Is walking with lions ethical?

No, walking with lions is not ethical Ė but itís easy to see why it appeals to many tourists. Youíre strolling through the bush with a handful of cute cubs by your side, or some young adults, watching as they roll around in the dust and play with each other.

But where have these lions come from, and what will happen to them after they become too big, strong and unpredictable to join people for a walk? And do claims that walking with lions help conservation really stack up?

The fact is, walking with lions is an extremely controversial activity that many countries are now, thankfully, starting to phase out.

However, it remains a stage in a production line of cruelty that begins with cubs born in captivity being separated from their mothers and passed to unwary volunteers to raise and hug, resulting in full-grown lions that are acclimatised to humans and cannot be released into the wild. Instead, they are handed over to hunters as easy targets, their inherent fear of humans cuddled out of them, and their bones are shipped to Asia for use in traditional medicines.

If your tour operator offers walking with lions as an experience, or anything else that brings you into direct physical contact with lions or other big cats, then give it a very wide berth.

Whatís wrong with walking with lions?

These are obviously not wild lions that you’re walking alongside. They have usually been born and raised in captivity and habituated to humans from a very young age. Some estimates put the number of lions in captivity in South Africa alone at up to 12,000.

Lion cubs are separated from their mother so that she can return to the breeding programme. The cubs then become a tourist attraction, with visitor activities including petting and feeding them. Often unsuspecting volunteers will help with this kind of experience, thinking they are helping to look after ‘orphaned’ or ‘abandoned’ cubs.

Once they become too big to cuddle safely, the cubs graduate to walking with visitors. But as they enter adulthood, that is no longer safe even with a professional ‘trainer’ keeping an eye on them. Ask the organisers of these experiences what happens to the lions next and you might get answers along the lines of: ‘they’re released into the wild’ or ‘they enjoy a happy retirement surrounded by other lions’. You won’t be shown the small, dirty, overcrowded cages they’ve been moved into.

The trouble is, any lion trained to trust humans, suppress its natural predatory instincts and receive its food on a plate with no effort required can never be released into the wild. Not successfully, anyway. And captive lions live 25 years on average. Where is the money coming from to look after these lions through their retirement, to pay vet bills and buy the huge quantities of meat they need?

From walking with lions to canned hunting

More often than not, the lions tourists walk with will spend a few more years in cramped cages back on the lion farm before being sold to canned hunting operations. This is more like a computer game than a traditional game hunt. The lion is trapped in a fenced area, unable to escape and with little of the wariness towards humans that a wild animal would show. It’s just ‘point and shoot’.

Then the big brave hunter will return home, perhaps with a skull or pelt for a trophy. And the lion’s bones will be sold into the Asian market, where they are considered a fair substitute for tiger bones, as documented by the superb Blood Lions campaign. The idea that powdered lion bone will help clear up that embarrassing rash or make you more of a wild animal in the bedroom is as ludicrous as the trade in it is tragic.

The idea that lion encounters, and canned hunting, help conservation is dubious at best. In fact, they are more likely to hurt efforts to protect lions because wild lions are often caught to help with breeding programs. While trophy hunting in the wild is also grim, there is a legitimate argument that it can raise funds for conservation and keep lion prides healthy. But wild hunting is a world apart from canned hunting where the animal has no chance of survival.
Travel Team
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Can you walk with lions in South Africa?

There are several locations around South Africa that will let you walk with lions. We wouldnít recommend you visit any of them. The government has pledged to ban canned hunting and captive breeding, though both continue. And with so many thousands of lions in captivity at the moment, most of which cannot be released into the wild, there is a big question mark over what will happen to them if these practises do end.

Is walking with lions in Mauritius cruel?

Walking with lions in Mauritius is just as problematic as anywhere else. Safari vacations in South Africa are often combined with a few days on this gorgeous Indian Ocean island. You can take a walk with lions here too, at the Casela Nature Parks, which also have a host of other African wildlife. Lions are not native to Mauritius. They have been imported or bred for a life in captivity. Go for a nice walk on the beach instead.

Are there any ethical big cat experiences?

Ethical big cat experiences are those that always put the animals’ welfare foremost. Volunteers and visitors should have minimal contact with the cats. Any project where people are petting cubs or walking alongside them should raise red flags.

“We’re often asked if volunteers can play with cubs and have direct contact with them and of course the idea of hugging a baby lion is a very appealing one,” says Georgia Collcutt Operations Director at our volunteer vacation partner Oyster Worldwide. “But if the cub has been brought up being handled by people it will be unlikely to survive in the wild. Sadly, lion cubs that you are touching, playing with and cuddling are likely being bred for the atrocity that is the canned hunting industry.”

“Canned hunting is prolific in South Africa, and many other African countries. Lion cubs are born and raised in captivity, often as a tourist attraction to make money whilst they are young, before being turned over to organisations which run vacations for people to come and hunt and kill them. Many of the lions on our project have been rescued from this dreadful fate, and we’re actively supporting trying to extinguish this practise from Africa.”

There are plenty of excellent wildlife conservation volunteer projects out there, and sanctuaries that you can visit. But they should be very clear about how the animals have come to be there, what the plan is to release them back into the wild, and what will happen to them if that is not possible.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Bernard DUPONT] [Intro: Quadtripplea] [From walking with lions to canned hunting: Doc James]