Today is World Lion Day, and it’s great to see some of the discussions taking place on social media and on the web. While education and starting a dialogue is a great first step, we need to go beyond that if we actually want to make a difference.
Big cats have always had a huge place in my heart, and earlier this year I was fortunate enough to spend a month in Namibia and South Africa shooting a documentary with Matador Network. The film will examine the connection between tourism and conservation in southern African countries, specifically practices that have an impact on big cats. Why do some lions, leopards and cheetahs have radio collars? How are wildlife populations managed within the fenced reserves that tourists pay top dollar to visit? What sorts of activities should we avoid when going on safari? I’m still editing my film (it will be released this fall), and my goal is to answer these questions — and inspire others to care more.
Collars are the norm for both management and research, and these days, the vast majority of parks and private game reserves have fences, so there is some debate as to whether the animals are still truly “wild.” If there were no fences or collars, the combination of habitat loss, human conflict and poaching would drive lions to extinction even faster than the track they're on now, so managing populations within parks and reserves is key. Hunting is one method, and even when it's done sustainably, it's not popular, especially when facts get twisted around in the media. Even though it may seem cruel, if an animal is hunted within the boundaries of a park or reserve that works with researchers and nonprofits to gather data on the healthy animal populations, that falls under the management category.
I support hunting as long as rangers and biologists support it (which is more often than you might think), but breeding captive lions to be shot at close range by garbage humans who want to call themselves hunters is not hunting. This is canned "hunting," though many conservationists refer to it as canned killing, because the overwhelming majority of operators who offer this kind of service do not benefit any conservation organizations, and it is not done in an ethical manner. Many of the lions that are involved in canned "hunts" come from lion cub petting programs, and if you would like to learn more about this, I encourage you to watch the heartbreaking but powerful film, "Blood Lions."
You should never, EVER go to any “park” or “sanctuary” that offers lion cub petting, and if you see someone sharing photos of this, please ask them to do some research on the connection between lion cub petting and the canned "hunt" industry.
Rather than spending the first 1-2 years of their lives with their mothers, the cubs that are part of these petting programs are taken away after just 1-2 months, and from 3 to 6 months, they’re prime money-making machines for these so-called “sanctuaries.” When the cubs reach the age of approximately 12 months, they're no longer suitable for the petting programs, so what happens after that? Some go straight to canned hunt operators, where they are trapped in small enclosures, baited, and shot by anyone with enough money. If you've seen the film "Trophy," you know this is exactly how one magnificent lion meets his end. Many others are sold off to slaughter houses to supply the lion bone trade in Asia. I'll be providing more information in my film, but cub petting and canned “hunting” are deplorable practices and they must be banned.
To obtain necessary footage for this documentary, I visited a venue that offers lion cub petting, and I was horrified with what I saw. I have video of cubs running away, being smacked with brooms and other shots where they appear drugged. It was only in the last two years that I learned about the nightmarish details of cub petting programs, and I am confident that if everyone knew how terrible and backwards it is, these places would go out of business.
Social media has everything to do with the success of the establishments that offer lion cub petting. People are desperate for selfies with lion cubs, and until we cut that demand, there will always be supply.
If I can get this message out to a few thousand people, and if they can pass it along to a few thousand more, that’s huge. Big cat populations are declining all over the world, and as far as lions on the African continent, their numbers have dropped from over 400,000 — to just ~20,000 in the last century. While those are daunting statistics, we can do a lot more than we might think when it comes to assisting with conservation efforts. It all starts with education, speaking up and taking action. Please share if you care!