By Marianne Heron
There’s a missing link in South Africa, not the one between homosapiens and modern humans.It’s a link between cub petting and the fast growing trade in exploiting and killing lions, and it’s one to which tourists seem extraordinarily blind.
Cuddling playful lion cubs, volunteering to feed and care for adorable young cats or walking with them may seem like a once in a lifetime opportunity. But what visitors don’t see is that for these big cats, this seemingly innocent start in life leads to canned hunting of lions for the overseas trophy trade, to lion farming in cruel conditions, or to the slaughter of these kingly creatures in order to meet the demand for their bone in the Far East.
It’s the connection between petting and cruelty which two crusading young women are trying to drive home through Panthera, a big cat sanctuary for rescued lions and tigers near Stanford in the Western Cape. Lizaene Cornwall and Cathrine Nyquist fell in love with big cats through volunteering on breeding projects before their eyes were opened to the fate of the cubs that had been in their care. “The hardest day of my life was to find out what this industry was really about and how horrible the conditions are where the lions are kept,’ Cathrine, known as Cat, told me when I visited the Panthera Africa Sanctuary, which is dedicated to creating awareness of the need for ethical and sustainable tourism and putting a stop to the deadly trade.
The truth that emerged for Cat and Lizaene is ugly. It is estimated that there are around 8 000 captive lions in South Africa compared with around 2 000 wild lions and that there are around 160 lion and other big cat breeding farms here. Captive cubs are taken from their mothers when they are just a few days old, where in the wild they normally wean off their mothers at six months. And without the contraceptive effect of lactation, lionesses are used as breeding machines bearing two or three litters a year compared with one litter every two or three years in the wild.
Cubs are used for the petting or walking industry, and when grown they are used in breeding farms where conditions are often appalling, while male lions are often destined for canned hunting. Alternatively, lions are killed to satisfy the growing demand for lion parts (used as a substitute for tiger parts destined for the Far East where these are believed to have magical medical powers).
Tourists involved in petting and volunteering are often told that they are aiding conservation. This simply isn’t true. Cubs that have been petted and raised by humans cannot be returned to the wild, as they simply don’t know how to survive.
Given the kind of public outrage that erupts over trophy and canned hunting as seen when Cecil, a wild Zimbabwean lion was shot by American Walter Palmer in 2015, people may wonder why more isn’t done at official level to stop the lion trade.
When I put this question to Chris Mercer of the global NGO CACH (Campaign Against Canned Hunting) this was his response: “We have found by bitter experience that the South African government is determined to promote lion farming and canned lion hunting, together with all its spin-offs, including the lion bone trade. All our campaign efforts have fallen on deaf ears in the SA Department of Environmental Affairs which, as we have explained many times, has been captured by the hunting industry.”
State capture of a different nature is involved here, with money again as the underlying motive. The price to wealthy American and European tourists for shooting a canned lion starts at around 5 000 GBP. Then there is the problem of toothless regulations. “Cub petting thrives in a vacuum where animal welfare regulation should exist,” says Chris.” Other than a provincial Ordinance in one of the nine South African provinces, there is no control over the interaction between animals and the public.”
Ending the lion trade will only come about, Lizaene and Cat passionately believe, with a switch to ethical and sustainable tourism and the kind of education and conservation they are promoting through Panthera Africa.