At Askari we pride ourselves on providing an ethical volunteering experience. Our work benefits the natural environment, the animals that roam freely within it and those who choose to work with us. Sadly, in a growing and competitive industry, this is not the case for all volunteer programmes. We would like to take some time to help you make the right decision when selecting a volunteering experience. Even if Askari is not the project for you and not the one you choose, please consider the following important information when deciding who to give your time, money and moral seal of approval to.
The majority of what we talk about here relates to volunteer projects where you can touch, cuddle, walk with, feed and help rear animals, specifically carnivores. Many of these animals are young; babies and cubs making the opportunity even more attractive to prospective volunteers. Who doesn’t want that Facebook profile picture cuddling a lion cub? If these are your interests PLEASE DO NOT CONTACT ASKARI. Please take on board the following information and think very carefully before pursuing that volunteering choice.
The ‘con’ in conservation?
Conservation is a real buzz word; companies use it to describe many types of work and attract volunteers. Ask yourself about the real conservation value of what is being done at the project. Is it working towards securing wild habitats and functioning ecosystems that WILD animals need? Do animals ever have a chance at being WILD? How will cuddling those animals be conserving them? Ask for facts and figures and be suspicious if these are not made available.
Are wild animals being exploited?
The sad truth is that many people exploit wildlife as well as the goodwill of people who believe they are helping. Wildlife ‘orphanages’, ‘sanctuaries’ and ‘rehabilitation centres’ advertising interaction with wild animals should be treated with real suspicion. There are only a handful of authentic wildlife sanctuaries in South Africa and they do not breed, trade or allow interaction with animals in any way. If your project
- Breeds predators (lions, cheetahs, leopards)
- Allows you to interact with animals and
- Holds predators exotic (non-native) to South Africa (tigers, panthers)
ASK QUESTIONS. It is highly likely that it is not a legitimate project and one that you should not support.
While some organisations are exploiting wildlife, others are carrying out practices even more devastating. A project that allows you to interact with animals and help rear lion cubs is very possibly linked with the canned lion hunting industry.
Canned lion hunting
What is it?
This industry breeds lions in captivity so they can be shot by trophy hunters. Lions are kept in cages, often in terrible conditions and released into a very small area only when the hunter arrives to shoot them. The lion is not born in the wild. It never has the chance to roam free, it never hunts for itself or does anything a wild lion does. It is literally “bred for the bullet”.
Predator breeding farms around South Africa are part of a multimillion-dollar industry. More than 200 breeding facilities cage between 6,000 and 8,000 predators. The majority of these (mostly lions) are sold into the captive/canned lion hunting industry. Those who are not, meet no better fate, being sold to Asia to supplement the “tiger bone” trade. This not only happens in South Africa but also in Namibia and Zimbabwe.
The owners of these establishments will have a variety of stories to legitimise their breeding. The simple fact is THERE IS NO CONSERVATION VALUE TO BREEDING LIONS IN CAGES. Captive breeding is not a conservation recommendation for any carnivore species in South Africa. Adult lions being shot is just one part of this terrible story. On their way to adulthood the lions are exploited in a number of other ways to create revenue.
Why so many orphaned lion cubs?
Lion cubs are removed from their mother when just a few days old. The reason for this is two-fold. Firstly, it brings the lioness back into oestrous to reproduce again as soon as possible. Secondly, it provides an endless supply of ‘orphans’ for volunteers to rear, cuddle and walk with. Volunteers are told that the cubs were abandoned by their mother and they are saving them so they can be returned to the wild. Everything about this statement is a lie and here is why:
- Their mother did not abandon them – she is hidden down the road in another cage, being used for breeding.
- Question why some farms have up to 30 cubs. Would a species which was truly that useless at rearing their young still be persistent on our planet?
- There has not been a successful lion reintroduction programme using captive bred and reared lions in South Africa and this is why;
- A lion hand-reared in such a way becomes human imprinted and cannot be returned to the wild
- The inevitable genetic inbreeding at these facilities renders the lions a risk for release; not only to themselves, but to other free-roaming carnivores.
The Lion Bone trade
- Lion bone is now being used as an alternative to tiger bones in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
- Lions are being exported to private collectors in the Middle and Far East
- In 2013 the Department of Environmental Affairs released figures stating that South Africa officially issued permits for the export of 1300 dead lions from South Africa to China, Lao PDR and Vietnam from 2011 to 2012.
- As demand increases in the Far East, so will intensive breeding practices in South Africa
- There are no proven medicinal properties from the use of tiger bone or the often supplemented lion bone.
So how do you make the right decision?
- How many cubs are there? Where are their mothers and why are they not being raised by their mothers?
- If the cub number is high – why? Is it really possible that this many cubs have been abandoned?
- What is the plan for the cubs’ long-term future, what happens when they grow up?
- If told they are released, can a viable, ethical and successful process be proven to you?
- Why does the project breed animals, is there a management plan in place for this?
- What is the value of keeping (maybe even breeding) predators not native to South Africa?
Get exact information
Many projects are very vague on the details and this should be a warning sign. What is the name of the reserve on which you will stay? Where is it on a map? If this information is not available, why do they not want you to have these exact details?
Search online, look for comments and reviews by other volunteers who have been there. If there are no reviews, why is this? Use social media, review sites and volunteering forums – what are other people saying?
Speak to someone who has volunteered before
Ask to be put in touch with past volunteers. Can you email someone who has done the project before? Even ask the past volunteer the same questions you ask the project.
REFERENCES, CREDITS & FURTHER RESOURCES:
The Risk of Captive Carnivores; Environment 23, Winter 2015: 8-9.
With permission from Ian Michler and Blood Lions