, Daniel’s Cheetah Breeding Centre now staunchly educates against trophy hunting, following the campaign work of an American tourist). But I quietly knew that behind the scenes, I had already voiced my concerns, privately, to Sir David, explaining about the post I had written, why I had written it and asking what his thoughts are on the current situation with lions and the canned hunting industry.

A bold move, from my perspective at least.

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A week later, I had received a handwritten reply — not directly responding to the issue, but suggesting a higher authority on lions, ‘their place within society, ecosystems, and the trophy hunting industry’. One that I would assume he agrees with.

So far, Packer’s book has been a whirlwind of diary-style entries, detailing the experience of being held at gun point in Nairobi whilst on his honeymoon; studying lion and lioness’ reactions to varying mane lengths (long vs. short) and colours (blond vs. black); and near-death experiences at the hands of malaria tablets.

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I’m looking forward to reading more of this book and seeing how his studies and experiences compare to those described by Paul Tully of Captured in Africa in his recent interview for this blog; and to perhaps further explore the darker side to the cub-cuddling issue, which Sir Attenborough himself may have inadvertently promoted.

Want to know more about my discussion with David Attenborough?

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David and the lion’s den

Sounds like a twist on a biblical story, doesn’t it? Well, there are a couple of things of epic proportions in this latest update.

Just a day after posting my recent interview with Captured in Africa about their work rescuing and relocating lions that have either fallen into the trophy hunting trade that saw Cecil the lion killed and beheaded (see my blog post Bred for the bullet for further explanation), or that have been kept captive as pets; I joined the biggest ever march against trophy hunting — taking to the streets of London alongside Born Free actress Virginia McKenna and representatives from the charities: Lion Aid, IFAW, Save Me Trust, Four Paws, One Protest and of course Born Free Foundation.

virginia mckenna march I donned my best lion themed attire, to listen to stirring speeches from campaigner Dominic Dyer, Green World TV’s Anneka Svenska and Game of Thrones actor and staunch lion advocate James Cosmo and Virginia herself (among others), as a huge crowd of hundreds of men, women, children (and dogs) of all ages called out to ‘save our lions!’ and ‘Stop trophy hunting!’.

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Given that I know full well the perils that lions go through during a life cycle in the trophy hunting industry (from petting farms as a cubs, to get them accustomed to human interaction and build a state of trust; to overcrowded pens as adolescences, where their teeth and claws are often forcibly removed; and finally a fenced off enclosure as an adult, where they have no escape from being shot with a gun or bow and arrow depending on the request of the hunter): I can’t believe that any mainstream media outlet can champion cub petting in any form, particularly in the name of conservation.

But this week, RadioTimes seem to have done just that.

imageI refuse to share a picture of myself and the magazine alone, without this weekend’s march banner, as I feel so strongly that anything that can be seen to advocate cub-cuddling is a part of the problem.

Another part of the Goliath-sized dilemma is that I am such a huge fan of Sir David Attenborough.

IMG_8429I expect, from the magazine’s standfirst stating that: “As a birthday celebration we paired him up with two playful cubs, for our exclusive photo shoot at his home” that these must be captive zoo lions, as the photo shoot is said to take place in his home, rather than at a sanctuary of any sorts.

I know that Sir David’s early work centred around zoos, with his first television series, Zoo Quest, discussed here (NOTE: a more recent blog post, which clarifies my updated stance on zoos can also be viewed here, for anyone who’s interested), but this really isn’t about zoos, or where conservationists stand on the age-old debate of do they help with awareness and conservation, or don’t they this is about encouraging photographs with lion cubs.

Literature handed out at the Global March for Lions

Literature handed out at the Global March for Lions

Please take a moment to view the image above, which details the role that cub petting tourist attractions and cub-raising volunteer programmes play in the much darker trophy hunting industry, which sees adult lions hunted for cash and their heads flown to the hunters’ home turf, to be mounted on the wall.

This is a great opportunity to add that if you haven’t seen the incredibly powerful documentary, Blood Lions, please, please check it out, to fully understand this issue.image

I would still like to know more about the lion cubs used for the RadioTimes cover: who/where do they belong to? Why were they used for this photo shoot? And why did Sir David chose to go along with it? In the meantime, I shall just returned to all the other, much-loved David Attenborough-based literature I have to hand, including the last RT issue that featured him on the cover: which only gets about as dark as the 3D glasses he is wearing! image

I’ll also be adding my name to this petition, started by Paul TullyRADIO TIMES – EXPLAIN & REMOVE YOUR COVER FEATURING DAVID ATTENBOROUGH HOLDING A CAPTIVE LION CUB and praying that Sir David uses this opportunity to open the world’s eyes to the industry surrounding commercial lion cub petting.

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Rescuing lions — an exclusive interview with Captured in Africa

One of the things I love most about blogging is having the opportunity to talk to experts and professionals in conservation about the incredible and inspiring work they are doing.

I recently wrote a post titled Bred for the bullet, which delved into the dark and only recently publicly highlighted industry of trophy hunting, or ‘canned lion hunting’.

Cecil the Lion

The now infamous Cecil the lion

As a brief catch-up, canned hunting 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’).

Over the last couple of years, I have joined campaigns and demonstrations against this awful practice, attending the premiere of the Born Free Foundation film Blood Lions and marching through the streets of London to deliver a petition to South Africa House as part of the Global March for Lions.

One of the regular faces (and speakers) at these such demos is lion campaigner and conservation champion Paul Tully, pictured below. Paul kindly agreed to answer some of my questions about canned hunting and what organisations, including Captured In Africa Foundation (founded by Drew Abrahamsson and for whom he now works), are doing to help rescue and relocate lions that fall into this brutal industry.

