It’s 42 degrees outside. I’m standing in the back of a pickup truck with eight other girls, ducking from stray branches as we rocket along a bumpy dirt path leading back to the lodge. Sometimes we look back to check on the horse in the trailer we’re hauling. Yep, still dead.
It’s a normal day for a volunteer at Ukutula, the lion education and research facility, or as they advertise on the sign at the front gates, ‘a place of quiet’. We begin the morning feeding cubs, preparing bottles of formula milk to hand feed to baby tigers and hyenas. During my visit, the lions were around three to five months old, and were receiving whole chickens we packed with protein powder. They are fed everyday around 4pm. The volunteers stand around just outside their enclosure and throw in the stinking chickens, aiming so that the little cubs have a chance of eating first. Some days a bigger lion steals their food, but ‘that’s how they learn’, the guides told us.
Before feeding, the tigers get ‘stimulated’; the term we use to describe our imitation of the process where the mother licks her cubs until they poop. The volunteers wipe with paper towels as the cubs squirm and scream. Then a bath, then feeding. The enclosures are kept immaculate, the cubs are cared for, clean, and most importantly, disease free. We receive a little training from the rangers, but mostly we just learn from volunteers who have been there longer than us, the practices getting passed on by watching and imitating. Then our morning cub duties slow down, we can play with them, pick them up and cuddle them, take pictures of them in our arms. If a tour group comes along we stand at attention, ready to save a poor tourist’s leg from a cub bite. They can take pictures of the animals, but they are not allowed to pick them up, or disturb them from whatever they are doing; let sleeping cats lie. The tourists love it, sitting on the floor, just waiting for one of the animals to come over to them, maybe get bitten by a baby lion or tiger – ‘an African tattoo’ the rangers usually joke to the startled tourist. Sometimes we take delight in the overconfident tourist who shrugs us off as three cubs start attacking their leg. ‘They’re just playing,’ they might say. But soon the look of pain crosses their face and we step in quickly. In this environment, it’s so easy to forget that you’re dealing with lions and tigers.
In the afternoon we might have ranger duty: usually picking up old vegetables and chickens, cleaning enclosures, or running other errands for the lodge. Sometimes we get a call from a nearby farmer with a sick horse, or a cow with a broken leg, and our rangers grab their gun as we pile into the pickup to go put down the animal. In exchange we take the body and bring it back to our lions. A full-grown cow usually lasts about a day in the enclosure with our ‘walking lions’, anywhere between five months and two years old. The numbers change, but during my stay, Ukutula had around 20 walking lions, all waiting to eventually find homes in safari parks or zoos. The lions come and go seemingly overnight (one day they are there, the next, gone) but all are micro-chipped with a tracking device.
It feels like paradise while you are there, like nothing in the real world can touch you. One day blends into the next. It’s clear how much the animals are loved. Gill Jacobs, co-owner of Ukutula, gets up several times a week to take the volunteers and special guests on a 6:30am lion walk. She never gets tired of seeing the animals, she tells us. Every time she walks with them, they manage to surprise her. There are animals roaming free on the property – ostriches, zebra, giraffes and wildebeest. Sometimes on a lion walk, even these seemingly tame lions who happily walk along next to humans, calmly taking chickens from their handlers, get distracted by an animal and we watch in amazement as their natural instincts take over and they move in for the kill. Usually an ostrich, but sometimes zebra. Just when you start relaxing, these animals jolt you out of your comfort zone – reminding you of what you’re dealing with.
On our first day, we receive an orientation from the owners, Gill and Willi Jacobs, giving us all the information about Ukutula – what they do and what they stand for. The research they are conducting, the disease-free lions they raise for the research, the lab they are building, and the documentation of the research they have carried out with the University of Pretoria. As I listen to their talk, I realise they seem to be subtly on the defensive, and for what reason I’m not sure. Finally they mention it – ‘Has anyone seen the documentary Blood Lions?’ I look around at our little group of new volunteers and we all shake our heads. ‘They’ve made some accusations about our practices here at Ukutula, all completely untrue, things taken out of context. But we are happy to answer any questions you have, please don’t worry about offending us,’ Willi says to the group. ‘Offending them?’ I think to myself. ‘But this is paradise.’
