This is a guest post written by Sarah Dyer of Voice4Lions.


So you love lions? Me too! Learning about how desperate a situation our lions are in nowadays, who would not want to try and do something they felt would improve their situation?

People have many reasons for looking at voluntourism projects that include wildlife – for example, friends have done it and recommended, it looks a bit of fun and something different to your standard holiday, some look at it for experience for a future career, and others do it for the love of the species and the hope that what they will do has a beneficial impact to the animals they are going to work with. Volunteering can be a great way of aiding wildlife AS LONG AS YOU DO IT RIGHT!

As a mature volunteer I set off to South Africa in December 2012 to volunteer with lions. I was someone who had previously volunteered at a wildlife rescue in the UK, and I wanted to take things a step further and work with an animal I had always loved and revered. I tried to do some research on the place I was going to, but it was not that easy to do and being naïve (yes even mature volunteers can be naïve!) I never thought about the real impact of this kind of volunteering nor the industry associated with it.

I don’t want to make this blog about the details of my volunteering experience, which I regret deeply now, but instead about the realities of the situation and the industry that you will get involved in if you go and volunteer with wildlife, particularly captive lions. Believe me – if you are doing this to be involved in conservation or animal welfare you sadly couldn’t be more wrong.

Having looked hard into the industry after my terrible experience, and knowing what I had really involved myself in, the easiest option would have been to say nothing and walk away, just chalking it up to experience. However, I started this journey with a passion to help lions, so how could I desert them? Particularly knowing what I now knew! I also do not want other volunteers to fall for the same trap I did, so please do read this before you even contemplate volunteering. As tough as it was, I admitted to my friends and family what had happened and what I had since learnt, and they were so incredibly supportive of me. They knew I was a lover of lions and how difficult it must have been to state publicly that I had made a huge mistake. More than ever I felt that I had to stand up for both the lions and for other people who would volunteer like me in the belief that they were doing something good – I needed to be a voice for them. To help me do this, I joined the International Campaign Against Canned Hunting (CACH) and became a UK representative for 4 years. During that period, I learnt huge amounts about the industry and in November 2018, with a colleague from CACH, co-founded my own charity called Voice4Lions. Our mission is to raise awareness of the issues facing lions all over the world with particular emphasis on those in South Africa within the commercial industries of captive breeding, petting, walking, hunting and the lion bone trade. We do this by working collaboratively with and engaging in discussion with all parties, always with the welfare, protection and future of lions in mind and at the heart of everything we do.

Firstly, let’s clear up straight away that that there is NO form of conservation involved when you volunteer with lions that have been bred in captivity. When I first looked at volunteering, numerous projects used the conservation angle to say you were helping the species. “Lion numbers are declining”, “We need to breed them to save them from dying out”, “Later we send them back to the wild” – all of these are marketing ploys to get your attention and not one of these claims is true. It should be noted that over time facilities have dropped some of these misleading claims, as many have been caught out with false advertising and they know the world is watching.


The Captive Lion Breeding Industry

Unfortunately, it is not possible to get accurate figures from South Africa but there are around 3500 wild living lions in South Africa and more than 8000, at a very conservative estimate, languishing in captivity. These lions born and bred in captivity are used for promotion to bring in volunteers and tourists to either pet them or walk with them. As they become too dangerous to use for interaction they are left in enclosures awaiting their fate of, among other things, being sold off for hunting, being sold to public and private zoos across the world, or being used for breeding the next round of lion cubs. It should be noted that in the wild lionesses breed around every 2 years, not as they are bred in captivity – 3 or 4 times a year! In short, there are huge animal welfare issues with this industry, with little regulation.

With only around a third of facilities that breed lions being open to the public or volunteers, the rest of the facilities are run behind closed doors. They breed lions to send to facilities for commercial entertainment purposes, to be hunted or to be literally bred and killed for their bones as part of the Traditional Chinese Medicine industry.

