For many volunteering in a nature reserve in Africa is an unobtainable dream. Hindered by the strict policies and highly selective programs, many volunteers opt for more costly organisations. It’s a narrow gap, for those who find themselves lucky enough to be surrounded by lions, some do not actually realise the dark truth behind those early morning feedings and hugs. Before choosing the first result from Google Search, extra caution and thorough research is advised before you add another head on a wall.
Volunteers in Africa nature reserves have risen dramatically as the media hones in more and more on the plight of the animals being butchered for their fur and ivory.
Last year, a campaign started on Facebook to stop Melissa Bachman, a trophy-hunting enthusiast, from re-entering South Africa, gathering more than 300,000 likes. But unaware volunteers do not connect the dots and although they believe they are helping, the truth is poachers and hunters like Bachman rely on the farmed animals they raised.
The truth is volunteers are paying extortionate amounts of money to come to South Africa to hand raise lion cubs under the guise that they are doing it name of conservation. Activists groups are alleging that most of these cubs end up in a “canned” hunt or as breeding machines for farms.
Volunteer programs in many African countries do not benefit from the sort of thorough crosschecking that organisations in the US and Europe are subjected to, consequently there is no assurance whether the group is a legitimate or not. In fact, many of these volunteers are oblivious that many of these game reserves or conservation projects are paid to provide animals specially bred for special reserves that have not been government regulated are being raised for trigger-happy tourists.
Animals involved in these types of breeding farms are habituated to human contact, often hand-reared and bottle-fed, so are no longer naturally fearful of people.
Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue in Florida emphasises this point, “If the facility has cubs, it is probably a bad place and if they allow any human interaction with cubs then you know it is a bad place.”
This environment makes it easier for clients to be guaranteed a kill and thus the industry is lucrative and popular. Many volunteers clearly miss the link between the picture of Bachman’s shot lion and the cub they helped rear.
‘Canned Hunting’ is a 20th Century coined term for an animal kept in a confined area, such as in a fenced-in area, which increases the likelihood of the hunter obtaining a kill. Many hunters, primarily US and European citizens have been enticed to spend their coin for a trophy not found back in the wild lands of their home country. Led by lions rhinos, elephants and antelope are being raised and auctioned off on so-called “nature reserves” to the richest bidder. Other reserves raise them and allow them to be shot on sight.
Estimates from 2008 assume that in South Africa between 3,500 and 4,000 lions live in captivity. A recent report by the National Council of SPCAs suggests that many of these lions end up as targets for canned hunting. The report states “the hunting of captive bred lions is in fact at an all time high and the South African Predator Breeders Association (SAPBA) estimated in January this year that about 1050 lions were hunted in South Africa in 2008.
Three or more lions are shot every day in South Africa in the same manner that Melissa Bachman shot her “trophy”.
The most distressing factor is that the rarer the breed of animal, the more valuable the kill, take for example the highly endangered Black rhino that was auctioned off last month at the Dallas Safari Club, a Texas-based trophy hunting group for an estimated $500,000, which is apparently being donated to fund future black rhino conservation efforts. The black rhino is currently on the “big five” endangered lists and is considered highly prized for its healing powers in Chinese medicine.
The buyer of the prized animal Corey Knowlton stated on his Facebook page that his purchase would help other rhino, which the species has an appetite for killing, “Ok, the reasoning is this. The Rhino we are going to hunt is a problem animal killing other Rhinos and possibly other animals as well. So the Rhino would absolutely pose a threat to anything in the area he would be relocated to. The problem rhinos in this area are all post breeding very mature males near the end of their life.”
Thankfully unlike Knowlton, many foreigners who visit the region are not hunters; many have come to enjoy the natural reservations that South Africa is famous for.
But not all conservations programmes are bogus, the biggest indication of a legitimate programme would be the lack of interaction between lions and humans, evidence of a conservation programme with good intentions.
Interesingly, these legitimate programmes are aware of these phonies, “We are actively campaigning against canned hunts, and more specifically are raising awareness about how something as innocent looking as cub petting is fuelling this cruelty,” says Baskin.
Do the maths, if a facility always has cubs for the public to interact with, then you must be aware that a constant supply of cubs being bred by females can become unmanageable once the cubs start to mature. So where have the all the other cubs disappeared to? It’s just not sustainable unless there is some sort of an outlet, the answer – canned hunting.
Take the Lion Breeding Project in Port Elizabeth in South Africa for example, the group could not meet certain standards of the welfare of the animals held in captivity, and consequently lost its a voluntourism agent,Travellers Worldwide. The agency found that the lions had been kept in a distressed environment and the group were unwilling to comply with Travellers’ code of ethical practice.
For those who are interested in participating in honest volunteer programs, make sure you do all the necessary background checks as well as contacting the registered charities commission. Newspapers provide a selection of programs in the classifieds, which provide volunteers the information about the reserves, visa issues, jabs and political situation of the region.
As for the casual tourist, beware of so-called “cuddle farms”. It often happens that a cub is “leased” to farms or “conservation projects” where visitors can cuddle with a cub and have the chance to feeding them a bottle.
According to Baskin: “Big cats cannot be bred in captivity and then released into the wild. The only reason big cats are farmed is to be exploited as pets, props and for their parts.”
There is abundant abuse of the permit system for the breeding and hunting of lions. Should the country have standardised regulations across all regions?
Earl Smith, Founder of Volunteer Southern Africa advises: “In my view there is only one way to ensure that volunteers know the facility do not partake in any hunting is to find and ask previous volunteers of that facility. Volunteers on our programs get to see and experience everything we do, so they would be the best source of information.”
Recent attempts to get the canned hunting of lions and rhinos illegalised in South Africa have failed. But, it is still imperative to let the South African government know the world’s anger and distress at the legalisation of canned hunting and the damage it is doing to South Africa’s international reputation. Firstly, by making sure you do not play the role of “exploited volunteer”.