Up until the late 1990s, the term canned hunting didn’t exist. Now it is a term that is tarnishing South Africa’s hunting reputation. The Blood Lions documentary, distributed by Regulus Vision and Wildlands, an attention-grabbing film created to raise awareness about the canned hunting industry, interviewed Chris Mercer, founder of the Campaign Against Canned Hunting (CACH), who explains, ‘a canned hunt is where the target animal is unfairly prevented from escaping the hunter, either by physical constraints, such as fencing, or by mental constraints, such as being habituated to humans.’ It is called canned hunting because the kill is ‘in the can’– you are almost 100% assured of your trophy. And it’s legal in South Africa.
It seems so easy: you contact a hunting lodge and are presented with pictures of lions to browse through. Once you have chosen a lion, you pay in advance and then set up your stay, often around three days. It’s a guaranteed kill. Prices vary, but as of 2014, a full grown female would be around $5,400 USD; a young, blond male would be around $16,000 USD; and a male lion with a black mane would be upwards of $48,000 USD. And while this might seem pricey, it is a fraction of the cost of wild lion hunting.
Sitting in a dark theatre listening to the star of the documentary, Ian Michler – a renowned specialist wilderness guide and safari operator – answer questions after a screening at the World Travel Market conference, I couldn’t help thinking, why is this such a problem for this audience made up of travel agency owners and tourism experts? There are no animal activists in the room, and other than the obvious moral issues of breeding lions to be hunted with no chance of survival, I couldn’t really understand the bigger picture issues of canned hunting. It all seemed quite self-contained.
Although it is a rapidly growing industry, as of 2014 canned hunting contributes only R122 million towards South Africa’s total R95 billion tourism industry. The problem is that this tiny percentage of the tourism industry is damaging South Africa’s whole tourism reputation. Countries worldwide marched this past year to protest the canned hunting industry, and Australia and France have banned the import of lion parts into the country, with many countries soon to follow. The world is starting to stand together to reject this industry, and South Africa’s tourism reputation is dying in the dirt right alongside the canned lions. One in seven Africans’ livelihoods are dependent on the tourism industry. Now I understand the problem. Alongside lions’ well-being, a polarising activity like canned lion hunting is turning South Africa’s tourism industry into a target, without enough firepower to hold up the industry by itself.
Ian Michler was also there to shut down some of the popular claims many canned hunting supporters make: doesn’t the canned lion industry take pressure off wild lion hunting? If lions are bred specifically to be hunted, doesn’t this save the wild lion population? ‘No’, Ian Michler stated emphatically. There is such a variation between canned lion hunting and traditional lion hunting, that instead of taking off some of the pressure, it just creates a new market. A wild lion hunt will last around 21 days, cost $76,000 USD, with a 61% success rate. This in comparison with captive bred lion hunting: lasting around 3 days, costing $19,000 USD, with a 99% success rate, makes it clear that these are not comparable activities and are drawing two very different kind of hunters. According to the Blood Lions documentary, many traditional lion hunters have spoken out against the canned hunting industry.
‘This industry isn’t transparent, you know, it’s murky and deceitful. There has to be a reason as to how we have gone from a few hundred captive predators to 8,000 in 15 years. At the same time we also know that more than 800 lions have been shot annually in canned hunts. Where have they come from? Who is providing them?’ –Ian Michler
Not only does the canned lion hunting industry not relieve the wild lion hunt, it in fact actively contributes to the direct demise of the wild lion population. From canned hunting, a spin off industry has begun: the export of lion bones to Asian markets. Beginning with tiger-bone wine, many believe in the healing powers of a concoction created from boiling down the bones of tigers. Because of the increasing difficulty attaining tiger bones, the Asian markets have re-aimed their focus on lion bones, readily available as by-products of canned hunting. The bones are boiled down into wine and cake and sold for large amounts of money. Now, 100 grams of lion-bone cake can be sold for $1,000 USD, making lion bone just as valuable as rhino horn.
This side effect of the canned hunting industry is known to the South African government and is believed to be sustainable, according to Thea Carroll, the director of the Department of Environmental Affairs. She said in an interview given for the Blood Lions documentary, ‘we are aware of the lion bone trade, and the extent of it. At the moment the department regards it as a sustainable activity. The bones are obtained as a byproduct from the lion hunting industry.’ In 2009, 169 carcasses were exported from South Africa to Asia, and by 2013, a staggering 1094 carcasses were exported. Chris Mercer has estimated that as of 2014, there were 8,000 captive bred lions some 250 sites around South Africa.
