There has been a marked increase in the number of travelers requesting an up-close-and-personal experience with African wildlife, according to a report in TravelWeekly.
This can be in the form of petting lion cubs or walking with lions through the African jungle.
“Wildlife institutions have found that visitors like to interact with wildlife and that there is huge money to be made,” said Beverley Pervan, director of the Campaign Against Canned Hunting.
Canned hunting is trophy hunting with an animal kept in a confined area, such as in a fenced-in area, increasing the likelihood of the hunter getting a kill. Another definition by LexicUS is a “hunt for animals that have been raised on game ranches until they are mature enough to be killed for trophy collections.” Animal welfare advocacy groups and some hunters oppose this method.
The recent killing of Cecil, a popular Zimbabwean lion, by a U.S. trophy hunter generated public debate about how ethical wildlife interaction is, and shone a light on big-game trophy hunting in Africa.
“African lions are not only hunted like Cecil. They are also bred for commercial purposes, to be used in lion parks to fuel tourist demand for photo props and for lion walking,” according to research report published this month by WorldAnimalProtection. “Yet most tourists are unaware of how their lion park visits may be threatening the very existence of these charismatic wild animals and are severely affecting their welfare.”
For anyone who loves lions, the message is simple, the report said. “Do not visit any tourist attractions that allow visitors to have direct contact with any lion cubs, young adults or breed lions for commercial purposes. If you love lions, see them in the wild.”
That’s one view. Here’s another.
Insisting that animals should only be viewed in the wild is unreasonable and elitist — most people could never afford to do that — said Willi Jacobs, owner of Ukutula Lodge in North West Province, South Africa. Ukutula is a research and education facility that Jacobs said has “an ethical, limited reproductive program, under veterinary supervision.” The lodge does not condone any hunting, Jacobs said, according to TravelWeekly.
Showing off vacation photos on social media has definitely contributed to the increased demand for wildlife interactions, Gounaris said, according to TravelWeekly.
The selfie appeal of posing with a lion is huge, exacerbated by international celebrities such as the Kardashians, Rihanna, Beyonce and Jay Z shooting photos with wild animals, said Judi Gounaris, conservation director for Projects Abroad in Botswana.
An international volunteer organization, Projects Abroad has traditionally been a place for university students, recent graduates and gap-year kids to volunteer, but its fastest-growing demographics are career breakers and retirees.
There is nothing in the DNA of a lion that lends itself to walking beside humans, Gounaris told TravelWeekly. “Wild animals are inherently afraid of humans as they have been chased, hunted and shot for centuries and will at all costs try and avoid human contact.”
She said wildlife tourism can benefit conservation and tourism as long as it is managed correctly, but walking with lions “only satisfies the ego of the tourist and does nothing for the lion.”
In an ideal world all animals would roam free but humans have encroached on their habitat. There are only a few places where animals can still be seen in the wild, Jacobs said.
But for most conservationists, up-close wildlife interactions are mostly unethical, according to TravelWeekly.
Tourists must learn that interaction with wild animals means they have been trained to ensure a safe hands-on experience, and that training is cruel. “Some lion cubs are beaten when they use claws and teeth, their natural way to play, so that a tourist can pet and play with them. Is that ethical?” Pervan said.
Wild animals should only be viewed in the wild or in legitimate sanctuaries with nonbreeding policies where animals have been rescued and could not be returned to the wild, Gounaris told TravelWeekly.
“Why should humans be allowed to interact closely with wildlife?
“Why is it OK for us to dictate that this animal will give up its natural life because we want to touch it, feel it or take a photo with it?” Gounaris said.
The reality is that wildlife is in conflict with humans, in rural, urban and designated wildlife areas alike. Habitat for wild animals is shrinking. There are people who devote their lives to helping heal injured wildlife and return it to the wild. Check out this video shot at a Durban wildlife rescue organization, CROW, Centre for Rehabilitation of Wildlife.