True or false? The real story behind Johannesburg’s Lion & Safari Park controversy
Let’s not beat around the bush. One of Joburg’s top tourist attractions, the Lion & Safari Park, based out near Lanseria airport, has found itself in the midst of some controversy over the last year or two. For those not already aware of the issue, it involves the park’s captivity-born lion cubs, and more specifically the fact that visitors are still allowed to pet them. This year in particular animal rights activists and disgruntled journalists have vilified the park for this practice. Not only this, but the park has also come under attack from critics who query the ultimate fate of the lions when they’re no longer used as petting animals.However, as with any controversial issue, some of the supposed facts available online are skewed and some are incorrect altogether. So, what is the real story behind Johannesburg’s recently re-located safari spot? Let’s start with the most damning accusation that has been thrown at them.
Statement 1: The lions are sold for canned hunting when they become too big to pet
This accusation is not true. Indeed, the lion cubs are made available for visitors to pet until they reach about six months old, at which point they are too big to continue. The park insists that at this stage, they are kept on at the park, where they will stay until they die of natural causes. The only other thing that might happen is that they might be donated, and not sold, to other reputable parks and zoos. The Lion & Safari Park’s General Manager, Whin Booyens, admitted to the media that unfortunately some lions were unintentionally sold to hunters in the past, but this was only because the “previous guys” didn’t carry out sufficient background checks on the people buying the animals. An official statement released by the Lion & Safari Park reads, “We abhor the concept of canned hunting…The detailed records that we keep on all our lions are open for inspection to any authorities, organisations or public that wish to see them. All our cubs are micro-chipped so that their movements can be monitored throughout their lives and physically inspected.”
Statement 2: The park went back on their decision to ban lion cub petting
Yes, they did. There was originally a decision made to stop cub petting at the park. This was enforced for a couple of months, until it was re-instated again in August 2016. Representatives at the facility have said that they stand by the general move to ban this kind of activity nationwide, but they also recognise the disadvantages it carries if not every park adheres. They found that their initial ban dramatically decreased their number of visitors, caused by the public’s decision to visit competitor institutions which still offered the lion cub petting experience. They cite the survival of the newly-built R100m facility and the livelihoods of their staff as the reasons why they were forced to reintroduce the activity. Only when lion cub petting is made illegal at every safari park in the country will there be a level playing field in this sense, they say. Park representatives have even promised that they will pull the activity from their schedule once this happens. They say they have even pre-empted the eradication of cub-petting altogether by taking steps to reduce breeding having vasectomised the majority of their males.
Statement 3: It’s a money-grabbing institution that cares more about its revenue than its animals
In light of the decision to reinstate lion cub petting, some cynics have been quick to accuse the park of running its business, despite the welfare of the animals. However, the park insists that there are many ways in which a high quality of life for its animals is maintained. The lion cubs that are involved in the petting activity are constantly rotated, so as to ensure that it’s never too much stimulation for one animal. Keepers also track each lion, of which they have over 70, in order to monitor their movements and
welfare.That’s not to mention that the new park offers the animals 600 hectares of land, compared to the 80 hectares at the previous facility.
Of course, everyone is entitled to their own opinion regarding zoos as a general concept, or human interaction with otherwise wild animals. But, incorrect or misleading information circulating the internet isn’t fair on the institution in question, nor the reader trying to create an informed opinion on any given topic. Now that the facts have been outlined, let’s hope that the waters surrounding this issue are a little less muddied.