Today the world’s focus will be turning towards our lions, which is the perfect opportunity to raise awareness to the damage that tourists are doing all in the name of ‘conservation’.
It may seem like common sense that cub petting does not contribute towards conservation in any way shape or form, but this information is not widely available when young volunteers book their trips. Certainly before I made the mistake of visiting Ukutula earlier this year I had done some research on hunting in South Africa, but it’s often easy to forget just how convincing these lions farms can be. I was reassured by Real Gap that they “support the campaign against lion hunting and are opposed to all forms of animal cruelty” and that the project I would be visiting “has signed up to our statement of commitment to animal welfare, publicly stating they are opposed to lion hunting and confirm they have no connections with this industry.”
Real Gap did not disclose the name of the park until shortly before I departed and their reasoning is evident when you search for #Ukutula on Twitter and Instagram. The hashtag is flooded with previous volunteers and animal campaigners shaming the park for their contributions towards excessive cub breeding and their widely discredited use of cub petting and lion walking to attract volunteers from around the world. Lion parks that offer cub petting experiences can reportedly earn up to £35,000 a month from volunteer revenue alone, which really prompts the question – where does this money go? I would love to believe that this money contributes towards the care of their cubs ensuring they live a 5 star life but after visiting the shabby enclosures and seeing 5 cubs stashed in a puppy cage overnight, I think it’s safe to say that is not the case. Perhaps we’d like to believe that this money ensures the cubs will not end up in canned hunting facilities? Wrong again. Although Ukutula assure their volunteers they do everything in their power to stop the cubs ending up in canned hunts, Willi Jacobs stated that once the cubs are sold to their new owners, it is impossible for him to control where they are sent next.
Unfortunately Ukutula are not the only park of its kind in South Africa. There are around 150 lion parks and captive breeding facilities around the country that hold approximately 5,800 lions overall and don’t be fooled, none of these lions will ever be released into the wild. They will most likely be sold to canned hunting facilities (or at least the ‘middle men’) and even to zoos and private collectors. These lion parks offer volunteers and tourists the opportunity to work up close with these amazing animals for ‘conservation’. Ukutula love to use the cover story that they are at the forefront of genetic research with the University of Pretoria and they partake in the ethical breeding of white lions. There is no such thing. Forced captive breeding is not ethical nor it is it credited within the circles of genuine lion conservationists and certainly not when the lions are breeding constantly throughout the year, as opposed to once every second or third year in the wild.
The reality of the situation is that Ukutula are one of 150 parks using lion cubs to bring in tourist revenue which will not actually contribute towards the true conservation efforts being undertaken in South Africa. These parks offer cub petting so naive tourists and volunteers will cuddle them and take endless selfies, which will be spread over social media, before the lions become too big for cuddling and are instead used for lion walks. Once the lions are too big for walking they are often sold to their ‘new owners’ and after that…well who knows? Willi Jacobs certainly doesn’t.
I can say from first hand experience that there is absolutely no feeling worse than the realisation you have contributed towards such a disgraceful industry when you intended to do quite the opposite, but this is an ongoing and growing problem. I have been able to admit that I was naive and have been using my experience to spread the word over social media, which is not always welcomed. I have recently been called sadistic and a bully from Ukutula volunteers who continue to rave about their conservation contributions to their hundreds of Instagram followers while being completely unaware of the truth. It’s hard to admit that you’ve spent thousands of pounds which will not benefit lions whatsoever, but this is the first step to banning canned hunting altogether.
We need to stop companies like Real Gap, part of TUI, from sending unsuspecting and naive volunteers to lion parks in the name of conservation and what better day to spread the word than World Lion Day? Please share our blog to your friends who might be considering cub petting trips, or even parents of young teenagers who might be duped into doing the same.