As the primary educational focus of the Youth For Lions campaign, we spent some time in 2022 exploring the interactive tourism and voluntourism industries in South Africa.
The main aim was to educate YOU, the general public, about how interactive tourism and unethical, hands-on volunteering with big cats contribute to the exploitation of wildlife in captivity.
We asked you to look inward and think about WHY people feel the need to touch, hold or feed wild animals in captivity to learn about them or feel connected to them.
NOTE: Research has shown that interactive activities and unethical hands-on volunteering opportunities do not contribute to conservation because the animals are not being reintroduced into the wild.
So ask yourself: Why are you supporting an industry that does not contribute to true conservation and has no real educational value?
Unpack the campaigns with us
One of the biggest revenue streams in the commercial captive predator industry is the interactive tourism sector where activities such as cub petting, bottle feeding and walking with lions are offered to paying tourists and volunteers from around the world.
Such activities are extremely popular, especially amongst young people and families with children.
But have you ever asked yourself why?
Join us over the next few weeks while we unpack these types of questions about human behaviour in an attempt to change people’s mindsets towards tactile interactions with captive wildlife.
Is it for personal gratification, or for the perfect selfie to post on social media?
Is it for the thrill and excitement?
What is the real reason behind this behaviour?
These are important questions that we need to be asking ourselves and each other.
Wild animals are not toys. Be part of the solution, and stop supporting the exploitation of our wildlife.
Blood Lions and Youth For Lions have been working tirelessly for over 7 years to raise public awareness and educate people about the exploitation and abuse involved in the commercial captive predator industry.
Although we have made huge strides towards curbing the industry, the power now sits in the hands of the people who still support it.
We NEED to change our behaviour and stop supporting the exploitation of our wild animals in captivity and in order to do that, we need to ask ourselves: Why?
Think about this – you have paid a significant amount of money to get up close, interact with and/or take a selfie with a captive animal that should be wild, whether that animal is a lion, cheetah, tiger or elephant.
How does that selfie make you feel?
Do you feel powerful? Guilty? Privileged? Betrayed?
Our next post looks at the effects of wildlife selfies on the people and animals involved.
A true story…
Youth For Lions supporter, “Jane” (*not their real name) once had her picture taken with a hand-raised captive cheetah. This was many years before they found out about Blood Lions and the awful truth about the captive wildlife industry.
At the time, the experience felt surreal and the photograph made them feel privileged to have been so close to such a beautiful animal. They shared the photo to their social media platforms so that their friends and followers could see what an amazing time they were having on holiday.
Fast forward a few years after Jane had watched the Blood Lions film. “I was just devastated. I kept asking myself “What have I done? How could I be so selfish and naive?” It was a horrible feeling to know what I had unwittingly supported. From the moment I watched Blood Lions, the realisation hit me and everything changed.”
Why do we feel a need to touch or hold wild animals in captivity?
Research has shown that there definitely is a human need for contact and connection with nature and wildlife and that this connection makes people want to protect nature. The research also suggested that an emotional attachment to wildlife plays an important role in motivating and changing peoples’ behaviours.
However the same research shows that people who viewed and experienced wildlife behaving naturally in their natural habitats developed new insights, experienced a stronger emotional connection and had longer lasting memories of the experience than those who viewed wildlife in captivity.
This proves that you DO NOT need to touch, hold or feed wild animals in captivity to feel connected to them. In fact, it is better to experience these animals in the wild, in their natural habitats.
Education is one of the most commonly used reasons given by owners of captive wildlife facilities that offer interactive activities for allowing such encounters.
They will often say that their interactive activities help to teach people about the animals by giving them up close and personal experiences with those animals.
However, it can be argued that one does not need to touch or hold a live wild animal in order to learn about it.
If we use dinosaurs as an example, many children (and adults alike) are extremely knowledgeable about dinosaurs, their habitats, behaviours and appearances and yet they have never interacted with a live dinosaur.
