We’ve been a little quiet here at Claws Out recently, which has been largely due to pursuing a formal investigation with Real Gap, but as we have also been preparing this update. We were recently approached through the contact page on our blog by Sarah, a guest at Ukutula for three days in February. It later transpired that Sarah and her friend were on the same tour of Ukutula as us and after exchanging numerous emails, Sarah offered to write their experience for Claws Out.
We’d like to thank both Sarah and her friend for their support and for allowing us to publicise their review. We are astounded at the accuracy of their account and it truly has been refreshing to know we were not alone in our worries. If guests that paid to stay at Ukutula for three days managed to draw the same conclusions as volunteers who stayed for two weeks, something is clearly not right.
When my friend asked me to head to South Africa with her I didn’t think twice, until she told me she was going to volunteer at a lion park for 17 days. I wanted to experience South Africa, but had minimal interest in staying in the same place for an extended period in a country I had never explored before. We compromised and planned our trip accordingly to include a few days as guests at Ukutula. I had mixed feelings on Ukutula much before our arrival, as I couldn’t understand how they could collect approximately $1800 from each volunteer & still have it be considered a volunteer experience. Add that skepticism to the 60 minutes expose that appeared just weeks before our departure and imagine my trepidation.
A quick 17 hour journey later & an overnight in Johannesburg passed before we were on our shuttle to Ukutula. Upon arrival we were ushered into the restaurant area and told to leave all of our belongings in the middle of the dining hall. So as not to rock the boat quite yet, we followed suit & embarked on our tour of the grounds. Later in the day, after our tour, we were scolded for walking through the guest’s dining room to retrieve things from our bags. Uninterested in picking a fight, we just apologized for our ignorance and went about our business. In all honesty the grounds & chalets are lovely and the staff are generally pleasant (as long as they know you are guests & not volunteers).
We were given the grand tour with other volunteers who had just arrived. While the ranger was very pleasant, her knowledge seemed to be limited to a memorized speech she was expected to regurgitate several times daily. I honestly thought, perhaps naively so, that there would be more of a free roaming animal population, not cage after cage after cage. The bullshit kept flowing as she spouted on about Ukutula researching the while lion gene & being involved in lion research in general. Great, but why are the cheetahs, hyenas & tigers penned up if they aren’t being “researched”? Next up, volunteers cleaning a hyena pen the size of a dog kennel. We were warned of electric fences every time we stopped to ogle another caged animal. One of our last stops on our tour was at the tiger’s cage. The ranger told us some highly unlikely story for how tigers ended up on their property. I mean really, a tiger belongs in a pen in South Africa just about as much as it belongs in Mike Tyson’s hotel room in Las Vegas. They said the female tiger “may be pregnant” but they had no way of knowing. Her belly was nearly dragging on the ground. It doesn’t take a genius to spot pregnancy in an animal that large. I’ve now read that there were indeed baby tigers being inappropriately handled just days after birth. Yay! more baby animals to exploit!
To end our tour we were let into the cub enclosure to play with them for a bit. The cubs were bigger than I expected and the ranger & volunteers would hit them on their nose if they were acting like lions. We were asked to sanitize our hands before playing with them and when this practice was explained it was said that the lion cubs could catch a human’s common cold or sniffles. When I asked the ranger if common colds were zoonotic it was painfully evident she didn’t know the meaning of “zoonotic”. This term is so basic in the care of animals it is seriously frightening that the rangers & ultimately the owners of Ukutula don’t know the accurate zoonotic risks of human & lion interaction. I won’t lie and say I wasn’t wowed by petting a lion cub, but in retrospect I’m ashamed that I have ultimately had a hand (no pun intended) in perpetuating cub petting.
The second morning we were staying at Ukutula we had no structured plans so we headed over to play with the cubs again. They were now being monitored by new volunteers. I jokingly asked one of the new volunteers what happened over night that made her qualified to now supervise guests interacting with cubs. Apparently the answer is about as accurate as the shoulder shrug I received. With every minute that passed I was even more thankful that our stay would end in just a few days.
During our stay, we had a chance to speak with Willi (the owner of Ukutula) in regards to Hartbeersport Elephant “sanctuary”. Several volunteers had given us the impression that the elephant sanctuary at Hartbeersport was not very impressive, but no one told us exactly why it was so lackluster. When we asked Willi why people were less than impressed with this park, he launched into a ridiculous story about poor school children being afforded the opportunity to witness & interact with these animals. He went on & on about the children who would never be able to afford to see these wild animals in their natural habitats. Coming from the States, I’d say more often than not kids have never and may never see an elephant out in the bush. Never seeing an elephant in the bush is far from a life crisis for both Americans & South Africans. Turn on Discovery Channel, watch a documentary & spare the torture of these glorified circus animals. Ukutula & it’s employees should be ashamed of cross promoting such a dump of an elephant “sanctuary”. My 500 square foot apartment would be more luxurious than the pen these elephants were caged in. Feed them pellets & experience it while 5 shock fences stand between you and the elephant. While Ukutula is not at fault for these conditions, they should be condemned for sanctioning such a horrible excuse for an “elephant sanctuary”.
Back at Ukutula, our much anticipated lion walk was soured by rude volunteers, rotten chicken, & lions being reprimanded with a sharp stake if they behaved as such. One lion jumped down from a tree that was way too high for his abilities. He was coaxed into jumping down & face planted causing bleeding from his mouth that was entirely brushed off by the guides. When we returned from the walk we were able to see all the lions that were being held in one large pen. There were too many to count & the guides had trouble getting the lions, who had joined us on our walk, back into the aforementioned cage.
Other not so important details include rude receptionists, cranky volunteers, overpriced chalets & the worst wifi on earth. When we returned home & e-mailed the owners with a complaint it was left unanswered. I can only hope that with more negative experiences spread across the internet more people will hesitate to sign up for this absurdity they refer to as “volunteering”.
Our short stay at Ukutula & visit to Hartbeersport elephant torture camp left us entirely disgusted by tourism that is fueled by wild animals in captivity. Amongst many regrets, I’m ultimately grateful that I wasn’t bamboozled by my experience at Ukutula. I don’t & probably never will understand volunteers who return time and time again. Willi & Jill should be paying volunteers to help & not vice-versa. I whole-heartedly believe that Ukutula’s main sources of income are generated from their “volunteer” program & sale of adult lions.