Do a quick search for “Walking With Lions” and you’ll find no shortage of destinations offering animal lovers this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for around $150 a person.
It’s easy to understand why walking with lions tours, lion cub petting, and other wildlife encounters have become so popular in recent years. After all, who wouldn’t want to walk alongside one of the world’s most fearsome predators, or get a sweet selfie while cuddling adorable fur babies?
But how would you feel to learn that, as soon as those cubs are too old to be safely handled by humans, many will be forced into a cramped cage with dozens of other lions? And eventually they’ll be killed by rich hunters, who pay hefty fees to shoot their prize trophy.
This is the dark side of walking with lions tours that most of these attractions never tell tourists about. And it’s one of many reasons Discover Corps has decided to stop offering these sorts of tours going forward.
Why Walking With Lions Tours Are Bad
Most people have no idea that there’s a direct connection between Walking with Lions tours and the canned lion hunting trade. Many of the attractions offering this interactive experience promote themselves as being involved in “Lion Conservation, Research, Rehabilitation and Release.”
Sounds like a perfectly ethical wildlife experience, right? But Chris Mercer, co-founder of the Campaign Against Canned Hunting, says that the people behind these attractions are deceiving travelers in the name of greed and profit.
“Lion farmers externalize the cost of rearing lion cubs by renting the cubs out for petting and then, when they’re too big and boisterous to be petted, to be walked with by tourists. When the lions are no longer suitable for walking with tourists,” Mercer explains, “they’re kept in miserable, squalid conditions until they’re sold as living targets to a trophy hunter. So any tourist who pays to walk with lions is contributing to the canned lion hunting industry.”
But the problems these lions face start from the moment they’re born. Babies are taken from their mothers early so they can be hand-reared, getting them used to human touch. As they get older, many are either beaten or drugged into submission. So even if they aren’t eventually going to be hunted, there’s virtually no chance they’ll ever be returned to the wild.
Visiting Horseback Africa
When Discover Corps unveiled its South African Wildlife Conservation Experience early this year, I got concerned by photos of a woman holding a lion cub. I knew Discover Corps founder Andrew Motiwalla had a strong commitment to responsible travel, so we had a conversation about the center DC would be working with, Horseback Africa.
“I knew that many of these [lion breeding centers] raise lion cubs to be hunted,” Motiwalla said. “So when the folks at Horseback Africa told me that they absolutely don’t sell lions into canned hunting, I thought we had found a great place to take our travelers.”
With my background as a journalist covering ecotourism and conservation, I voiced my concerns over the legitimacy of those claims. We agreed that I should take Discover Corps’ tour this summer, visit Horseback Africa, and report back my opinions on the experience.
To their credit, the facility addressed the canned lion hunting controversy with visitors immediately. They insisted that their lions were bred in the interest of conservation and never hunted. So the question then became, if the lions are not being raised for canned hunting, is Horseback Africa a responsibly managed facility?
Why We Stopped
My issues with Horseback Africa began the minute our introductory talk ended and the walking with lions tour began.
These “kings of the jungle” were kept in cramped quarters, in pens smaller than my modest-sized backyard. Yet the facility’s horses had vast pastoral fields to graze upon. The staff clearly loved the playful young lions (who are retired from walking tours after they reach one year old), yet they had to whack them with sticks to keep from acting like, well, wild animals. One even tried to pounce me from behind while I was taking photos.
But the deal breaker came when we entered the cage where the oh-so-adorable babies were kept. They were so cute, I struggled to resist the urge to pick one up and hug him and squeeze him and call him my very own. I knew it was wrong. The other travelers in my group weren’t aware of the dangers of holding baby animals, squealing in delight as their cub-cuddling dreams came true.
When I reported my findings back to Andrew, he agreed with my recommendation that Discover Corps should no longer offer tours to Horseback Africa, regardless of their claims not to be connected with canned hunting.
“The more we learned about lion breeding,” Motiwalla stated, “the more we realized that it’s simply not possible to allow people to hold lion cubs and still release those lions into the wild. As an organization that prides itself on offering ethical travel programs, we decided that we simply could not continue to offer this visit.”
Responsible Big Cat Interactions
Of course, there are times when travelers can touch animals responsibly. Discover Corps’ South African Wildlife Conservation Experience visits Maholoholo, a wildlife rehabilitation center. They have “animal ambassadors” that were injured so badly, they cannot be reintroduced into the wild. They’re used to help teach people about the importance of wildlife conservation, and offer a chance to get ethical big cat selfies.
We’ve also added a new partner on our South Africa tour, the Global White Lion Protection Trust. Founded in 2002 on nearly 4,400 acres in the UNESCO-recognized Kruger to Canyons Biosphere, this respected NGO focuses on reintroducing captive-bred White Lions into their natural habitat.
Overseen by their Head of Operations, veteran Lion Ecologist Jason Turner, the White Lion Trust is vital in the conservation of this rare species. White Lions went extinct in the wild from 1991 to 2006, when the organization reintroduced its founding pride. They now have six White Lions and four tawny Lions in three prides on their Tsau Reserve. Their research is helping to conserve the hunter-prized species and expand the gene pool.
Discover Corps travelers have a chance to visit the reserve and learn more about the GWLPT’s scientific approach to community-based conservation. To quote Andrew Motiwalla, “We think that this experience will provide our travelers with a deeper understanding of the plight of lions in the region.”
And though you won’t be able to walk with them or pet them, you will have a once-in-a-life encounter we’re sure you’ll never forget. –Bret Love; photos by Allie Love & Bret Love unless otherwise noted
BIO: Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 23 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. He is the co-founder of ecotourism website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.