Like the rest of the world, South Africa is currently engaged in a timely debate over what constitutes responsible, ethical and authentic tourism. The issues that necessitate the debate are clear. This country is home to the predator breeding and canned hunting industries, two interrelated practices that have brought widespread condemnation for the way they use wild animals for commercial exploitation. While not all operations are involved, there are about 200 facilities holding anywhere between 6,000 and 8,000 animals in cages and captivity of some form. The vast majority are lions, but the list also includes tigers, cheetah, leopard and a variety of exotic and smaller cats. And there are also untold other facilities making significant profits through tourism activities by keeping animals such as elephants, primates, birds and wolves.
The crux of the debate has to do with how these facilities justify their existence and market themselves. Is it true or even necessary that South Africa is in need of so many so-called sanctuaries or rehabilitation and wildlife centers? Or do these places exist because we allow the commercial breeding of wild species in much the same way that farmers breed domestic stock such as cattle and sheep? And do they remotely meet the mandates of conservation, release, education and awareness as most claim, or are they merely commercial outlets exploiting wild animals for profit?
While the feature documentary Blood Lions and its global campaign to end all exploitative breeding of predators has played a role in encouraging the discussion, so too have a growing list of leaders in the global tourism industry. Over the past year, large travel organizations such as African Travel & Tourism Association, Thomas Cook, Intrepid, Trip Advisor and Expedia among others have all stopped promoting and selling animal activities such as lion and cheetah cub petting, elephant rides and swimming with dolphins.
These developments come after over 100 of the world’s leading safari and ecotourism operators signed the Born to Live Wild pledge in 2016, which commits them to promoting the wildness of predators, responsible and authentic tourism destinations as well as giving support to the legitimate conservation community.
It is encouraging that these unambiguous statements are being heard by SA Tourism. Earlier this year, Sisa Ntshona, CEO of the body, claimed that “South African Tourism does not promote or endorse any interaction with wild animals such as petting of wild cats, interacting with elephants and walking with lions, cheetahs and so on.”
Since his comments, another welcome development has been the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association, a large member-driven body offering inbound tourism services, discussion on animal-interactive activities among its membership.
In the meantime, anyone wanting to visit a facility holding predators or other wild animals can have a difficult time wading through all the misleading or incorrect information to find the legitimate operations.
Before making a decision, it is important that you consider the following.
1. Breeding lions and other predators in cages or enclosed areas has no conservation value and the practices are not supported by the recognized predator conservation community. These facilities are run and owned by farmers and business people, not by scientists or recognized conservation agencies.
2. Lions bred in captivity are not used for release into recognized conservation areas; animals from wild populations will be used. Captive-bred lions are tame and genetically contaminated, and because they have lost their wildness, they are unlikely to survive.
3. Taking lion cubs—or the young of any species—away from their mothers is not a natural process and is only done to exploit the animals and you as the visitor or volunteer. The notion that these cubs have been abandoned or were going to be killed by their mothers is mostly a ruse used to lure visitors.
4. The entire responsible and ethical tourism community has signed the Born to Live Wild pledge against supporting the predator breeding and tourism sector that uses animals for exploitation. This in itself tells a convincing story.
5. The Professional Hunters Association of South Africa does not support the captive breeding and canned hunting industries.
6. Labeling breeding farms and captive facilities as educational centers is not a universally accepted way of teaching people about animal ecology and conservation. It’s much like using fast-food outlets as a venue to teach kids about healthy nutrition and good eating habits. Visiting these facilities is mostly about entertainment, and they reinforce the message that keeping wild animals in captivity, often under cruel conditions, is acceptable and, that their natural habitats are extraneous.
7. Authentic wildlife sanctuaries and rehabilitation centers should not breed, trade or interact with the animals in any way. If the facility you want to visit does any of these, do not visit. True sanctuaries are built for the animals with ample space, not for the efficiency of human viewing.
8. By misleading you, commercial facilities are confusing vital conservation messages and priorities, which results in a potential misdirection of valuable conservation funding and effort.
9. If you are a volunteer wanting to make a contribution to South Africa’s conservation efforts, do not ask a tourism agency for advice, as they will make significant commissions through their recommendations. Instead, get in touch with your local conservation agency and ask them to link you with a recognized operation.
No one, whether a day visitor or a volunteer, wants to support the cycle of misery and exploitation these predators and other species face. Before you travel, do your research.