However, the market is no longer satisfied with bones obtained from the captive-bred lions. There is a belief that the bones from wild lions are more potent. The industry that has been awakened by the easy access to lion bones, is no longer satisfied with captive-bred lions and is turning instead to wild lions, posing a direct threat on the already dwindling numbers of wild prides.
When canned hunting began as an industry, the South African government made an attempt to pass legislation to ban the canned hunt, but the High Court ruled in favour of canned hunting. In the last four to five years, the government has done nothing to ban canned lion hunting, and in that time, the industry has doubled. The intensive breeding of lions is accepted, with no regulations.
The problem seems to be that the banning of canned lion hunting falls somewhere in between different departments’ authorities. The Department of Environmental Affairs can only legislate based on biodiversity threats, and animal welfare falls to the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. Therefore, Environmental Affairs cannot ban the captive breeding that in some cases can be considered animal cruelty. It is a weakness of the South African system; the specificity of power allocated to each department often means it is impossible to take real action.
Alongside the legislation red tape, there is the inevitable economic incentive that makes Derek Hanekim, the Minister of Tourism in South Africa, reluctant to ban the industry. He says in Blood Lions, ‘Tourists come here to hunt, they are of great value to our tourism sector, as long as the hunting that they do doesn’t negatively impact on the reputation of the rest of the sector […] Trophy hunting can contribute positively to […] conservation, done in such a way that it is understood and appreciated by the public, including tourists who want to visit South Africa for the safari experience.’
It is however important to note that the Professional Hunter’s Association (PHASA) has made a stand against canned lion hunting. PHASA defines canned hunting as ‘when the animal is hunted in an enclosure small enough to prohibit it from evading the hunter, or when the animal is hunted while tranquilised.’ Ian Michler, in the documentary Blood Lions, isn’t convinced by this statement, as the wording used to define canned hunting is ambiguous, allowing for some loop holes when it comes to their associations with canned hunting. The statement goes on to later say, ‘captive bred animals, on the other hand, may be legally hunted.’ To keep an untarnished reputation, public opinion demands a denouncement of the canned lion hunting industry. It seems PHASA’s half-hearted denouncement might be a result of bowing to the pressures of popular opinion. Haven’t you heard – it’s not cool to hunt captive-bred lions. Hermann Meyerdricks, the president of PHASAS has now made the statement to his members, ‘I have come to believe that, as it stands, our position on lion hunting is no longer tenable. The matter will be on the agenda again for our next annual general meeting and I appeal to you to give it your serious consideration, so that together we can deliver a policy that is defensible in the court of public opinion.’
Chris Mercer (CACH founder) outlines the plan of attack for taking down the canned hunting industry in a video on Bloodlions.com. The first step is to cut off the revenue stream. According to Mercer, 55% of trophy hunters in South Africa are from the United States, while 40% come from Europe. To slow down US trophy hunters, one of the first steps is to get the United States’ Fish and Wildlife department to raise the status of lions to endangered. As of December 2016, the department has announced, “lions in central and western Africa will be listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, while lions in southern and eastern Africa will be classified as threatened- meaning that the importation of the heads, tails, and skins of lions… will be prohibited, except in limited circumstances.” The next step is to raise awareness in Europe. Ian Michler is currently taking his documentary around Europe, hoping to have a European ban on the importation of lion parts into the continent. He travels around screening his documentary, giving talks and raising awareness. In the next few months, he will be screening Blood Lions in parliaments across Europe, directly followed by a vote to ban the importation of animal parts.
No one is formally associated with canned lion hunting. There are no facilities that acknowledge any connection with the canned hunt. But trophy hunters want full grown lions – so they must be living somewhere. The answer is in lion conservation sites and sanctuaries. There is a whole side of the South African tourism industry reserved for lion walking and lion petting. These sites across the country breed lions specifically for tourists to come and handle cubs. They are removed from their mothers at around three days old, both to make them friendly to humans, but also so that the mother can begin breeding again quickly. Often the conditions in these places, as Blood Lions highlights, are far from acceptable. Lions living in small cages, with poor hygiene, and obviously mistreated. Once the cubs are too old to be cuddled by tourists, or to go on walks, they are sold to hunting farms. These places that claim status of sanctuary or lion conservation rely heavily on the voluntourism industry: usually young adults from across the globe, willing not only to volunteer their services, but to pay for the opportunity to do so. They are told that they are helping to save abandoned lions that will one day be released back into the wild. According to Ian Michler, there are no known cases of any lion being successfully released back into the wild. Ever. There are no conservation benefits of breeding lions specifically to be hunted. It does not help the wild lion population. This is simple: these places are bad. They lie to volunteers, they breed lions for tourism purposes and often end up supplying them to canned hunting farms when they have outgrown their cuddly phase. The incentive here is purely mercenary, and their claims of conservation have been proven untrue by countless animal specialists.
