Ethical African wildlife safari tours: Does the lion sleep tonight?

It pays to stick to the group when you're walking in the South African bushveld with five adult lions. 

That's what we're told as we nervously huddle together outside the lion enclosure at Ukutula Lodge, not far from the Sun City resort outside Johannesburg. As the gate is opened and the selected lions bound out joyfully (because they're looking at their next meal - us?), the two guides warn that anyone who becomes distracted and separates from the group is likely to be stalked. 

I'm not sure if this is just a bit of showmanship for dramatic effect, but during the one-hour walk with lions by our side there's one young lion that refuses to play by the rules and runs off alone, often following at the rear and, yes, making low stalking movements. This same lion will not obediently return to the compound afterwards and has to be rounded up, which takes several long minutes.

"They are not tame," one of our guides explains helpfully. 

Although grown to full size, the lions are only two years old. Once they reach full adulthood at four, there is no stopping them. They'll eat you. On this excursion they are just eating chicken. I really, really hope the guides don't run out of it. 

Ukutula is a 260-hectare game farm that undertakes several research projects, mostly relating to genetics, in association with institutions such as the University of Western Cape and the University of Pretoria. They are now breeding white lions from brown lions with recessive genes, and working on projects relating to the disease Bovine TB, which is rife in animal populations in the wild. The lodge also runs educational programs with urban children to teach them about animal conservation. 

Part of the guest program is the opportunity to play with 10-week-old lion cubs, separated from their mothers and kept in a large, open-air pen. The cubs are adorable, happy to be cuddled, and romp hilariously with each other as if they were tiny kittens. Two baby Bengal tigers, the cubs of rescue tigers, are equally as friendly but far more mischievous. One of our group gets a nip on the arm, which turns into a painful bruise, and another's Chanel handbag is mauled. 

Tiger nips aside, we are so completely delighted with the experience that many of us post photographs on Instagram and Facebook of ourselves walking with lions and cuddling cute cubs. 

This doesn't go so well. 

Advertisement

Outraged animal rights activists bombard us with messages. Activities such as walking with lions have bad consequences for the animals, some of which are sold for "canned hunting" when they get too old to safely walk with tourists, they claim. 

"Canned hunting" is the term for the big game version of shooting fish in a barrel, where hefty fees are paid by recreational hunters to shoot animals, many tranquillised and held in confined spaces. The controversy is alive in Australia, with social media outrage over cricketer Glenn McGrath and NSW MP Robert Borsak posing with dead animals hunted in Africa.

The international uproar over the shooting of Cecil the lion, in Zimbabwe, by an American game hunter has obviously heightened sensitivities.

Activists claim some animals are sold off to the horrifying international animal parts trade, which is responsible for the violent poaching of white rhinoceros. Rhino horns and lion bones are coveted aphrodisiacs in Asia. Despite anti-poaching patrols, poaching claims about three white rhinos a day in South Africa alone. 

There's also the issue of taking lion cubs from their mothers so young. I'm contacted by a concerned activist who tells me lionesses are forced to breed two or three times a year, just like puppy farms, where female animals are bred every time they are on heat. The cubs are boisterous and are "often beaten into submission by staff members if they don't behave themselves". 

This is quite shocking. These reprehensible practices may exist, but I have to say I saw no evidence of mistreated lions or cubs at Ukutula, even though the adult lions cannot roam free. 

Emotions run high on the continent and you'll get differing points of view from different players. It turns out there is a very passionate school of thought that maintains keeping wild animals in anything but unfettered natural surroundings is wrong. 

I find canned hunting and puppy farms deplorable, more so the possibility that I've inadvertently supported it by walking with lions. 

A few days later I'm a guest of the International Luxury Travel Market in Cape Town. 

The conference's opening forum is addressed by people active in community and conservation projects, including Beks Ndlovu​, one of Africa's leading safari guides and founder of African Bush Camps in Zimbabwe and Botswana, which operates a foundation that is very active in a number of educational and conservation projects, including scholarship programs that support children from junior school to university. 

Speaking with Beks later I discover he is passionately against experiences such as walking with lions. "I do not believe it to be natural and therefore generally stay away from it. I tend to believe that it often ends in tears and some form of tragedy. 

"When you raise an animal to befriend and provide companionship and entertainment for humans, and when it comes of age or becomes "un-useable" to then put a bullet in it, seems far-fetched, but that's what's happening in many of these programs. 

"There are certainly some very wealthy and ignorant people who will pay enough money to hunt these animals. It's a very lucrative business and it's done in the name of conservation, but the ethics of it are highly questionable."

Visit Africa and you'll come across many proudly touted animal conservation projects. Most lodges and safari camps will tell you about the work they do with conservation of animals and the environment, and with local communities who often need to be encouraged to see the wildlife as more than "meat on the hoof".  

