Foreword by Malena Persson, Campaign Against Canned Hunting (CACH), UK
“I often look at social media pages from various lion farms and shake my head in sadness, desperately wishing that the young volunteers, surrounded by lion cubs, would wake up to see the truth. That there is no conservation value in captive breeding of lions, and that raising these cubs only channels a big pile of money into a vile industry, as well as providing a steady stream of future trophies. For a CACH rep, who on a daily basis works to raise awareness about canned hunting, it just seems so obvious; tame lions can never ever be released into the wild. But lions are not the only victims in this con. Not long ago CACH received an email from Lucy, a former volunteer who had been to one of South Africa’s most popular lion facilities. Lucy approached us because she had discovered the truth about volunteering with lions, and she had a wish to share it with the world. CACH offered her support, and the help to get her story out.”
“When I read about her experiences, the full scale of the canned hunting operation hit me – these poor individuals are being harshly duped into repressing what little suspicions they have. They get entirely caught up in the long string of lies, which they are being fed over and over. Ugly lies are hidden behind cuteness, as lion cubs are dangled in front of the volunteers to take their eyes, and mind, off their gut feeling: that something is very very wrong. Lion farms are clever, they bring up the horrors of canned hunting before anyone even asks about it, assuring their volunteers that they are indeed the good guys, and that they never would have anything to do with that kind of appalling cruelty. Lion breeding facilities abuse the trust of genuinely goodhearted young people. They are allowed to operate in the open, and shamelessly use individuals just like Lucy, who have worked many hours to pay for a trip to South Africa. Who has spent all their savings on a wish to go and do good things for an endangered species and give something back to the world. Many volunteers go to South Africa because they want to help, they want to save lions. But instead they end up supporting one of the biggest frauds of our time. And it is about time that everyone sees captive breeding of lions for what it is – it is the first step in the canned hunting chain, it is deception with a deadly end” – Malena Persson, Campaign Against Canned Hunting (CACH), UK
Volunteering with lions: discovering the truth behind the sham!
Article written by Lucy Stewart
I had always been an animal lover – more specifically a cat lover! – since I was little. So when I finished school in 2013 and started contemplating going travelling it seemed only logical that I would sign up for an animal based volunteering trip. I looked through hundreds of online websites and found Real Gap – a company centred around sending keen students abroad on trips of a lifetime, volunteering, working, adventuring all around the globe. Amongst their top trips was the ‘Live with Lion Cubs’ experience, two weeks in South Africa with hands on experience helping rehabilitate lions, all in the name of conservation. It sounded like a dream come true, and up until very recently when I discovered the truth, I thought it was.
I spent the entire year working part time as a waitress to save up the money to be able to afford this trip, as well as using money I had received for my eighteenth birthday – it was such a good cause that I didn’t mind spending it all at once. The trip itself cost £1,118, with flights on top of that costing another £800. After securing my place on the trip I began researching into what I would be doing on the trip – and the excitement built the more photos I looked and reviews I read.
Prior to the trip, and up until fairly recently – I was not at all clued up on the canned hunting business, I knew all about poachers and trophy hunting, the idea disgusted me but it seemed miles away from anything concerning me and what I was about to do. I posted a tweet expressing my excitement about the trip, and received a message from a girl urging me to avoid Ukutula and that the reserve was affiliated with canned hunting. I shut this down instantly, after clicking on a link to a Facebook group called ‘Volunteers in Africa Beware’ and seeing horrific videos and stories regarding these lion cubs. I was incredibly distraught but managed to convince myself that it was an online troll, and tried to push the images out of my head.
The idea played on my mind however, and I sent a message to a representative at Real Gap querying the reserve in which I would be staying and working at, and the response I got was just what I needed to ease my mind – disgusted at the very idea of canned hunting, and assuring me the trip I was taking part in was solely based on conservation. I was told, like thousands of other young volunteers, that white lions were bred on the reserve for conservation and would be released into reserves around South Africa when they grew up. This eased my mind totally.
On arriving at the reserve on 17th July 2014, after delayed, detoured, and missed flights which had me in tears and exhausted – around 28 hours travelling in total – I was more excited than I had ever been. The reserve itself was beautiful, located in Brits, just outside of Johannesburg. We were shown to our room which was in the ‘Devils’ enclosure – a small hut surrounded by the twenty-six 3-6-month old lion cubs, it felt like a dream come true, I truly could not believe I was finally there.