Captive bred hunting is referred to as canned hunting, ranch hunting or captive hunting (the last two have been used to get away from the negative associations with the term canned hunting). Effectively they are all the same, the lion is bred in captivity and then hunted in an enclosed area with no chance of escape. There are laws around the time that lions have need to be “free ranging” before being hunted – but these differ tremendously between provinces. In the Free State it is 3 months but in the North West it is 96 hours, which is also why many Free State lions are transported to the North West. We have heard of lions that have been literally offloaded and killed shortly thereafter.


Your Health Could be at Risk!

Did you ever contemplate that if you volunteer in close proximity to lions that your health is likely to be at risk too? Lions are not cuddly toys or domestic animals that are regularly treated for diseases, they are wild animals and as such carry a multitude of diseases. When I volunteered I had absolutely no idea about zoonosis or other diseases that lions had that could transfer to people. On top of this, lions (even cubs) can inflict serious injury through a bite or claws – Pasteurella multocida is an important human pathogen, and its association with wound infections from animal bites is well recognised. Serious infection can occur – as happened in the case of Scott Baldwin, Ospreys player bitten by a lion in 2017, who was lucky that a surgeon managed to save his hand. In addition, dermatophytosis is a fungal skin infection commonly known as “ringworm” with transmission by direct skin to skin contact with an infected animal. External parasites such as fleas, ticks, lice and mites can all be transmitted, as well as tapeworms, roundworms and hookworms.


Major Tourism Bodies Condemn Unacceptable Practices

In 2016 ANVR (the Dutch regulating body for travel companies) brought in tough animal welfare guidelines for all their members which effectively stopped them offering interaction, and in October and November 2019 SATSA and ABTA respectively came out with their own new guidelines. All these guidelines state unequivocally that petting or walking with lions are unacceptable practices that should not happen. Unfortunately, many volunteer organisations are not members of any of these groups. However, with major industry players now telling people not to take part in these practices one would hope that these guidelines are taken on board, whether or not an organisation is bonded with any of these groups.


What Can You Do?

If you want to volunteer then please only go to true sanctuaries that do not allow any interaction, breeding or trading, and give their lions a forever home. A few examples of places that are good to volunteer at would be Drakenstein Lion Park, Panthera Africa or Shamwari (which hosts the Born Free Foundation’s Big Cat Rescue and Education Centre).

If you have already volunteered with lions, please don’t beat yourself up – you are not the only person to be misled into believing you were doing the right thing. Now you know though, please don’t be quiet, stand up and tell your friends and family and wider circle. By raising awareness you DO help the lions. A lot of volunteers raise funds from family and friends to go on these projects – I know it is so difficult to turn around to all those who supported you and say you were wrong. I was lucky, I funded my own placement. I could have easily just walked away and not told anyone but I would then live with the knowledge that I had been involved in this industry and did nothing for lions my whole life.

Become informed. That means reading up as much as you can about canned hunting, captive lion breeding, cub petting, lion walks and the lion bone trade. Knowledge is power. You will find a host of information on our Facebook page Voice4Lions, through the Lion Coalition website, or via organisations such as Blood Lions, Born Free, HSI Africa, and Four Paws.

Once you have grasped the facts, raise your voice. Never think that one person cannot make a difference.

Here are some ideas of actions that you can take:

  • Lobby your local government representatives or the South African Embassy near you.
  • Get hold of media (print, radio, TV) and see if they know about the situation and would be prepared to run a story.
  • Get active on social media and post articles and especially your feelings about the subject.
  • Talk to your friends. Get them to talk to others.

If you hear of anyone who is going to volunteer at any lion facility that breeds and allows interaction, then please explain to them why it is not a good idea. Most people are ignorant of the facts and think they are supporting conservation by bottle feeding cubs and walking lions. If you see or hear anything that doesn’t seem right to you, please report it to us so that we can investigate further.

The power is in each of us to make a difference in this world. Find the way you can do so and never give up.

Sarah Dyer is the director and co-founder of Voice4Lions, and a tireless activist for the protection of lions everywhere. If you would like to report any unethical organisations feel free to comment on this blog or email her. The main image is credited to Adam Park Photography.