It's a strong selling point for their product. Visitors often wish to leave something worthwhile behind, whether it's helping save the endangered rhino or supporting an educational project in a township. 

The number of organisations working in partnership with tourism on conservation initiatives is astounding. But are all projects equal? And, if not, how does a visitor work out from afar which safari operator, sanctuary or lodge is actively involved in conservation or is just paying lip service as a marketing ploy? How do you know which game farm that offers animal experiences is primarily concerned with the welfare of their animals and which are to be avoided?  

After the conference I contact Kasia Sliwa of luxury safari company andBeyond. I ask her what questions travellers should ask before booking a visit to a game farm or lodge with animal interactions, or choosing a tour operator that purportedly works with local communities. "The most important thing is to look for transparency, with most reputable travel companies quite happy to provide additional information when asked," she advises. "Travellers can ask for examples of conservation and community issues, which should be clearly stated and have formal goals and objectives that can be easily measured." 

Also, look for projects that are carried out with nationally or internationally recognised organisations that take the issues of land and wildlife seriously. Look for projects recognised by the Tourism for Tomorrow Awards and the World Responsible Tourism Awards. "The most successful projects are those that have demonstrated themselves to be sustainable. At andBeyond we believe that in order to achieve this we need to work closely with communities surrounding our lodges and not simply for them. We choose to work with independent non-profit organisations that are accountable to their donors and document each and every project." 

Julia Salnicki​ of Sydney-based The Classic Safari Company is a zoologist. She says there's a basic question concerned travellers need to ask. "Are these companies breeding lions just for tourists? Then they probably shouldn't be going there." Her rule of thumb: "Don't do anything that's unnatural, such as walking with lions or sitting on an elephant. See them in their natural environment." 

Julia also cautions travellers to beware of farms that claim to return their lions to the wild. This doesn't improve lion populations, she explains, as the reintroduced lions will most likely be killed by the stronger wild ones. But "if it's an orphanage or for injured animals and they are going to live the rest of their life there, then that's a different thing.

"If people genuinely want to give back then it's often better to make a donation to a well-known project and support the researchers." She admits, though, "that doesn't give them the fuzzy, warm feeling they get when they walk with a lion or pet a cub". 

When I contact Ukutula managing director Kagiso "Sparkly" Mokgosi​ afterwards with some questions, he tells me that any prospective buyer of their lions must sign an undertaking that the lions will not be used for hunting or for the animal parts trade. "Ukutula has no association, directly or indirectly, with the lion hunting trade." 

He says the lions go to zoos and captive facilities worldwide for educational purposes, although he won't name them, as this would "infringe on the rights" of their clients.  "Every prospective buyer must register on ECOSCAN, a web-based registration site whereby each animal as well as ownership can be tracked for life" and animals can't be exported without a CITES certificate, approved by committee."

My conclusion is this: ask questions before you go. Consult a respected safari specialist and tell them your concerns. Do your own research as well: there is plenty of material on the internet. If you want to cuddle an animal, think about going to an orphanage. Walking with lions is an amazing experience, but ultimately it may be not so amazing for the lions. 

Five 'sustainable' options

N/A'AN KUSE​ Five-star Lodge in Windhoek with animal orphanage, Bushman Culture Support, children's school and volunteer program. See naankuse.com.  

GREAT PLAINS This company has nine luxury camps in Botswana and Kenya. Guests become partners in positive conservation projects such as Rhino Without Borders and community development initiatives. See greatplainsconservation.com.

ASILIA LUXURY LODGES AND SAFARI CAMPS A leader in sustainable tourism, particularly community education, carnivore research and habitat restoration. See asiliaafrica.com

HOWARD SAUNDERS Howard is a professional guide who runs mobile, tented, privately guided safaris in Kenya and other parts of East Africa. On his safaris you have incredible interactions with the Masaai people and the Nursery School at Amboseli. See howardsaunders.com 

AFRICAN BUSH CAMPS Small, independently owned company founded by Beks Ndlovu, one of Africa's top safari guides. The company has many of their own conservation and education projects in both Zimbabwe and Botswana. See africanbushcamps.com.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

utukula.com

andbeyond.com

theclassicsafaricompany.com.au 

GETTING THERE

Qantas operates the only non-stop flight from Sydney to Johannesburg, the gateway to Africa. See qantas.com.au.

STAYING THERE

The extravagant, five-star Palace of the Lost City is the flagship hotel in the Sun City resort complex: guests have access to all amenities of the resort, including several restaurants, family activities, Valley of the Waves and golf courses. Rooms from R4049 ($433) per night. See suninternational.com

The writer was a guest of Sun International and Qantas.

Comments