Therefore it IS possible to educate people about animals WITHOUT breeding those animals in captivity and forcing them to be in constant contact with humans.
Are people using education as an excuse?
Scientific research has shown that interactive activities like cub petting or ambassador animal interactions are associated with the lowest knowledge-change scores in visitors compared to those who attended guided tours without any interactions.
If zoos and captive facilities were truly educational and based on the premise of conservation, why do they present such severe welfare concerns?
These are questions asked by our Youth Ambassador, Stephanie Emmy Klarmann in her Blog: A visit to the zoo or a captive wildlife facility – education or edutainment?
The world is changing and people are becoming more aware of animal welfare and rights, especially in captivity, and it is time that we start to look inward at our own outdated beliefs and behaviours.
Ambassador species are held in captivity for the purpose of paid interactions.
There is no doubt that education and awareness around species conservation is hugely important, however we have established that you DO NOT need to physically interact with live wild animals held in captivity to achieve these goals.
Ambassador animals are often used by captive wildlife facilities to offer hands-on experiences to paying tourists under the guise of education and conservation. As important as education is, it should never be done to the detriment of the welfare and well-being of individual animals.
Therefore we need you to ask yourself:
- Is it ethical to use Ambassador animals in this way?
- Could we be more successful in educating people if we allow the animals to behave more naturally and view them from a distance?
- Are people confusing entertainment with education, and if so, why?
We live in the digital age and thanks to advanced technologieis like Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Virtual Reality (VR), we have a wide range of options available that could allow us to move away from the captive wildlife interactions industry.
AI is already being used to monitor and protect endangered species in the wild (e.g. Smart Parks) and VR has been developed to help people immerse themselves in nature to reduce stress and anxiety.
We could easily create VR experiences of wild animals in their natural habitats so that people can get that up-close experience and develop that emotional attachment without having to exploit living animals in captivity. These experiences can be inspiring and educational without negatively affecting individual animals welfare and well-being.
It IS possible for us to use these advanced technologies to develop alternative ways to educate people about wildlife species without having to breed, interact with and exploit wild animals in captivity, so why don’t we?
Are you thinking about volunteering with big cats or other wildlife species in Africa?
Wildlife volunteering is an exceedingly popular activity around the globe and involves countless species of wildlife from elephants to marine mammals, and predators to critically endangered species. Many volunteer programmes are ethically and responsibly organised, with true conservation and/or rehabilitation values at their core; however there are unfortunately many more unethical wildlife volunteering projects out there.
Always remember that a True Sanctuary does not breed (have baby animals), trade (buy or sell) or allow any humans to touch, hold or hand-feed their animals and they offer the animals home for their entire life.
How can YOU, a prospective volunteer travelling to southern Africa, tell the good from the bad and ensure that you are supporting true conservation projects?
Ethical vs Unethical – how do you tell?!?
Although it can be difficult to differentiate between ethical and unethical volunteering projects based solely on the information given online, there are a few Warning Signs that you need to look out for before deciding which projects to support:
⛔️Warning – If the project mentions that you are allowed to touch, hold or feed any predators or cubs.
⛔️Warning – If there are photos online of people (volunteers or staff) playing with, holding or feeding predators or cubs.
⛔️Warning – If the agency or booking platform does not provide a facility name or exact location of the project (especially if you ask for it).
If you pick up any of these Warning Signs when researching which projects to volunteer with, we recommend steering away from those projects and platforms.
Know the Facts!
FACTSouth Africa has 3 times more lions in captivity than in the wild, with more than 8,000 lions and thousands of other predators held in small enclosures on 350+ captive predator facilities.
FACTLion cubs born in captivity in South Africa are ripped away from their mothers within a few days of birth so that they can be hand-raised and bottle-fed by paying volunteers and tourists.
FACTMost volunteers and tourists are well-meaning but have little or no knowledge about the realities of the industry, and are often duped by false marketing messages, such as “Live with Lions: the perfect project for any animal lover” or “Care for rescued and injured animals including elephants, lions, tigers and more”.
