Seeing animals up close is a breathtaking experience, but in many cases it can come at the cost of the well being of the animals involved. This was just the case when campaigner Beth Jennings visited South Africa in 2015. We spoke to her to learn more about her experience and how others can learn from it.
What attracted you to travel to South Africa?
"I really wanted to take some time out and invest in a trip to help conservation of wild animals. I’d always been obsessed with big cats so I decided to visit South Africa and volunteer with lions. The trip promised two weeks under the South African sun, hand rearing 'orphaned' lion cubs to help prepare them for release into the wild. Sounds absolutely perfect right? Oh how wrong I was."
How long had you researched for volunteering?
"In hindsight I didn’t spend long enough researching my trip, this was a huge part of the problem. I had known I wanted to work with big cats and found a travel agency website offering a trip to 'live with lion cubs in South Africa'. After I had booked it, I did a bit more research and found a couple of articles that mentioned canned hunting. But when I followed this up with the travel agency, I was assured that the park I was visiting had no involvement with canned hunting. I believed what I was told.
But it became apparent that the scale of the problem is far bigger than I ever imagined. Within South Africa there are around 200 facilities breeding lions for profit, and none of these will ever be released into the wild. The industry is largely unregulated, so there was actually no way for the travel agent to know if a park is involved or not, so they simply took the park’s word for it. Every single park that offers hands-on interactions with cubs is unethical. It’s as simple as that. I want to use my experience to educate the public and offer ethical alternatives." (Beth has set up Claws Out to do just that).
When did the warning signs start appearing?
"Almost the minute I arrived at the park. During the induction we visited the enclosure that housed the youngest cubs – there were five that all weighed around 10kg (22 lbs) each. They had already outgrown the space but the enclosure for the next age group was already full, so they couldn’t yet be moved.
Over the next few days there were other red flags. We had to drag the cubs around for photo ops with tourists throughout the day, and were told to smack them on the nose if they got 'too unruly'. So any natural actions/behaviors they should exhibit as young wild animals were told to be met with punishment. This was just one of the actions that my feel incredibly uncomfortable.
During my time at the park I had posted on Twitter about my experience and through responses I received I learnt about the links between cub petting and canned hunting. Needless to say I was horrified."
What advice would you offer to others wanting to help on the ground?
"The first thing is, you need to come to terms with the fact that truly ethical conservation efforts are not going to allow you to play with baby wild animals all day. That’s step one.
Next, there’s a plethora of sources available for people looking to volunteer and make a real difference to ethical sanctuaries. You can also contact charities and organizations that focus their work on the particular species you’re interested in. For example, if I’d contacted FOUR PAWS prior to my trip, I could have been pointed in the direction of volunteering at LIONSROCK. Alternatively, you can contact individual campaigners, such as myself, for advice. I receive messages all the time through my website or Facebook asking advice about particular facilities, and I am always more than happy to respond with my recommendations."
What are the do's and don'ts of animal interactions?
"To put it as simply as I can – no hands on interaction with a wild animal is ethical.
I was absolutely not qualified in any way to 'raise' lion cubs, so just because I paid a large amount of money, doesn’t mean I should be entitled to do so."
Beth’s experience is a shocking one, but no doubt she isn't alone in mistakenly thinking that she is helping. Through Travel Kind we want to share how it is possible to be an animal-friendly traveler. To find out more, take a look at our tips on how to travel responsibly and Travel Kind below.