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Responsible Tourism shouldn’t have Cuddling Distractions

The most difficult part of responsible tourism?

Looking beyond the cuteness factor.

Wild and free lion cub. © Drew Abrahamson

Wild and free lion cub. © Drew Abrahamson

It’s evident that when we look, the world is truly filled with love. Yet it’s also clear that much of that love has been inadvertently misplaced by tourists, who are often tricked and conned into masked directions, succumbing to the desires & stories of those out to offer an apparently conflicting conservation message.

Conflicting message?

That by touching what we desire to protect, some how gives us a greater understanding, resulting in a greater protection of that species in the wild. Captured In Africa have found this to be a fallacy. How can we learn, for example about a wild lion, by petting a captive almost mutant version of a lion? When these animals are not a true representation of their wild counterparts.

How does that interaction with a lion cub, reflect on the dwindling lion populations? Sadly there’s no scientific evidence to support claims that interacting with captive animals directly benefits the survival of that species. Whether lion or tiger cub petting in South Africa (or other areas such as the US, Mexico and Asian countries), elephant rides in Thailand, or swimming with dolphins at numerous marine parks worldwide.

Travellers feel that though touching, they are directly having an impact – we guess it’s that same feeling of seeing the ocean and wishing to swim in it. Apply this same impulsive feeling towards wildlife conservation – if by petting an adorably sweet & cuddly lion cub means you’re saving it, think about that lion cub as it crawls and stretches towards the shadow that was once its mother.

Fact: Many facilities offering lion/tiger cub petting state to tourists that those animals are “abandoned” by their mothers or that they are part of a rehabilitation program. The real reason is that they have been purposely bred and taken away from their mothers, to offer tourists this interaction activity. In South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe, no wildlife interaction experience with lions has resulted in any lions being released into the wild – although release programmes exist, these have so far not yielded results of any releases.


Breeders “churn out” lions to keep up with the demand for cubs to play with. Image © Drew Abrahamson

We mention lion cubs, as lions (and big cats) are a predominant feature of what our team do at Captured In Africa, whether taking guests on safari to view the real thing, campaigning and advocating for them, or rescuing lions from dire situations – it’s who we are and we wear our heart on our sleeves.

“Captive Lions have no conservation value at all, however this is what the breeders & hunters wish us to believe. The captive Lions in SA are so inbred that genetically it is a mess & they would not be viable for release into wild areas! Besides the fact that there is very little space to release wild lions never-mind captive.

Drew Abrahamson, Captured In Africa

“There is something to think about & some questions one needs to ask ~ If there was space, would the reserve/protected area be fenced? Would the reserve have existing Lion prides? Would the reserve be commercial, meaning would there be camps & lodges who offer game drives in open vehicles & bush walks?

“The reason I ask some of these questions is because captive Lions for one, seek out human interaction, this is what they know & have grown up with. They associate vehicles & people with food. Lions have learned behaviour just like any other living being on this planet! What do you think will happen if a pride of captive Lions have to come across an open game drive vehicle full of tourists? I don’t think I need to answer that question. Take a captive Lion & put it in an area with no fence, it is going to wonder & seek out that human interaction, which will be a danger to surrounding communities who’s mode of transport are their legs.”


Guests enjoy a wild lion experience on safari. Image © Drew Abrahamson

Drew concludes;

“I haven’t even gone on to mention what wild lions will do to captive lions if they come across them in the bush. It will be a certain bloodbath with the captive Lions coming off second best! So, there are many points to take into consideration & many variables at play. It is not as cut & dry as what people would like to believe!”


Cub petting is a worldwide issue and the number one factor behind it, is financial and not conservation based. It’s also important to note here that there are no major wildlife organisations in support of such hands-on wildlife experiences.

Apply this ideology to all wildlife experiences, such as swimming with dolphins, elephant rides, walking with lions (the list goes on) … and as a company, we are shocked by the lack of responsible tourism authority on this subject. Seemingly, it’s far easier for tour operators to send tourists and volunteers to any facility which itself states “to be ethical”, either claiming their animals are rescues or that they are part of ongoing research programmes. If such companies and product suppliers spent just 5 minutes researching responsible tourism and cub petting (or elephant rides, dolphin performances etc), would they still look to offer these experiences to their customers?

Even in recent days, we’ve seen another sad incident involving the death of a British tourist, resulting from riding an elephant in Thailand (article).

In 2015, Lion Park in Johannesburg was the scene for the death of a US tourist after she was mauled by a lion (article).

Our previous research and dealings with various travel governing bodies, displayed a lack of awareness & protection for tourists towards big cat experiences, with an emphasis on animals in entertainment such as monkeys, elephants and marine parks. Given the current climate and evidence that all big cat species are under ever greater threats in the wild, they are due much higher priorities when dealing with captive animals in tourism.


Education doesn’t need to be hands-on. FOURPAWS Lionsrock Big Cat Sanctuary gives an insight into one of their many rescues. Image © Paul Tully

Factors such as, how captive bred lions contribute (or rather not contribute) towards the conservation of wild lions was taken into consideration, along with the declining lion population in general, when the US Fish & Wildlife Service upgraded Lions to the endangered species list

“The tourism industry must wake up to our ever changing world of wildlife issues and eco-driven tourism, where more and more travellers are becoming extremely conscious of where and how they travel. Continued devastating losses to our wildlife and the continued exploitation of captive animals for entertainment & commercial gain, are intertwined with responsible tourism, we cannot separate the two with naive and unresearched approaches to product selection for customers.”

