Walking With Lions: Con or Conservation? Further Thoughts

Some of you may have seen my post late last year questioning the ethics of “lion walks” on the Zambian side of Vic Falls in the face of growing allegations, concerns and criticism from former employees, volunteers, journalists and conservationists.

My post also bore the news that conversation with Zambia Tourism had led to the removal of “lion walks” activities and operators from the site. The feeling was that Zambia Tourism did not want to promote such activities so long as some of the questions and concerns surrounding them remained unresolved; they wanted to rather use that page of the website to raise awareness about some of the said same concerns and criticisms.

The page promised that Zambia Tourism would continue to investigate this issue further.

With that in mind, I have been busy at work trying to get as much information as possible from as many different sources as I could find, both on behalf of Zambia Tourism and in my own capacity with regards to a longer feature I am writing on the topic.

During my investigative process, I was contacted by Judy Goddard, who heads up the Marketing, Communications and Public Relations department of the African Lion and Environmental Research Trust (ALERT), which manages Lion Encounter in Zambia. While her original email in defense of ALERT and Lion Encounter felt a little like a “canned” (excuse the pun) response and failed to adequately negate some of the issues raised by myself and others, I thought that, in the name of “balance and fairness” as they put it in my trade, it was important to give her and ALERT a chance to share their side of the story and not to just dismiss them out of hand.

I subsequently met with Judy and Kirsten Hornby, also part of the same department, in Johannesburg a few weeks ago.

Judy adamantly denied any accusations of canned hunting and Kirsten added that “none of the lions” at Lion Encounter or Antelope Park “had ever been sold”. (This, I should state at this point, is up for debate. Many pundits say that the ALERT project began in 1999 and Andrew Connelly, the founder, has admitted that 37 lions were sold from Antelope Park to South Africa in 1999 and 2002. However, most ALERT literature states that their operations began in 2005).

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lions in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park

In response to concerns about the failure to release any lions into the wild at this stage, Judy said defiantly “we are going to release lions – it’s just a matter of when, and funding”. She mentioned that Stage 3 of ALERT’s 4 stage programme will cost a “couple of million dollars” and that current funding efforts are being hampered by the increasing wave of negative press that ALERT and Lion Encounter are experiencing.

Both Judy and Kirsten have obviously been brought on board to combat this wave. Looking back on our recent meeting, I feel it was no coincidence that aside from their obvious intelligence and skills, both women are  also young, attractive and were well-dressed and launched an all out charm  offensive. I felt it spoke volumes about the approach that ALERT has increasingly taken in dealing with the potential doubters and detractors: appearance is as important as substance. There is no denying that ALERT is keeping up with the times in this regard. We live in a social media-saturated world where even politicians are often judged as much on the outward “appearance” of their personality as on their policies.

Whatever the balance between outward appearance and a deeper level of substance at ALERT, the formula has its success stories to counter the criticism. Judy shared with me a glowing report from Dr Sarel van der Merwe (Chair of the African Lion Working Group) about ALERT’s operations in both Zimbabwe and Zambia written in 2013. Dr van der Merwe had been a very vocal critic of ALERT’s conservation value (or lack thereof) since 2008, reasserting even as recently as 2012 that  the “captive breeding of lions have (sic) no conservation value at all” and that he did not “condone the contact of ill-informed tourists with dangerous predators such as lions”.

His 2013 report is an almost complete about turn, but after reading it at least a few times I found it frustratingly vague and strangely it fails to deal with a number of the issues raised in earlier reports. As author and long-time anti-ALERT activist Ian Manning put it: “He (Dr van der Merwe) makes no mention of the genetic consequences or the other impacts, though this was his main point in the report he wrote some years ago”.

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Ian Manning

I contacted Dr van der Merwe regarding this and after an initial curt response confirming that he indeed wrote the report, he declined to answer any of my questions probing his sudden and seemingly complete change of opinion and failure to engage with some of the issues he himself (and many others for that matter) had raised in earlier reports. I continue to be fairly dumbfounded by his unwillingness to furnish further details.

Overall then, after listening to the ALERT side of the story and seeing Dr van der Merwe’s report, there are various issues or questions that I feel have not been laid to rest or have arisen subsequently.

Firstly, I have seen evidence that ALERT still submits invoices under the business name Bowtracker Safaris, which David Youldon has conceded was a hunting project that Andrew Connelly ran before he started ALERT. Judy flat out denied this association. I have also since been shown considerable evidence that Andrew Connelly was offering hunting safaris as recently as 2003.

Secondly, Judy conceded that she is yet to visit Lion Encounter in Zambia, which makes it hard for me to take seriously any of her attempts to deny volunteers’ and former employees’ claims of poor treatment of lions (e.g inadequate veterinary care) and staff members at this site.

More generally, I also find that this statement from Dr Luke Hunter of PANTHERA (echoed by other conservationists) remains difficult to refute:

“The great nonsense behind schemes like ALERT’s is that they are simply unnecessary. If the objective is truly to restore lion populations, translocation of wild lions has over 20 years of experience showing it works, it is less expensive and it carries less risks for both lion and human than using captives. ALERT’s pseudo-scientific reports, which they can only publish on their website and not in the scientific literature, are simply not credible”.

Judy and Kirsten argue that “reintroduction is not the only way – it is one of the ways”, but even if we were to give them the benefit of the doubt on this, Judy herself concedes that there is a bottleneck of lions at Antelope Park and that this is a “big expense”. So long as no lions have been released into the wild by the ALERT programme, this admission will continue to hamper ALERT’s alleged good intentions and their conservation credibility.

Moreover, the expense of this “bottleneck” continues to prompt conversations about canned hunting, with many feeling that if ALERT hasn’t sold lions (knowingly at least) into canned hunting already, it’s only a matter of time before it will have to consider that option if it wants to stay alive. Within the last 4 months, I have heard from various former Lion Encounter employees and other anonymous sources of plans for lions to be sold to a game ranch somewhere near Lusaka (apparently this proposal subsequently fell through due to leaked information) and, more recently, permits being issued for lions being transported in cages from Antelope Park to Rwanda. I am continuing to investigate the latter claims with those on the ground.

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Andrew Connelly, founder of ALERT

Beyond these admittedly tenuous links to canned hunting, there are a number of more concrete incidences of ALERT having bought lions from allegedly unethical lion breeders in South Africa, and, according to the Campaign Against Canned Hunting (CACH), in so doing there is a strong chance that ALERT is at least indirectly supporting the (sadly) rampant canned hunting industry in South Africa.

While ALERT may have at least begun with good intentions and although some of it’s other community and conservation projects appear to have real merit, these uncomfortable conversations regarding its captive-bred lions are not going to go away anytime soon and will continue to outweigh coverage of the more positive aspects of the Trust. We all know that bad news sells, and emotionally-motivated basndwagonism can be particularly fervent and widespread when it comes to Africa’s most revered wildlife, to the point of being completely irrational at times. But as it stands, ALERT is not doing enough to counter this tide.

I have been invited by Judy to visit and be shown around both Lion Encounter Zambia and Antelope Park in Zimbabwe in the coming months. I plan to take up the offer as soon as I can and continue to try to get as deep and unbiased an understanding of this topic as possible, however hard that might be. I think this is a pertinent and necessary cause. While at this stage I still find myself leaning towards ALERT’s doubters and detractors, in terms of a final verdict the jury is out. Watch this space, and please continue to share your own thoughts and opinions in the meantime.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the writer and do not represent the views of the Zambia Tourism Board or the private ownership and management of this website.