Within todays South Africa, the opportunity to walk with and get ‘up close’ or ‘hands on’ with predators such as lions and tigers is a hugely lucrative opportunity for organisations offering this type of program. Many agencies and programs will claim that such experiences are ‘conservation’ based or ‘raising awareness’ of the plight of the animals they ‘promote’ for the experiences they sell. Regrettably though, ‘awareness and conservation’ are commonly used terms designed to mislead volunteers into attending and in turn supporting the horrific industry operating behind the scenes.

Volunteer World International were the first international volunteer agency anywhere in the world to actively raise specific awareness regarding these programs and continues to urge 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 – to provide for the industry, lion cubs are removed from their mothers 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, claims of ‘conservation’ or ‘raising awareness’ are a long way from being truthful 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 – so where do the ‘000s of animals bred to provide these experiences go?

This is the industry that is supported when booking to any program that allows hands on interaction with big cats. The more volunteers that attend, more demand is created and the more lucrative the industry becomes. This leads to more animals being required to meet demand – in the year 2000, there were approximately 1000 predators in captivity in South Africa, today there are nearer to 10,000 – a worrying sign of the times especially with wild populations and genetics dwindling.

The young animals used in pet-a-cub experiences also fulfil an unfortunate ‘void’ in the long term profitability gained through the exploitation they endure during their lifetimes. Many lion skeletons are exported to the Far East on an annual basis to make ‘tiger bone wine’ as a supposed cure for rheumatism and impotency. Needless to say, these skeletons must be fully grown and formed. Sale or ‘rental’ of the animal into ‘pet-a-cub’ programs then provides a revenue stream whilst the animal is growing rather than a cost to feed the animal before its carcass is sold. As such, not only does ‘volunteering’ at such programs ensure these animals are exposed to cruelty from only a few days old – the funds you pay also help drive a market and enhance the financial viability for the breeding of lions to go into the ‘lion bone trade’. Exploited for profit and greed from birth to untimely death. 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.

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