FACTRemoving cubs from their mothers and hand-raising them DOES NOT contribute to conservation as these animals are never released into the wild, but are instead exploited at every stage of their life cycle until they are eventually killed in canned hunts or for their bones to be exported to Southeast Asia.
FACTGlobal trends of responsible tourism are showing that tourists and the wider industry are progressively moving away from exploitative wildlife interactions.
Internet Search Experiment (Pt 1):
Our team conducted an experiment using simple Google search terms about volunteering with wild animals in South Africa to find out how many ethical and unethical projects are recommended on the first page of results. We conducted two Google searches and surveyed the top results on the first page by going into each website and analysing the projects for Warning Signs. After excluding any “Ads” from the Google results we were left with 17 websites in total.
We expected that a search using the key words “volunteer with big cats” would produce more unethical results with evidence of interactions with big cats, whereas searching for “wildlife volunteering” would generate more ethical projects focused on species conservation in the wild.
The results for the first search “Volunteer with big cats in South Africa” were surprisingly positive, with 75% being ethical projects based at true sanctuaries where there are no hands-on interactions with the animals. The second search “Wildlife volunteering South Africa” results were equally surprising with 56% being unethical projects based at commercial predator facilities that offer “hands-on experiences”.
Internet Search Experiment (Pt 2):
This experiment revealed a few things:
🦁 It showed that there are more platforms offering ethical projects than we expected, which is encouraging;
🦁 It confirmed how difficult it can be to distinguish between ethical and unethical projects when researching online, particularly for someone who is uninformed about the captive predator industry in South Africa;
🦁 When it came to the agencies or platforms in particular, distinguishing between good and bad became difficult because some even offered a mix of ethical and unethical projects. One platform in particular displayed two opposing projects next to each other – one with an image of a wild lion, and one with a picture of someone petting a cheetah.
When in doubt, remember to look out for the Warning Signs and do not be afraid to ask questions. As a prospective volunteer, it is crucial for you to know exactly what you are getting yourself into.
Volunteer Interview Series (Pt 1):
The Youth For Lions team conducted a series of interviews with local and international volunteers currently volunteering their time with wildlife species in South Africa at ethical projects.
The interviews included questions like:
🦁 Why did you want to volunteer with big cats or endangered species in South Africa?
🐯 Describe your experience choosing an agency and/or project to volunteer with.
🦁 What is one piece of advise you would give to potential volunteers?
Join us over the next few days as we explore what it is like to volunteer with wildlife in South Africa.
Volunteer Interview Series (Pt 2):
Kirsten is a volunteer from Germany who recently travelled to South Africa to volunteer at a true sanctuary with some of her favourite wildlife species – big cats.
“I always wanted to volunteer in Africa and I had a few countries in mind. My preferred animals were big cats and elephants because I just love them. When I saw how this sanctuary is organised and that they have a focus on being ethical, I was convinced that this is where I wanted to go.”
Kirsten confirmed what our team also experienced with the Google search experiment, and said she found it difficult to choose a volunteer project to support because of the misinformation provided online.
“When I started researching projects for volunteering, I used several platforms and had a number of projects on my list. I found it difficult because you realise after a while that the different platforms describe the same projects but you never receive a direct name or link for the projects so it’s not really possible to compare”.
Volunteer Interview Series (Pt 3):
During our interview with international volunteer, Kirsten, who recently volunteered with a true sanctuary in South Africa, we asked if she knew anything about the captive predator industry before coming to South Africa, and what more she had learned since being here.
“I knew a bit about canned hunting and I knew there were facilities where people are allowed to pet the animals, but I didn’t have a full picture about the scale of the industry and the legal framework in South Africa. I have a much deeper understanding of that now after staying at the sanctuary I’m with. That is one of the reasons why I chose this project, because I didn’t want to support the other projects I saw online.”
If YOU want to volunteer with wildlife in South Africa, be sure to ask the right questions and be aware of the Warning Signs to look out for.
