Today is World Lion Day, a global celebration of one of the most majestic of big cats, the African lion. Travelers flock from all over the world to Africa to realize their dream of seeing “the king of the jungle” in the wild and South Africa is a prime wildlife viewing destination. More than 370,000 Americans traveled there last year, making the United States the second-largest source of tourists to South Africa among non-African countries.
However, South Africa has a dark secret which it keeps from these visitors. Thousands of lions — between 6,000 and 8,000 — are languishing in captivity at some 260 operations across the country marketed to tourists as lion interaction experiences. Incredibly, there are more captive lions than there are in the wild (less than 3,000).
South African actress and wildlife advocate Pearl Thusi, who appeared in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and Quantico, is collaborating with Humane Society International to warn travelers to South Africa not to visit tourist attractions that offer lion cub petting and lion walks.
Promoters of the industry flood social media with images of tourists cuddling lion cubs or “walking with lions.” Operators lead visitors to believe that they are interacting with orphaned cubs and rescued lions, but that’s a lie. These cubs are born to mothers kept on lion breeding farms, and ripped away at just a few hours old to be used as living photo props. Some of the visitors and volunteers who come to these facilities even pay substantial amounts to hand-raise these “fake orphans.”
Tourists are often told these cubs will one day be released back into the wild, but the grim truth is that they are destined for an early death, each and every one of them. It’s all part of a “Snuggle Scam” conservation con that tricks well-meaning and animal-loving tourists every year.
Once the cubs are no longer cute and cuddly, they are used for lion walking, which furthers the deception of visitors, who are led to believe that they’re helping young lions to become comfortable and aware of their bush habitats.
Eventually, they become too dangerous for that activity (there have been deaths related to lion walking), and this is the stage of their exploitation where things take the darkest turn. Some are sold for canned hunts, where they are shot by trophy hunters in fenced areas from which they cannot escape. Others are killed for the bone trade for use in bogus medicinal tonics in Asia.
The bone trade underscores just how corrupt the lion experience industry can be. Lions are a threatened species, listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Additionally, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which regulates trade in listed flora and fauna, prohibits the trade of bones from wild lions. However, that body allows South Africa to export skeletons from captive lions, and the country has just announced that it will soon nearly double its annual lion skeleton export quota from 800 to 1,500 lions.
What this means is that captive lion breeding facilities and the lion experience industry are literally killing lions — hundreds at a time — and exporting them as bags of bones for profit, with the full sanction of the South African government.
The allure of big cats, including the African lion, has reached the United States, where there are thousands currently held in private ownership. Like their African counterparts, breeders profit from selling these animals, and they are exploited in traveling exhibits, roadside zoos or inappropriately kept as pets.
This #WorldLionDay, you can make a difference. HSI urges travelers and tour operators to fight lion exploitation by refusing to participate in or promote human-lion interactions, such as bottle-feeding or cub-petting, walking with lions, or canned trophy hunting in South Africa.
Here in the US, please do not visit traveling exhibits and roadside zoos that feature lions and other big cats. You can also support the Big Cat Public Safety Act by contacting your elected officials in Washington, DC. But above all, please spread the word about the plight of lions worldwide and support our campaigns to protect them from harm. There’s still time to make this world a better one for big cats, and we need your help to bring that about.