When I left Ukutula Lion Park and Lodge in February 2015 I was absolutely heartbroken that I had contributed to the despicable canned hunting industry when my intentions were the exact opposite. It was the worst two weeks of my life and I haven’t been able to shrug off the guilt and forget about the little cubs I worked with so I promised myself I would try and make a difference, and now that time has come.
For the past eight months I have been tirelessly campaigning through this blog, Twitter, newspapers and just by word of mouth to raise awareness about the link between cub petting facilities and canned hunting with an ultimate goal of persuading Real Gap to discontinue the trip and now it seems it might finally have happened. It’s important not to get too excited as Real Gap unfortunately still have around 150 lion breeding parks to choose from for their trip destination, but to me and many others who have targeted Real Gap and Ukutula specifically, this is a victory of epic proportions. I imagined that it would take me years to succeed with my original goal and now it appears to have happened in only eight months which is mind blowing to me.
Obviously it has not just been me campaigning against Real Gap; I’ve been lucky enough to meet some incredible people who share the same passion as me and genuinely want to make a difference to these lions’ lives. Throughout the entire eight months since returning from Ukutula, and even while I was still on the park, Paul Tully was kind enough to help me with my blog and talk me through any questions I had. He has been campaigning harder than ever against Real Gap and we rounded up the troops and attacked them on every social media site available. We left reviews on their Facebook page until the review section was removed entirely, we wrote emails and letters to Real Gap, TUI, ABTA and even ATOL shedding light on exactly what Real Gap were contributing towards and finally, it seems they’ve caved.
As with all companies involved in cub breeding and canned hunting, Real Gap are yet to confirm the news in an official statement, concealing the truth by announcing that the trip is sold out for the entirety of 2016 which I can assure you, is completely untrue. Real Gap supply upwards of 200 volunteers to Ukutula per year and even when the trip is sold out, it still appears on their website. There’s no trace of “Live With Lion Cubs” to be found and when I questioned why (posing online as an interested volunteer) I was told the following:
“We may begin running the trip in 2017 but we have not confirmed with the partners about the dates or prices yet.”
I further questioned this information on the Live Chat on their website, which went just about as well as expected and resulted in the staff member leaving the chat service and ignoring my questions completely.
In addition to this, Paul Tully contacted Ukutula directly to challenge the information given to us by Real Gap and Ukutula managed to well and truly land Real Gap in it by stating the trip does have space next year and that they will only be taking bookings directly from now on.
“Thank you for your request for Ukutula Lion Lodge. We are looking forward to meet you. Ukutula Lion Lodge has a new booking site that only books for Ukutula. You are welcome to join our lion conservation volunteer program; we have room for you in June or July next year.”
Nice job, Real Gap.
My complaint process with Real Gap has been ongoing for eight months and I will soon be publishing all of the letters so everyone can see exactly what I’ve been up against. I’ve been accused of so many despicable and untrue things and constantly denied a refund, despite the fact I stated that all money would be donated to genuine lion charities. I provided a twelve-page schedule of evidence which was completely ignored and Real Gap stated that they fully support Ukutula and everything they do. Dealing with Real Gap has been the most exhausting challenge I have ever taken on, but it really has been worth it. I set a goal and I’ve achieved that goal, but it doesn’t stop here. In two weeks I head to European Parliament to further my campaign and I’m currently receiving an unthinkable number of hits on Claws Out and Tweets about my efforts. There’s a long way to go regarding agencies that continue to supply Ukutula and other lion breeding parks with volunteers but this is a giant step in the right direction.
As soon as I heard the news I contacted Paul Tully who was just as thrilled as I was. He was campaigning long before I was on the scene, and he’s summarised all of his hard work:
I first contacted ABTA in the UK in May 2014, with a specific goal of highlighting the TUI owned Real Gap, who were supplying volunteer projects to lion breeding and petting facilities in South Africa. Anyone breeding and offering interaction with big cats do so for one reason – financial.
Along with colleagues from Campaign Against Canned Hunting and other volunteer agencies, we went through and detailed where Real Gap were in contravention of ABTA’s regulations in providing such a project where the welfare of their animals was questionable. We discovered that the facility Real Gap were using was Ukutula – a well known exploiter of lions, where they are bred and removed from their mothers soon after birth, before being forcibly petted by tourists. The older lions then used to allow tourists to walk with them. After approximately 2 years of age, those lions are then deemed too large to interact with members of the public, with many having been sold.
Ukutula cannot provide evidence of where all their bred lions have ended up, with canned hunting a large scale business in South Africa… most people can put 2+2 together.
Myself and colleague Drew Abrahamson were then put into contact with Beth Jennings via Nathan Friesen (a former visitor to Ukutula who has campaigned to find out where a lion he adopted from Ukutula has disappeared to). Beth was at Ukutula volunteering at the time and had discovered how bad a place they truly are. Something they were worried about prior to travelling, going so far as to ask Real Gap for more information on what sort of facility they would be sent to.
During the course of the past year, we have collectively campaigned against canned hunting and facilities that which hide where their lions end up – Ukutula being one of them. An endless array of emails and letters have gone between myself and Real Gap and TUI Travel, with a view to educating then on the perils of lion breeding and interaction facilities in South Africa. Real Gap, TUI and ABTA were supplied with an endless list of evidence against such projects and were also recently given a reminder that the new expose film Blood Lions was available to watch to further educate them on these dangers.
Real Gap confirmed that they had based their decision to believe this project at Ukutula was legitimate, on the fact that Ukutula themselves had given them a signed waiver. Now anyone can provide you with a signed waiver stating that they are “against” something such as canned hunting. South Africa however is a different ball-game, with a sordid industry of exploiting and farming lions to such an extent, that there are around 7,000 lions in Captivity and only approx 2,500 in the wild in South Africa. So we have an entire industry based on the breeding of lions, cub petting & walking with lions activities and then lions being killed in captive hunts, aka canned hunting.
The important thing to remember is – from the point at which these lions are being petted and walked with, to the point at which they are killed – is how such facilities as Ukutula or Boskoppie or any other facility offering cub petting are able to hide. They will sell those lions you pet and you will not know anything about it. Volunteers and tourists are none the wiser.
I recently started a petition against Real Gap, TUI and ABTA to help our awareness efforts
I really tried not to have a favourite lion during my trip, but it was hard not to when I met Len. I haven’t stopped thinking about him since the moment I left and it was life changing to spend time with him up close and then devastating to discover the truth. There is absolutely no feeling in the world to describe the overwhelming guilt as I look back at photos of him knowing my money has contributed towards the canned hunting industry and that he may not be alive in a year, or even now. Everything I’ve done has been with Len in mind and hopefully my work can save at least one of his lion pals.