There were eight volunteers in my group, who had all booked via the same company, and these were the people I had most contact with. On the reserve at the same time as us however, were about 25 other volunteers, some of which had been to Ukutula before. After meeting the other volunteers in my group and quickly establishing firm friendships which I still hold to this day, we fell into our roles of volunteers at Ukutula very quickly. On the reserve at the time were four young cubs, which we looked after and cared for on cub duty – the environment seemed welcoming enough, although the staff at times were incredibly rude, and any time a question regarding the animals should come up they seemed to dismiss and scorn us, as if we should have known. For example, one of the volunteers asked do the Devils get cold in their enclosure all night – and the female ranger laughed in an extremely patronising way, completely dismissing the query. For volunteers with no experience, in a new learning environment, to be treated like this was a bit off putting, especially as we were only trying to learn in order to care for the animals. Despite this, however, the animals seemed cared for and the rangers seemed to show genuine affection for the lions.
In our duties of cleaning enclosures, however, I began to feel slightly uneasy. The cheetah’s enclosure was small and overgrown, and she was in there 24 hours a day, completely alone – this did not seem to make sense to me, as the reserve was based on white lion conservation, so what place did the cheetah hold in the grand scheme of things? The same situation applied to the two tigers, who were fully grown and pacing back and forth in their enclosure. We were told at the time the tigers were mistreated when they were younger and would not survive in the wild alone, how much of this was true is unknown. Amongst these, there were two hyenas on the reserve, which we were told belonged to the owners’ son, who was one of the rangers there. These hyenas were treated like pets and seemed to share his genuine affection – like a pet dog who had grown up with its owner. When clearing the hyenas’ enclosure – which was small and fairly sparse – they would run the entire length of the enclosure back and forth in a straight line, looking utterly demented. It reminded me of a Polar bear I once saw in a zoo, going round and round in circles – utterly mad with boredom. It was heart breaking, but the rangers again assured us that was their natural behaviour, and they were ‘fairly stupid creatures’ anyway.
One of the workers on the reserve, a chef in the kitchen, had two pet caracals, who were kept in a cage which seemed to me not even big enough for a dog. This ‘enclosure’ had trees and bushes in it, and was big enough to stand in but for two wild cats – it didn’t seem natural. He assured us that they were happy enough, and they were small enough animals who were used to this amount of space. He told us they ‘had all the space they need – they wouldn’t need any more’. I went to see these cats only once, as the size of the enclosure made me uneasy and upset.
When arriving at the reserve, we were shown to two tiny cheetah cubs, very recently born, and kept alone in a tiny enclosure. All I could think was where was their mother, and why had they been separated? This did not seem to make sense to me, but again, I turned a blind eye, choosing to ignore what I could not bear to even imagine. We were not told very much about these two cubs, and were not allowed to enter their enclosure – only pet them through the bars. This was something else we found strange – when asked, the rangers would be extremely vague regarding the two cubs, never quite answering our questions on where they came from or what would happen to them.
The volunteers were to take on cub duty, for a large part of their stay, and this involved feeding, bathing and stimulating for the four young lion cubs, of about 2 months old. These were the cubs available to the public for cub petting, and on cub duty – the volunteers would stay in the cordoned-off section of the reserve, ready for when trails of people would come in to play with the animals. There were roughly two or three tours a day, of about a dozen or so members of the public, including some very young children. They would stay in the enclosure for about twenty minutes – passing the cubs round and posing for photographs. Any questions from the public were answered with the same scripted speeches – about conservation and how it was beneficial and okay for cubs to interact with humans as it was for their own good, but the cub petting experience did not seem to be for any other reason than the novelty and enjoyment – there was not an educational aspect.
Cub duty was basically carrying out the jobs which the mother usually does, as the cubs were so young they could not yet look after themselves. We were required to prepare the milk formula and feed the young cubs. Bottles similar to which you would feed a human child were sterilised and we were shown how to angle and hold the cubs when feeding – even if the cub was reluctant the volunteers would have to endure being scratched and bitten in order to force the cubs to finish the milk. Towards the end of my two week stay, the cubs were moving on to eating real food – so chunks of chicken were cut up and mixed in with the milk and nutrient formula.
Bathing the cubs involved filling a tub with warm water and soap, an gently dunking them in, whilst scrubbing their paws and lower half of the body – and drying them off after. The cubs did not enjoy this one bit and again, we were scratched to bits. Stimulating the lions, helping them pass urine and faeces, was something I assumed occurred naturally, but learnt the mother tends to aid this at first until the cub can go on its own.