‘South Africa’s failure to address the canned hunting industry has emboldened those who make a living out of the death of lions bred, raised and slaughtered on a “no kill, no fee” basis. The canned hunting industry is unnatural, unethical, and unacceptable. It delivers compromised animal welfare and zero education. It undermines conservation and creates a moral vacuum now inhabited by the greed and grotesque self-importance of those who derive pleasure in the taking of life. …The canned hunting industry may, in face, accelerate extinction in the wild, leaving behind a trail littered with rotting corpses of its helpless and hopeless victims.’ –Will Travers OBE, President Born Free Foundation
In the late 1990s, around the time Ian Michler began following the canned lion hunting industry, he decided to prove the connection between these lion tourism sites and canned hunting. He signed up for a canned hunt, went online and picked his lion. He was sent a picture of the lion. Following tips from some workers at a lion ‘conservation’ facility, he drove up a road marked ‘Do Not Enter, Trespassers Will Be Shot’ and found the owners house, along with a cage full of lions kept away from the eyes of the tourists. And there he found the very same lion he was scheduled to kill a few weeks later. Connection confirmed.
But what about Ukutula? Featured prominently in the Blood Lions documentary, it is lumped in with facilities claiming to be sanctuaries or conservations. Ukutula does not claim to be either of these things – they are a research and education facility. They do breed lions, they do have a tourism industry, they do take in volunteers, but they have another very important side: the research. What the documentary fails to mention is the growing number of wild lions affected by tuberculosis. According to a ranger in Kruger Park interviewed by The Independent, around 90% of their wild lions are affected by tuberculosis, spread from the buffalo herds. But unlike buffalo, tuberculosis affects lions much faster. Ukutula is researching a vaccine for tuberculosis in lions, looking at hyenas who have a natural immunity to TB. There are many real issues facing the wild lion population that have nothing to do with canned hunting. At Ukutula they are researching artificial insemination techniques, with the hope that captive breeding will allow for genetic diversity to be brought to endangered animal species. The research is necessary, and they are looking not just at the short term, but playing the long game for the survival of the lion species.
But it’s messy. The tracking device they place in their lions is not enough. Though they claim it lasts a lifetime, people on the lodge explained the tracking information available to the public only lasts two years. The age they sell their lions at, around two to three years old, means that the tracking expires around the age of four to five years old. Trophy hunters are looking for lions around six to seven years old. There is still time for the lions to be sold to canned hunting farms long after the device has stopped tracking. Though they don’t really mention breeding to their volunteers, somehow there are always cubs for the volunteers to look after. During my time at Ukutula, three baby tigers were there, after an accidental pregnancy with a male tiger they had thought was infertile. There was a baby lion separated from its mother immediately after its birth – she was apparently stressed from construction going on at the time. There were a lot of coincidences. But Ukutula receives no funding for their research. The tourism that Ukutula considers part of the educational side of their efforts, seems to be the necessary evil that funds their research. But it is an inherently corrupt cycle, a constant stream of cubs with nowhere to go. And even with the best of intentions, where do these cubs go? It seems impossible that they have completely avoided all associations with canned hunting. The owners have denied any connection with the canned hunting industry, as do all the workers at Ukutula.
Ukutula is an exceptional case, serving to complicate the already murky industry of lion tourism in connection with canned hunting. However it is the opinion of Ian Michler and Chris Mercer that we cannot support any lion petting or walking tourists activities. Perhaps under the threat of canned hunting, we are not ready for the long-term research Ukutula is working towards, because there is still an almost certain risk of associating with the canned hunting industry.
The most pressing threat is the canned hunting industry, spiraling out of control, tarnishing Africa’s tourism industry and risking the livelihood of African citizens. Canned hunting must be stopped. In such a corrupted industry, where very few hands can stay clean, the cost of long-term research in this moment in time might be too high. But, by the time we eliminate the canned lion hunting industry, what if there are no wild lions left? Doing the right thing isn’t always easy, especially when going down one path comes at the expense of another. We have created seemingly impossible circumstances for our lion populations to continue to live in, and even ending the canned hunting industry is only the beginning.