IVF Lions at Ukutula - Conservation or yet another Con?
News broke earlier this week that Ukutula "Conservation Centre" is now home to two lion cubs born through artificial insemination. As you'll know by know, Ukutula is the very park where I spent 2 weeks volunteering in 2015, but I'll try* not to be biased.
*Spoiler: I won't try very hard
Where do I begin?
Let's start with the elephant in the room, or shall we say the lions, tigers, hyena, cheetahs and caracals. Ukutula still offer cub petting to volunteers and tourists across a variety of species. Ukutula not only breed cubs all year round, which is incredibly unnatural for lions in the wild, but they also hire cubs from nearby parks to ensure there's enough to be passed around. Once the lions are too big for walking, they leave Ukutula. Various reports show the lions end up in zoos across the world but what about the rest? Lions come and go at Ukutula with no trace; the link between cub petting, canned hunting and the lion bone trade in South Africa is no secret. The obvious point to make here though is, of course, that there is absolutely no reason for Ukutula to be allowing tourists and unqualified volunteers handle or raise lions - this has absolutely no benefit for the lions and in fact renders them useless for any successful release programme. It is simply a money making scheme adopted by up to 100 other petting parks in the country. Ukutula isn't special.
Now moving onto the IVF. Working with the University of Pretoria, two lion cubs were born in August via artificial insemination. The University has stated that their research "opens new opportunities to improve breeding of captive and free ranging lion populations, and thereby assisting conservation efforts on this species". On the surface, this sounds convincing enough and it definitely makes a good headline for the Daily Mail or the Sun. But recently, almost 20 of the world's leading conservation and research organisations have disputed such claims in an open letter to the University.
Some main points to highlight in the letter:
To summarise, the letter explains the following:
“We do not support the captive breeding of lions, whether assisted or not, because it does not contribute to biodiversity conservation or address the main threats to wild lion conservation. Furthermore, the captive lion breeding industry in South Africa is associated with the exploitation of lions through interaction activities (lion cub petting and lion walks), canned trophy hunting of lions (the trophy hunting of tame lions in enclosed spaces) and the lion skeleton trade.
“Lack of ability to breed is not a recognized conservation threat to the wild lion. In fact, managers of reintroduced lion populations in small reserves (<1000km) in South Africa are challenged by high rates of population increase and how best to control them, often resorting to contraceptive methods.”
“The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species recognizes the following as major conservation threats: human-lion conflict; prey depletion; use of lion bones and body parts for traditional medicine; and trophy hunting. With respect, your research addresses none of these threats.”
Based on the information above, and my firsthand knowledge of how Ukutula operates, I know where I stand. But what's your opinion? You can participate in Blood Lions' public opinion survey here.