A few years ago, I worked for a voluntourism organisation in South Africa. We had a big group of volunteers arrive from overseas and all of them had one request for their time in South Africa – to pet a lion cub. Apparently, they had seen pictures of people doing just this all-over social media, so naturally they wanted to have a go too. Unfortunately, at this point, I was only at the beginning of learning about the bush and hadn’t trained as a field guide yet or studied conservation biology so, in my naivety, I had no idea of the implications of what we did next. One Saturday morning we loaded the cars with the volunteers and drove an hour down the road to a ‘wildlife sanctuary’ where we got to spend time with two lion cubs. The sanctuary owner claimed that they were orphans.
Lions are unusual when it comes to cats. They have very few competitors in their environment and they are extremely social. The main threats which they face are anthropogenic, in the form of persecution, climate change and habitat destruction. Their gregarious nature means that orphaned lions are extremely rare; if a lioness was killed her cubs would most likely be taken on by other lionesses in the pride. So how did a ‘wildlife sanctuary’ end up with two seemingly motherless lion cubs?
There’s an interesting phenomenon in the bush. When a dominant male lion in a pride dies and another takes his place this new lion will kill all the cubs in the pride. This is known as infanticide. The main reason for this is that the removal of cubs will induce oestrus in the females of the pride, allowing the male to mate with the females and have them produce his offspring. After all, it’s never been about the survival of the fittest species, it’s all about the survival of the fittest individual and ‘fitness’ means the ability to pass one’s genes down to the next generation. Unfortunately, humans have figured out how to use this to their advantage. By removing cubs from a lioness when they are only a couple of hours or days old, humans have been able to keep females in an almost constant state of oestrus or pregnant. Essentially, they’ve created lion breeding machines which pump out cute lion cubs, perfect for petting.
Does that sound like a world that someone who innocently wants a photo with a lion cub would want to get involved with if they knew the real story? You’d be forgiven if you’ve never heard of any of this, it’s all hidden under the façade of ‘conservation’. But unfortunately, cub petting is just one cog in a whole machine of unethical wildlife interactions which includes walking with lions, the pseudo trophy hunting industry – also known as canned hunting – and the lion bone trade.
The global African lion population stands somewhere between 23,000 and 39,000 individuals and the species now occupies only 8% of its historical range. In South Africa alone there are roughly 300 lion breeding facilities which are home to around 7,800 lions. Shockingly, there’s never been a complete audit of these facilities, so numbers are estimates at best. Some would claim that we should be happy to have people breeding lions to bolster declining wild populations. But do they really do this? Can farmed lions really be released into the wild? No, absolutely not.
A lot of cub petting facilities claim that their cubs will be ‘released in to the wild’ when they are old enough. This is both utterly false and would be dangerous ecologically if it did take place. Introducing lions that have been habituated to humans and have never been taught to hunt to a protected area is a disaster waiting to happen. On top of this, there is the possibility that introduced individuals could have disruptive genetic effects and bring disease or parasites into a wild lion population which could have devastating consequences. In fact, many suggest that breeding lions for consumptive uses such as cub petting adds yet another threat to the very existence of wild lions. It draws attention and tourism income away from national parks where entire ecosystem conservation takes place and directs it towards businesses which contribute nothing to lion conservation and make their profit from lying to customers.
There are so many better ways to interact with nature in southern Africa. It truly has some spectacular sites which are worthy of your time and effort. However, I cannot think of a time or place when directly interacting with, or touching, wildlife is acceptable as an activity for tourists. Educationally speaking, the knowledge to be gained from taking a selfie with a lion cub can be equalled, if not surpassed, by sitting in a game viewer and going on a drive to view lions in their natural habitat. It allows one to understand how all aspects of an ecosystem interact and how all members are dependent on each other. It provides a strong knowledge base from which to develop as a conservationist. It is far more informative than sitting in an unnatural pen with an animal which has never had a natural life, not since the day in was born.
So, chances are, the cubs that we saw years ago with the volunteers were not ‘orphans’, they had been bred for profit. They were part of a whole industry built on deceiving countless well-meaning tourists. If nothing else, that exploitation of innocence seems to be the most unethical part of this whole debate. If I were to leave you with one piece of advice it would be this: you can learn far more about lions through watching them in the wild than getting up close and far too personal with them in a cub petting facility. Stop going to ‘sanctuaries’. Instead, spend your money in a national park or game reserve. You might have to spend longer looking for lions, but the reward will be far greater, and you’ll actually be contributing to long term lion conservation.
For more information on cub petting and lion breeding have a look at these articles:
Coals, P. Burnham, D. Loveridge, A. Macdonald, D.W. ‘T sas-rolfes, M. Williams, V.L. & Vucetich, J.A. 2019. The ethics of human-animal relationships and public discourse: a case study of lions bred for their bones. Animals.9(52). P 1- 21.
Harvey, R.G. 2020. Towards a cost-benefit analysis of South Africa’s captive predator breeding industry. Global ecology and conservation. 23. E01157.
Tully, P. 2019. Exposing South Africa’s predator park scams. Conservation matters (Endangered Wildlife Trust). Issue 12.
Williams, V.L. & ‘T sas-rolfes, M. 2019. Born captive: a survey of the lion breeding, keeping and hunting industries in South Africa. Plos one. 14(5): e0217409.