Lions To The Slaughter - Avoiding Unethical Wildlife Volunteering

lion in game parkAfrica – vast, untamed and mysterious; the Cradle of Mankind - the continent’s very name has produced a thrill in the heart of would-be adventurers and philanthropists for centuries. It’s the home of huge tracts of wild savannah, lush arboreal forests, and of course the so-called Big Five - African elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard, rhinoceros, and lion.

Lovers of nature might be drawn to websites and advertisements offering volunteering experiences in conservation, wildlife management and animal welfare. However, not all are aware that some of the venues advertised are commercial factory farms, posing as legitimate sanctuaries and nature reserves. They are maintained strictly for tourist revenue; and may be involved in cruel, unethical practices – often while using volunteers for free labour and income generation.

There’s been a lot of publicity in recent years about the canned hunting phenomenon, where wealthy customers pay to ‘hunt’ defenceless captive-bred big cats. Trophy hunters are attracted by the guarantee of success – as well as having no natural fear of humans, the animals are confined in a space that makes it easy for them to be shot. They’re also attracted by the price: a wild lion shot on a safari in Tanzania could cost £50 000, whereas a captive-bred lion could cost only £5 000 in South Africa. Some years ago, the South African government effectively banned canned hunting by requiring an animal to be able to roam free for two years before it could be hunted, therefore restricting its profitability. But lion breeders challenged the policy in the courts and a high court judge eventually ruled that such restrictions were "not rational". The number of trophy-hunted animals in South Africa has since soared. From 2001 to 2006, 1830 lion trophies were exported from South Africa; in the following five years to 2011, 4062 were exported, a 122% increase, and the vast majority of these were captive-bred animals.

lion draggedMost people thinking about volunteering with wildlife are, rightfully, horrified by this practice and would never dream of involving themselves in it. It’s not always obvious, however, that some innocent-seeming parks and ranches are aiding and abetting the canned hunting industry. Volunteers thinking of working at one of these places should be aware that any venue offering cub petting is at the very least an accessory to this heinous practice, even if they’re not an active participant. They ensure the young animals get used to humans, which makes them easy to control. Ethical organisations, whose concern is to rehabilitate animals for life in the wild, do NOT let them get used to being in contact with lots of different people as it weakens their natural defences.

Cub petting, and taking photographs with cubs, is offered as a tourist attraction and is extremely lucrative. Young cubs are taken too early from their mothers for this purpose – causing a great deal of stress and ill-health to both mothers and cubs. When the cubs are too big to be handled, they might be goaded into predatory hunting displays for onlookers, and are then either used for (in)breeding or are recycled into the canned hunting industry.

Cub petting is a practice that many game park owners will attempt to justify, so as to keep the tourists and their money streaming in. Visitors will often be told that the mother lions aren’t producing enough milk for the cubs (this is RARELY if ever seen in the wild), and that taking them away to be bottle-fed is therefore justified. They’re told that the mothers don’t miss the cubs, when in actual fact, they are extremely stressed and can lose all their hair, amongst other symptoms. They’re told that the park owners sell the adult lions to other parks or farms but “don’t know” what happens to them afterwards. They’re even told that the hunting industry helps to fund conservation, and that shooting tame lions helps to protect wild lions. This has been proven to be completely untrue – wild lion populations have decreased by 80% in the last 20 years to their current near-extinction levels, so commercial lion breeding and hunting is definitely not in the wild animals’ interest.

Lion farming and canned hunting also create a financial incentive for local people, who then collude with poachers or turn a blind eye to illegal lion killing. Trophy hunters who pay to bag a captive-bred lion might well graduate to the wild version – further stressing an already endangered lion population, impacting on a fragile ecosystem, and teaching the locals that the nature that surrounds them is merely a commodity for rich foreigners.

As if all this wasn’t hair-raising enough, these venues are actively seeking volunteers to pay fees and offer free labour, thereby cutting their labour costs and filling their coffers even more. So how can you as a right-thinking volunteer avoid signing up to work at an unethical game park that exists purely to make a profit at the expense of the animals’ welfare? 

ranger and lionDo your research carefully and arm yourself with knowledge. Any game park offering cub petting to the general public IS promoting canned hunting, whether they admit it or not, and you should cross these off your list of possible volunteer projects immediately. If a large number of the lions featured in the park’s advertising are white or blonde in colour instead of golden brown, this is a sure sign that they have been indiscriminately inbred. A park that allows big cats to breed IS NOT promoting the wellbeing or the conservation of the species – ethical organisations give the female animals contraception that prevents breeding until they are fit to be released into the wild. If the organisation is focused on rehabilitating and caring for animals raised in captivity, that are not fit to return to the wild (most of the ‘blonde’ lions are unfortunately in this category), they will usually also be sterilised or given contraception to prevent the added stress of pregnancy and birth. All the lions in a well-run facility are allowed to live in their natural prides instead of whiling away their lives in lonely single enclosures.  

If you are in touch with volunteer project co-ordinators, ask whether they screen the wildlife projects they are affiliated with for ethical practices, and use your discretion – many volunteers simply assume that the organisation automatically ensures that all their projects are above board. Unfortunately some volunteer organisations are run purely as a for-profit industry, and either don’t know or don’t care about what happens at the projects down the line. A well-run, ethical organisation will be able to offer you information about projects that have been blacklisted by concerned volunteers who have experienced their practices first-hand.

There are wildlife projects throughout Africa who work tirelessly alongside nature instead of against it, often with minimal funding and while facing big challenges. Their goal is to help minimise the effects of human habitation on the environment. Some are also actively involved in educating the local inhabitants about the importance of the environment, and that wild animals are not a commodity but deserving of a life that was intended for them by nature. Make sure you find them - THESE are the projects that desperately need the time and resources of volunteers, not the factory farms who will use you for free labour and profit.


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