This itself was an amazing experience, and although now I can see how wrong ‘cub petting’ is, it did not seem to be a bad thing at the time. Perhaps I was so caught up in the moment and my naivety bought the incredibly convincing cover stories which had been drummed into us since arriving. Even when paying members of the public came to see the cubs, and they were passed around like dolls, it did not seem to be an issue, as the rangers were constantly urging people to take care, and the cubs were fed and watered constantly by the volunteers. I felt no guilt at all when caring for these animals, as I was convinced I was helping them. It seems strange now, thinking back, that the cubs were left alone in our care- young volunteers with absolutely no training or medical experience, who were not even aware of signs to look out for that something was wrong. As far as I know, there were no issues or medical problems with any cubs during my time there, but this could have been just narrowly avoided, as a lot of the time the volunteers would go to the bar the night before, so would be nursing hangovers when caring for the cubs.
They were not with their mothers, as they should be at that age but if that was necessary in order to help breed and conserve these beautiful animals, then so be it. For the entire two weeks I was in a bubble of happiness, and had been constantly told that we were helping, it was for a good cause – we were making a difference. I was enjoying my time so much at Ukutula that I would let nothing shatter the illusion.
At night, the four young ones were kept in a small box – not dissimilar to one you would carry a pet in to the vet. This was covered in a blanket, but apart from this they were left alone all night to the elements – with no attention or feeding, or even a chance to go to the toilet somewhere other than where they would be sleeping.
On the reserve when we arrived, was a cub who had only just been born – of five days old – still with his eyes closed and unable to even walk yet. We were given the surreal opportunity to be able to care for this cub, feeding, washing, (even naming it ‘Lee’), but at the same time, posing for photos and passing this tiny creature around like a toy. He was not available for the cub petting with the paying members of public, but towards the end of my time at Ukutula, it was becoming more regular for the owner to bring him out and show him off to the public. At night, he was kept indoors, with the owners, but if requested, any of the volunteers were able to have him stay in their room overnight; passed around like a new toy in a playground. We were not told much about his care duty even before having him overnight, just that we had to feed him a bottle once, and obviously make sure he was safe and went to the toilet enough. I was surpised that we were not given more information on how to care for such a young and obviously vulnerable animal, and once did not seem enough for this growing cub to be fed overnight.
The cub was taken from its mother – and when we questioned this – we were assured that it was for his own good, and it was to be released into the wild when it grew up. This was obviously untrue, but again – we turned a blind eye. Volunteers are often told these cubs are orphans, or in danger of being attacked or eaten by the other lions its living with, and can only be raised in this environment. Again, this is obviously false. At the end of my two week stay, Lee was moved into the other enclosure to interact with the four other youngest lion cubs there, and I assume this was the beginning of his ‘cub petting’ days.
At the time it seems like a dream come true, to be able to cuddle and interact so closely with a lion cub is surreal, and a very difficult thing to turn down. However, Parks which offer ‘cub petting’ cannot be associated with promoting the welfare and conservation of lions. These cubs are passed around volunteers and paying customers with no animal care experience, until they are too big to cuddle, by then they are so used to human interaction they would not survive in the wild.
After they grow out of cub petting, they are moved into the Devils enclosure, where there are huts for volunteers to stay in – and get to experience lions right outside their window – which at the time was my favourite part of the trip, as I could wake up in the morning and see their faces at my door. These lions were around four to six months old and had to be fed from a distance. Rangers and volunteers would prepare the food, which involved studding what looked like fairly rotten chickens with a nutrient and calcium formula known as ‘Predator Powder’. These chickens were then thrown over the fence into the enclosure and each lion would grab what it could. The volunteers were told never to try get too close or go into the enclosure when the lions were feeding as they would become aggressive. We were told a story of a volunteer a few weeks prior to us arriving who had not followed this rule and tried to split up two of the Devils fighting over a chicken and had to be taken for stitches when the lion had bitten or scratched her.
When the lions reached around 9 months – 1 ½ years old they were then moved into an area known at the ‘Gremlins’. We did not have as much hands on experience with these as they were older and much more dangerous, however we did clear out their enclosures and were given the chance to pose for photos with them, which was supervised by the ranger. There were around thirty or so Gremlins in the one enclosure, and there was more than one enclosure on the reserve – racking up quite a high number of these Gremlins. These enclosures were basic squares of dust, with a watering pool and some trees for shade; a fairly grim sight to look at but the rangers ensured us it was temporary as they would be ‘soon released’. When cleaning these out the lions were herded into another area, so we would have space to rake up and refill the water. We fed the Gremlins only once – which involved going to pick up a dead cow from a farm and cutting off its limbs. The carcass was dragged into the Gremlins enclosure and the lions’ gate was then opened for them to feed. The legs were taken to other animals’ enclosures – one for the cheetah and others for the tigers.