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Paul Tully gives a rallying speech at the Global March for Lions, Trafalgar Square, London

How and why did the foundation start?

Captured In Africa Foundation was established by my colleague Drew Abrahamson to support rescue / relocation work, but to also support our various conservation partners in the field.

Over the years, Drew has become a key individual in the fight for Africa’s lions and big cats. Having carried out and facilitated many rescues and relocations of both wild & captive lions, Drew has somewhat become one of the go-to professionals when dealing with issues affecting big cats — whether it’s a wild lion or leopard requiring intervention (to possibly be relocated, for example), or a captive bred lion in need of a safe home (many are horribly bred for the tourist petting industry, so situations often call to get them out of where they are and to a far safer environment of an ethical sanctuary).

The foundation also uses it’s position of working with leading conservationists and non-profits on the ground and include our various contacts and efforts within the tourism industry, to ensure that funds, equipment and even advice is channelled responsibly and to the people who need it most. I can’t tell you the amount of times people ask us where best to travel to that doesn’t allow hunting, or people searching for an ethical volunteer project for example. So the foundation is a fantastic well-rounded organisation to help the public.

“It’s a passion to help wildlife, not a job”

 

What is your role at Captured in Africa?

My main role is at Captured In Africa is as Sales and Marketing Manager for the safari side of the company (we have a big emphasis on responsible tourism and conservation), my role has now also taken on our foundation, which I was happy to take on and help free of charge really — it’s a passion to help wildlife, not a job. Selling safaris is also a passion, I love it because I get to do two amazing things in one with Captured In Africa. What we do at Captured In Africa and what we do at the foundation is one, there’s no separating them as they both channel into each other to ultimately benefit the wildlife we help and support.

 

What has been the most interesting or insightful project that you have been a part of?

I’ve been in the background helping where I could help on previous relocations, but the most interesting project for me personally was our latest relocation of a rescued circus lion from Spain; Natacha. Mainly because it was the first project to fall under the Captured In Africa Foundation umbrella — although Drew has been carrying out such rescues and relocations for some time now, to see everything come together, the public support and enthusiasm to help this one lion, it makes you think: imagine what our foundation could do for all lions and Big Cats?!

© Drew Abrahamson / www.capturedinafrica.com

© Drew Abrahamson / http://www.capturedinafrica.com

How many rescues or relocations have the team carried out? Have these all been Big Cats?

Big Cats is the focus of the foundation, it’s the same as our safaris, where we advocate and raise awareness of Big Cat issues. Big Cats are where our hearts are, and rightfully so. Species such as elephants and rhinos are in the spotlight due to poaching and the ivory / horn trade, however, Big Cats have almost gone unnoticed for quite a while.

I think that’s why Cecil the lion was such a large widespread issue… lions were suddenly in the spotlight and most of the world didn’t even realise that lions were in such decline and under such threats as land loss, poaching, conflict with humans and hunting. 20,000 lions left in the whole of Africa, someone has to do something about that — the Captured In Africa Foundation hope to do just that.

Drew: There have been 15 rescues to date. Not all have made it & some are in the beginning stages as well as in the near future. They have all been Lions.

“I couldn’t just sit back and see others battling to save wildlife do it alone, they need support.”

 

 Why is there a need for these relocations?

Drew: The need comes from either a volunteer realising the lion they have cared for is in danger, so they want to ‘rescue’ it and make sure it goes to a safe home, or the lions being confiscated by authorities. In the case of wild lions relocations, it’s out of necessity as the current reserve would have reached their carrying capacity. So instead of culling, they would rather find a safe home.

There are also many private ownership issues [Big Cats kept as pets] that are often not even spoken of in South Africa, yet we know they happen. Last year, for example, an image was circulated of a tiger cub at a home just outside Johannesburg — it received a lot of attention, which resulted in no action, sadly. But it’s still legal to own such animals. CIA Foundation will only intervene when the cat has been confiscated and sometimes locally with regards to trying to negotiate the with owners to hand the Big Cats over to a sanctuary.

Drew Abrahamson speaking at event

Drew Abrahamson talks about the main issues affecting big cats. © Drew Abrahamson / http://www.capturedinafrica.com

 What organisations do you work with to carry out the rescues?

Drew: The local relocations have been self-driven, however, the foundation has a close working relationship with various sanctuaries in SA. As far as international goes, we work closely with Four Paws International and Born Free Foundation on different cats issues, but not necessarily rescues. In Spain we also work with CJ and Luis at Chelui4Lions on the confiscation cases.

 

And back to Paul, What does doing this work mean to you?

Being mainly based in England, I’m not always physically there to support these rescues and relocations, but it’s often not about that. I recently wrote online that you don’t need to be in Africa to help African wildlife (or anything for that matter), you can help where your skills fit best… you just need that feeling of wanting to right the wrongs in this world.

If I can play a part by backing up my colleague Drew, marketing a rescue, facilitating communications between parties, organising fundraising campaigns, anything… to play any kind of role means a great deal to me… I couldn’t just sit back and see others battling to save wildlife do it alone, they need support. So I’m proud to be able to do that.

Captured In Africa Foundation will have a positive impact on big cat conservation for sure, it takes a lot of time and effort, but when you have great support, we can all achieve so much good for Africa’s wildlife.

For more information about Captured in Africa and their latest news, check out their blog here.

 

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Bred for the bullet

“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.”

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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.

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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.

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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’).

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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.

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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.

Literature handed out at the march

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.

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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.

imageLearning 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.

Lion cub

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.

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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.

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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.

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Putting cheetahs to bed at Tenikwa Awareness Centre

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.

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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!

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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.”

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We MUST stop scenes like this by educating the public.