RAISING CUBS TO BECOME HUNTING TROPHIES
In 2014 I placed a deposit on the trip of a lifetime - "Live with Lion Cubs in South Africa". I spent a year paying the full price of the trip ready to contribute to lion conservation, not knowing it would change my life in the most unexpected way. This is my story.
I'll start straight away by stating the obvious: I could have done more research. This is something that is pointed out to me time and time again and yes, I was naive, but the information was not readily available and that is exactly why I started Claws Out.
I booked my trip through a UK agency called Real Gap (it's important to note that during my trip and the following two years of complaints, Real Gap was under different management to that of today. They no longer offer cub petting trips) and as I researched online I found a documentary about the notorious Lion Park. I instantly panicked and emailed Real Gap to double check I wouldn't be sent to Lion Park and they assured me that the chosen park has absolutely no involvement with canned hunting - the name of the park wouldn't be disclosed until I had paid the non-refundable deposit. The email on the left is the email I received and the email on the right is an email a past volunteer received - simply a copy and pasted statement.
I had absolutely no reason not to believe what Real Gap told me, so the research stopped there. I honestly believed I would be contributing towards lion welfare and when I arrived at Ukutula Lion Park and Lodge, I was told the cubs were destined to be released into reserves across Africa.
I sat through an induction talk with Gill and Willi, the owners of Ukutula, who spoke of the partnership with the University of Pretoria researching the white lion gene and TB in big cats. Willi noted that female lions at the park are put on contraception to avoid unnecessary breeding and he even mentioned a revolutionary new "tracking system" that Ukutula were developing to ensure lions would not end up in canned hunts. Two years later and this tracking system still does not exist.
There were red flags within hours of arriving at Ukutula and I should have turned around and left immediately, but I didn't.
We were first introduced to a group of five cubs that all weighed between 8-10kg each and had begun to outgrow their enclosure, so our first instruction was to shut them away in a crate (shown in the background of the photo on the right) from the end of volunteer duty at 5pm until the next morning at 8am. We piled five unruly cubs into the crate and left them piled on top of each other until the following morning, where we were greeted with urine sodden blankets and thirsty little cubs. It was heartbreaking.
The following two weeks consisted of passing 2 week old lion cubs around groups of 20+ tourists, including school children, multiple times a day. The cubs had only just opened their eyes and they were being treated like toys.
The groups of paying tourists would always want the perfect "lion selfie" which meant dragging cubs onto their laps which made them visibly agitated. On one occasion, a large cub preyed on a kneeling tourist from behind and proceeded to jump on her back and grab her ponytail in his mouth. She asked me whether there had been an attack at Ukutula and I was told to say no. That was a lie.
There are two cubs that stand out to me - Squeaky and Lola. For days, rumours swirled around Ukutula about the arrival of two brand new cubs that one volunteer was caring for in their room and yet we had never seen the cubs. Once they were two weeks old they were introduced to the volunteers and when questioning where the cubs came from, we were told they were "on loan" from a nearby park.
Kinvara, a cub born on the park, was taken from her enclosure at 18 days old and Willi, the park owner, mentioned that a male was being placed into the mother's enclosure the same day so that she could breed again. It is so important to know that in the wild, a cub will stay with the mother for up to two years, and a female will only breed every two or three years. In captivity, females are forced to breed two or three times a year.
By the time I left Ukutula, 10 new cubs in total had appeared at the park, which included two tigers. Ukutula have never provided evidence that the cubs were not ending their lives as trophies and are notorious within the lion welfare community for being one of the worst parks to exist.
During my time volunteering, we visited a nearby park to feed lions that Ukutula were "holding" before they were shipped to the Congo for release into the wild (clearly a lie). When I returned home I researched the park - Kunkuru Lodge and Spa - and was astonished to find that they offer bow hunting on site and that "dangerous game can be hunted by prior arrangement." If Ukutula have absolutely no involvement with hunting, why are they holding lions on a park that offers exactly that?
I was treated poorly and bullied by Ukutula staff for the duration of my stay and it was a truly traumatising two weeks. I had no means of leaving the park and whenever I questioned their intentions, I was belittled and made to feel stupid.
I fell in love with the lions that I worked with and it was simply impossible to forget what I had witnessed and brush it under the carpet. I knew instantly that I had to warn other volunteers and somehow bring an end to cub petting and canned hunting because, the fact of the matter is, no cub raised by humans will ever be released into the wild. If we do not act now, lions will no longer exist.