Walking with predator experiences – valuable conservation or not?  A contentious issue in South Africa.

Within South Africa, the opportunity to walk with and get up to close to predators such as lions and tigers is a hugely lucrative opportunity for organisations offering this type of program due to the huge demand from overseas for these experiences.  Many organisations will claim that such experiences are ‘conservation’ based or ‘raising awareness’ of the plight of the animals they promote – for the most part though, awareness and conservation are a long way from the actual purpose of the offered program and are terms which often are used to cover up and mismarket the fact that, at the end of the day, the animals are bred and provided for the entertainment of volunteers purely as a marketing ploy to attract visitors and make a profit with little or no care for the future of they animal they have ‘purchased’ or ‘bred’ to provide what they offer.

Volunteer World International South Africa Walk with Lions
Lion cubs showing obvious signs of stress at a pet-a-cub program

Volunteer World International urges all potential volunteers whether booking with ourselves or not, to consider the effects of such ‘pet-a-cub’ or ‘walk with lions’ programs in South Africa, your support to them and the consequences of such.  In real world terms, imagine this – from a very young age, a lion cub is removed from its mother at only days old to be handled daily by visitors, providing them with hands on experience of these amazing animals – great for the visitor, but what effect does this have on the animal?  Denied of a wild upbringing and the essential bond with its mother, these animals often develop health issues and become tame or at least accustomed to humans – what then when the animal grows larger?  The animal then becomes too dangerous to be handled (wild instinct is always there) and too tame to be released thus what options does the animal then face?  Either a life in captivity or sale into canned hunting – either way, conservation or raising awareness cannot be claimed to be the driving force of the program as no real value to either is provided.  Scientific proof is available to substantiate this point from various reputable sources which confirm that not a single captive bred lion has ever been successfully released into a 100% wild environment.

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Lions are proud predators – not suited for a life behind bars

With huge demand for such experiences and the subsequent turnover of animals required to provide them, the number of animals involved in these practices and thus potential negative impact are sizeable.  On this basis alone, and with the additional potential links to canned hunting programs in evidence from certain organisations and Volunteer World Internationals commitment to only offering ethical and sustainable volunteer experiences, we do not offer ‘pet-a-cub’ programs and would urge all potential volunteers wishing to undertake this type of experience to consider the effects of their choice. The secondary effects of such programs are sizeable also and whilst direct effects are easily identifiable (direct effects include the number of animals that are bred and produced to provide these sort of experiences and the subsequent links to canned hunting), the secondary effects are maybe not so obvious.  To explain, consider that if 100 international volunteers come to South Africa, 50 of whom visit a ‘pet-a-cub’ program.  Not only does this substantiate the ‘pet-a-cub/canned hunting’ industry and provide no conservation value at all, it also waters down the support that is then received by the ‘not for profit’ rehabilitation centres and charities that rely on volunteer visits to fund their ongoing work and ultimately, on many occasions, have to pick up the pieces and privately fund the care of animals bred purely for profit by unscrupulous operators with no consideration for the animals future.

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A lioness and her cubs viewed where they were meant to be – in the wild!

Despite the current huge demand for this type of experience, VWI will continue to stand by our decision not to be associated with this industry and would encourage all volunteers instead to attend projects where these stunning animals can be viewed where they are meant to be viewed, in the wild.  For those though definitely intent on pursuing this type of experience, we urge you to ask the following questions to your agency prior to booking and ensure you are happy with their answers:

  1. What is the genuine purpose of the program?
  2. Where are the animals sourced from?
  3. What happens to the animals once they can no longer be handled by visitors?

For further unbiased information on this subject, we strongly recommend reading of the Panthera (a worldwide organisation of leading big cat experts implenting and developing valid conservation programs: www.panthera.org) blog here.

Lions and other big predator species utilised for ‘pet-a-cub’ encounters are wild animals, however domesticated they appear and as such do not suit a captive life.  For any volunteers with a genuine passion for lions and other African predator species, we strongly encourage you to visit a project where these majestic animals can be viewed where they are meant to be viewed – wild in their natural habitats and happily this can be achieved at all of Big 5 Game Reserve Volunteer Programs!