The Gremlins were the lions who would be trained to partake in ‘lion walks’ in which volunteers and paying customers are given waist-height wooden sticks to use as ‘warnings’ against the animals, should they get too close. These sticks seemed to be the same as the ones the rangers used, but the rangers also had bags of chicken to lead the animals away and herd them in the right direction of the walking route. We were told never to bend down below waist height, as this could be dangerous for us and the lions could pounce on us – but this seemed to be the only warning or safety precaution taken. Throughout the walk we stopped at various trees and areas where we could pose for photographs. The lions were coerced back and forth with bits of chicken, in order to get a good shot and look at the camera, like a child posing for a school photograph. The rangers used chicken and the sticks to get the lions to climb up into the trees, for the best photo opportunity. We were told this was natural behaviour, and ‘Zeus’ – one of the Gremlins – loved being up high in the trees.
When I took part in this lion walk, I was blown away by the sheer beauty and grace of the creatures, and any warnings which went off in my head when given the wooden stick was dampened when we saw the lions running free in the grass and playing in the water. In the moment, you forget the doubts in your head, as you just cannot believe you are there.
When the lions have grown past the ‘lion walk’ stage, and reach adulthood – at around 3 years old, the volunteers lose track of them, we are told they are released into the wild, which is laughable, come to think of it. These animals are so used to human contact as it is all they have known – and would never survive in what should be their natural environment. The harsh reality is that these animals will be sold – perhaps to zoos, private owners, or canned hunting middle men, we only know how much the staff at the reserve tell us, and even then how much of it was true? We had heard little bits of conversations regarding volunteers adopting lions – but we were never told much, or even if it was still an ongoing thing. This was perhaps due to the fact the lions would be lost track of and volunteers could not be guaranteed an ongoing relationship with the cub they adopted.
Looking back now, I feel the most anger and resentment towards the owners of the lodge – there was a meeting called between all of the volunteers and staff within the first couple of days– in which we were introduced to the volunteering programme and any questions were welcomed. The owner told us how they had bought the reserve years ago and were breeding lions, and ‘much to their surprise and disgust’ were receiving requests regarding hunting of their lions. They then told us how unbeknown to them they had bought into the canned hunting business, at which time they cut off all ties and turned the lodge into ‘Ukutula’ – meaning ‘place of quiet’, a peaceful place to promote breeding and conservation. The apparent ‘research’ being carried out on the reserve was not explained fully to the volunteers, but the general idea that was conveyed to us was that Ukutula was attempting to increase the number of white lions, by breeding them on site in a protected environment – away from poachers – and releasing them into the wild when old enough. This was exactly what the volunteers were looking to hear, reassurance we were helping a great cause whilst at the same time having the time of our lives!
Even after I returned home – I was constantly sharing photos and telling stories of this amazing trip I had been on, and it wasn’t until months, maybe even a year later when a friend who had been in my group shared a post that everything changed. I was utterly distraught. This amazing experience had been a sham. Not only that – it had me partaking in something which I had entered into the trip explicitly to prevent – the hunting and unethical treatment of these beautiful creatures. I immediately began furious email after furious email – to Real Gap, Ukutula, anyone who would listen, but got very little response. I kept sending more and more messages to Real Gap, and a few months later, received another message from a friend on facebook saying the trip had been removed from the website. A small victory, one which I hoped I played a small part in.
Whilst this removes the chance of this happening again through the same company, it does not at all reduce the issue at hand here. The blatant lies we were told can never be undone, and whilst I had the best two weeks of my entire life, nothing can disguise the fact that it was for nothing.
Reading this, it may seem I was incredibly naïve, but at the time these places offer incredibly convincing cover stories, and it is easy to turn a blind eye on something you are looking to avoid facing up to. My time at the reserve was incredible, and that makes it so much worse – that even looking back I cannot say I didn’t love every single second of it. I feel sick to my stomach at the thought of it, but can only go on to use this negative experience in a positive way – to get the word out, share my story and try to make sure this does not happen again. Making people aware of these issues is so important, and I make it my goal to do everything I can to ensure that this does not happen to any more volunteers looking to help. Hopefully my story will be shared and heard, and can take a step in the right direction of finally putting an end to this terrible trade of canned hunting.
“The Lion Cub Con in ‘Canned’ Farms,” IWB, 25 September 2015
“The truth about volunteering with lions,” Africa Geographic, 26 May 2016