Last Friday at 4 pm, my friend Toby, a Swedish journalist, called me asking if I could help him find a place offering lion cub petting for tourists for an urgent assignment. I helped him and even teased him about one day joining him as a photographer for his reportages... Less than 30 min later, he called me back asking if I could accompany him for 1 or 2 days in Johannesburg... departure in 2 hours. I immediately said YES... after having recently watched a documentary called "Blood Lions", I was certainly interested to be part of that investigation.
Are you aware about was is going on in our country South Africa? I am not talking about Zuma this time... but do you know about that greedy dirty practise of canned lion hunting? Has any of you watched that documentary "Blood Lions"?
Well if you don't know what I am talking about, I sincerely recommend that you watch that film. It is an eye opener on the shooting of human-habituated lions. As cubs, these captive bred lions are often offered for petting as a tourist attraction. It is an excellent documentary which also tells you what you can do to ban this immoral and unethical practise.
Toby's last minute assignment was triggered by a photo of Sir David Attenborough posing with a lion cub on the cover of Radio Times. This issue was in celebration of the 90th birthday of this iconic conservationist. The giant English tabloid newspaper - Mail on Sunday - immediately jumped on the opportunity to connect the practise of petting lion cubs with canned lion hunting.
Now please be honest... if I invited you to come and cuddle some 3-month old tamed lion cubs... what would you do? Some of you might be afraid, but I am sure some of us could not resist playing with these cute wild kittens. That is the first problem! Lion cub petting is highly appealing for tourists as well as for hundred of volunteers who pay a small fortune to hand raise and bottle-feed these baby lions, especially when they are often told these cubs are orphans, which is rarely true.
This leads us to the second problem which is that the mothers of these cubs are bred in total captivity, often in inhumane conditions, and that their cubs are removed from them after only one day! Can you imagine how stressful this is for the mother and the cubs compared to being together for one year and a half in the wild? That practise results in highly productive female lions with 2 or 3 litters per year.
So on Saturday early morning at the Lion Park, north of Johannesburg, my job was to take several photographs of Toby petting 3 lion cubs. One cub was particularly boisterous and even managed to rip Toby's sweatshirt. The newspaper editor also wanted photos of tourists interacting with lion cubs, so we were lucky to be part of a international group with people coming from America, China and West Africa.
I love the photo of that young couple taking selfies with the lion cubs. It's a pity that the newspaper did not use that one for the main picture in the article. For me it is so much more powerful... selfies are so popular, and these young people - like most of the public - probably have no idea about the truth behind this touristic industry where cubs are used as photo props.
Then we walked with 2 teenagers : Neo, a 13-month old white lion and Ben just a bit younger, both about 80 kg. That R650 expensive experience was like a circus where captive wild animals were asked to perform for a series of photographs!
And the worst, the third problem, is what happens to these adult lions who can surely not been released and survive into the bush anymore? Some might be lucky and end-up in happy homes such as "good" zoos or private wildlife sanctuaries, but the reality is that most of these lions finish their lives as easy targets for trophy collectors, who are not even real hunters. They take a shot or more at these human-habituated lions, often drugged and confined to small enclosures. This is the ugly but highly profitable business of canned lion hunting, or better killing... no fair hunting here. BRED FOR THE BULLET as quoted on the Blood Lions website.
And South Africa is a champion with 6-8000 lions bred in captivity compared to only 3000 lions living in the wild in national parks or private game farms.
The fourth problem is that lions are now replacing tigers for their bones in traditional Chinese medicine. From 55 kg in 2011, the export of lion bones went up to 730 kg in 2012 and continues to rise... as they are more and more lions born to be killed.
Every single day in South Africa at least two to three captive bred or tame lions are being killed in canned hunts. And hundreds more are slaughtered annually for the lion bone trade.
Don't you think we as South Africans can do better?
In a strange way, I am glad that Sir David's photo is creating such waves in the print and social media... because at the end of the day, more people will be aware of what is happening and hopefully the pressure will be such that this cruel, barbaric, macabre practise of lion farming is banned for ever in South Africa.
Please do not support this unethical industry. Do not take your friends or family to these places.
The continued existence of the canned hunting of lions born to be killed is a moral and conservation outrage that must be outlawed.
See more photos taken at Lion Park.