Youth Ambassador Blog
“Volunteering – How to support true wildlife conservationists instead of money grabbing profiteers”
– written by #YouthForLions Ambassador Oliver Riley-Smith
With the globe growing ever smaller through social media and modern transport, volunteering is growing ever larger. Young people around the world are becoming more passionate to travel and volunteer across the globe but unfortunately, many unethical organisations are capitalising on this.
Dodging the complex minefield that surrounds ethical and unethical wildlife volunteering can be a real challenge.
With the growing appeal of voluntourism to many across the globe, ensuring you are supporting those whose goal is to aid wildlife ethically and responsibly is becoming ever more problematic. One thing is for certain: Volunteering organisations with only profit at their core, are of no benefit to wildlife or their conservation.
READ #YouthForLions Ambassador, Oliver Riley-Smith’s latest blog for advice on finding an ethical voluntourism experience.
Volunteer Interview Series (Pt 4):
Lizzie is an international volunteer with an organisation monitoring endangered species in the wild in South Africa. Over the last 10 years, Lizzie has dedicated between 21 and 56 days every year to her volunteering passion.
“I have to be honest, when I was first researching who to volunteer with, I did see some programs that included handling wildlife and my first thought was “oh, that would be nice”. But I have since had my eyes opened and realised that it is so wrong – any wildlife that comes into contact with humans can never be released back into the wild. I never realised how lucrative it was and how naive people can be.”
We asked Lizzie for one piece of advice for potential volunteers with a passion for wildlife and this is what she had to say:
“Do your research and think about what you are being offered. Also try and look for smaller organisations where you can really be involved with the day-to-day workings, rather than somewhere that has too many volunteers at any given time.”
Volunteer Interview Series (Pt 5):
We asked Lizzie, an international volunteer with an organisation monitoring endangered species in the wild in South Africa, to share some of her first-hand experiences of being a volunteer with an organisation like that and we were not disappointed.
“There are so many amazing experiences! At the end of the day it’s knowing that you have helped in a small way, be it sifting through hundreds of photos of grass on a camera trap before you get to a priority species that has not been seen for a while. Or going through my own photos and realising that one of the painted (wild) dogs had a snare – alerting the monitor who put a plan in place to get the vet in to dart the dog and remove the snare.
One of my favourite memories was when we got a flat tyre while out monitoring, but we couldn’t do anything about it because we had lions on one side and a black rhino with a calf on the other! We sat there for hours listening to the roars of the lion and the squeal of the rhino (how can such a big animal have such a small call?!).
For me though it’s not just about the lions, painted dogs, rhino, or elephants – it’s about the impala, the giraffe, etc. and the amazing bird life and knowing that just by volunteering in the first place, I’ve helped in a small way.”
YOU can be part of the solution by educating yourself and those around you about the brutal captive wildlife industry to avoid supporting unethical facilities. Remember the Warning Signs you need to look out for before deciding which projects to support and always ask questions.
Volunteer Interview Series (Pt 6):
We often assume that the voluntourism industry only involves international travellers who may use the favourable exchange rate to travel South Africa and experience wildlife volunteering in different settings, however we rarely think about the many South Africans who also give their time and money to fulfil their passion by volunteering with various wildlife organisations locally.
Darren is a South African volunteer with an ethical organisation focused on monitoring endangered wild species in South Africa. Growing up in a big South African city meant that he became fully aware of the captive predator industry from an early age.
“I remember seeing wild animals like lions and even hyenas in shopping malls for interactive experiences, and I unfortunately experienced captive wildlife through my school and my peers birthday parties. When I matured and reached high school though, I started to learn more about the detrimental effects that these industries have on the animals and environment.”
When asked why he decided to volunteer with endangered wild species, he replied:
“I’ve always had a passion for nature and a deep level of empathy for the various creatures I experienced when outdoors. I have volunteered with animals in shelters almost all my life but as I grew up and shifted towards city life, I realised how much I had been neglecting the various wildlife opportunities and experiences available in South Africa”.