Paul Tully, Captured In Africa


South Africa, where our company is based, has an even more dire situation for lions and that is the canned hunting industry. An industry exists whereby lions are bred on mass, to not only supply South Africa’s cub petting & walking with lions experiences for tourists, but to also supply the captive lion hunting industry, aka Canned Hunting.

Following our team’s work on this issue, we can narrow down the finer points. The process can be confusing for the unsuspecting tourist or volunteer, yet reveals the chinks in which the industry exploits in order to thrive and avoid direct accusations;

  • A lioness is bred, not once, but 2-3 times that within the same period as they would in the wild
  • Her litter is taken away from her, a few weeks, often days after birth
  • Cubs are then cared for by unsuspecting volunteers and offered to tourists to play with – this leads to enormous stress and without their mother’s natural milk, often leads to malnourishment and other deficiencies
  • After a few months, when the cubs are larger, they are then used in ‘walking with lions’ experiences until they’re approximately 2 years old – after which they are too large for interacting with
  • Cub petting facilities often breed themselves
  • or loan cubs from a 3rd party (lion farmer). Once the cubs are older, they are returned to that 3rd party
  • If cub petting facilities are also breeding themselves, many operate a trade and sale policy. Once they leave a facility, here is where they disappear and no longer seen. A few may be sold to overseas zoo’s, with the majority having unknown whereabouts
  • Where there is a constant stream of newborn cubs, they are operating a trade in those animals to maintain numbers and to ensure there is always “cuteness” of petting a lion or tiger cub to charm the tourists
  • After the 2 year mark, many of these lions simply disappear, sold and traded. Apart from the occasional zoo purchase, the main destination is the canned hunting industry, along with the market for lion bones (both legal industries supplementing the demand for captive bred lions).


Removing cubs from mothers leads to various ailments such as skin & bone conditions and malnourishment.

DON’T PET CUBS & Don’t walk with Lions!

Evidence that cub petting facilities are selling their lions into the canned hunting industry, mounts;

In September 2014, an investigation into such a breeding and cub petting park was exposed in THIS article for selling their lions to known canned hunting operators.

In late 2014, a CBS 60 Minute program exposed a Gauteng Lion Park, in which its owner admitted to selling their captive bred lions.

Yet another investigative program exposed a facility as offering cub petting and trading their lions.

The recent documentary film Blood Lions has also helped raise awareness and expose the captive lion hunting industry and it’s direct links to cub petting. Yet this industry isn’t new to us, it was in 1997 that Gareth Patterson first helped expose this practice as part of The Cook Report investigative TV program. Sad to think it continues today.

How do the cub petting facilities avoid this canned hunting connection to the everyday unsuspecting tourist?

“One of my previous enquiries to a well known lion breeder and volunteer facility in South Africa, resulted in a statement from them which included .. “imagine you have a mobile phone, you sell it to this person, who then resells it to another person… are we then still responsible for that phone once it’s changed hands?” .. I was astounded by this mindset towards wildlife, particularly intelligent species such as lions. However this is a common theme in which lions are commodities, bred for the sole purpose of profit-making. Tourists and in particular the tourism industry, simply cannot listen and go off the word of the facility in question, they must independently research every project, destination and practice such as animal interactions.”

Paul Tully, Captured In Africa

The above statement shows us the missing link between cub petting and where these lions eventually end up… TRADE.

By operating a trade between the cub petting facility and the end buyer (or hunt operator), the cub petting facility can simply ‘wash their hands’ of the animal, sell or trade to another person and claim that they simply didn’t know and “how can they be responsible, once they leave their premises?”. The amount of times the Captured In Africa team have heard these excuses, yet tourists and tour operators fall for these lines time and time again.

Cub petting facilities will go as far as actively stating their resentment towards hunting, including placing statements on their website of their “ethical stance” against such unethical practices as canned hunting. However, by breeding and selling their animals, it is these same facilities which are supplying the captive lion hunting and lion bone trade industries.

If cub petting facilities were truly “against” cruelty to animals, then;

  • Why subject the lionesses to huge strain of losing offspring? or the cub to losing its mother?
  • Why allow human hands on those animals? and subject a young cub to the stresses of being manhandled daily by numerous people?
  • Why sell those lions to who knows who & where and negate all responsibility for their protection?


Behind the scenes, a lion’s life isn’t so wonderful. Image © Drew Abrahamson

Stop the breeding and selling of lions, and the canned hunting industry wouldn’t have the supply of lions it currently has. Petting lion cubs only fuels the industry of canned hunting.

If you’re a tourist, product supplier for a hotel or tour operator, or a volunteer thinking about using a hands-on animal encounter facility, please think and research thoroughly before doing so.

If in doubt: a sanctuary does not breed, allow tourist interactions or operate a sale/trade of their animals. 

Captured In Africa do not endorse nor use any wildlife interaction facility. Our customers are given as wild an experience as possible, along with an animal welfare responsibility which includes well researched tourist destinations.

You’re safe from being inadvertently involved in unethical practices, when travelling with Captured In Africa

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