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).
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”.
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.
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.
Just copying and pasting my response to some comments elsewhere about Lion encounter Zambia suspending their walks. Apologies if some points bring things up not mentioned here:
As a volunteer last year, I’m dismayed by the quick judgement people are willing to make from apparent hearsay. While it is important to scrutinise these sorts of practices for unethical practices (as it sadly seems to happen), in this case I do not believe there is any mistreatment, abuse, or shady dealings. The animals were well treated, well fed, and kept in good conditions regardless of age, and a robust plan is in place for the lions’ progress. The staff are passionate about all of the lions and it’s sad that people are willing to judge based on very little. The Zambia Lion encounter project staff were the ones that made me aware that there was a canned hunting issue in South Africa, masquerading as lion encounters. Zambia Lion Encounter is NOT guilty of this shameful practice.
I saw with my own eyes that retired lions were all accounted for, and cared for. It is disappointing for the team that Stage 4 has not yet been reached (release of certain groups into the wild). The difficulties apparently are in finding a safe place for their release, along with apparent red tape issues associated with cross border transit papers,
along with the inevitable financial shortages. If anyone cares enough about this issue, then please take the time to investigate it properly before passing judgement. Go and visit, spend some time there and THEN decide. Or send/ask questions. It is unethical to damn a well intentioned operation before giving it a fair and informed ‘trial’
And they are not ‘closing’. They are only suspending the lion walks. As the lions get too big they become too dangerous for people on walks. In order to keep the walking encounter going, they would need a new generation of Cubs. Rather than breeding more (which would bring in revenue), Lion Encounter should be commended for their responsible decision NOT to breed any more for the timebeing, as otherwise this might jeopardise the care of those already in the project, by overcrowding. They are forfeiting significant revenue (money) to do the right thing!!! That is relatively rare in this day and age.
Having volunteered last year, Dambwa is manned daily, the enclosures cleaned regularly and frequently, and the lions fed a good diet and watered with fresh water. They certainly looked healthy and were in good condition, and they were inspected and observed for any sign of illness or injury every day.
A vet comes to visit to provide veterinary care and assists in their monitoring when required. The staff are passionate about their care, and it does them an injustice to suggest anything shady is currently taking place. Their affection for the lions is unquestionable; and intentions are certainly in the right place. The resituating challenge sounds like a financial and red tape one, with challenges being finding safe areas for release,and red tape issues associated with the lions’ cross border transit papers. Certainly Stage 4 needs to happen soon, and I believe the staff are as frustrated and disappointed that this hasn’t happened yet as anybody else, as it would be wonderful to see as many as possible out of their enclosures. Canned hunting was certainly shunned and frowned upon there. All the lions that were there seemed to be accounted for, and I saw them all first hand.
(I can’t speak for Antelope Park as I didn’t spend any time there)
So now what will happen to those Lions that have been brought up from cubs in captivity and no longer can be released into the wild? Stopping the Lion Walks will not bring in funds and keep the lions fed and looked after or in condition for the tourists to see them if no tourists are to see them! so what will happen to them?. Are you in fact sending them to a far worse fate and possibly early death? Will the centre close due to lack of interest! It should not have started ( Lion Walks) in the first place. It did, now you have these Lions lives in your hands. Are you the general public going to play God by your actions? Will these Lions die due to lack of funding because no one is interested any more in coming to see them.? I do not believe you can just stop something like this! You have to see the bigger picture. Maybe no more Lions bred for this, with the last lion publicized doing the last walk. Please, Just stopping it is not the answer for the Lions at the centre ..
The problem is with the people in charge of tourism. You have a tourism minister who supports trophy hunting because she thinks this is what brings revenue in the tourism sector. The only way they can achieve that is by having someone who is educated in that field, who knows the inside and outs of tourism is when we will get out of this mess. Ask any of the people in charge if they have a diploma or degree in tourism, in fact some are grade 12 drop-outs. They don’t know how to promote the country as a tourist destination no matter how much re-branding they do. Zambia is a stable country yet Zimbabwe does a far better job at promoting tourism. Kenya was hit with terrorist attacks, they bounced back and doing far better than us and that was the chance for Zambia to be in the spot light. The people managing the destination don’t know when it is the time to capitalize. Tanzania is doing extremely well with their conference promotions. Zambia has so much potential but a lack of skilled labour is what is hurting the industry. Those in charge don’t even have the nerve to stop the animal cruelty because either they are afraid of white people managing those places or directly involved.
My name is Zick Kolala, a former employee of Lion Encounter/ALERT in Livingstone. I\’m one in the many born and bleed in Zambia who cherish wildlife conservation most than any other things in life besides God. I shared the link on my Facebook and receiving more of good feedback, some of my friends from abroad I met while at lion encounter are in boxing me saying they are disappointing in me. I don\’t care what they think but the truth is walking with lions is rather stealing money through wildlife conservation bait because they don\’t spend fund according to what they stipulated in their goals as a project. I\’m not afraid to disclose my full identity because I\’m an ambassador of wildlife conservation.
That is great to have you there in the heart of the problem. I will stand behind you to stand up against these mmoney mongers they have no heart. Bless you please continue to do God chosen path for SAVE our previous gift HE gave us or wildlife especially BIGCATS LIONS.
I have read critiques on lion encounter before but until now I did not pay them enough attention but this time I know I can\\’t because a former guide at lion encounter posted this article on his wall , a man I trust. Perhaps I was unwilling to accept criticism on something I had supported both financially and verbally. Anyway looking back I have to admit I was wondering how in time they would manage the lions being born there, at the time (2012) it was already clear there was a limit in sight for how many they could keep and questions concerning this were not answered decently. However I can not say I believe the selling to hunting companies, for I do not have seen anything that indicated this was going on. What they did do was show the skulls of the four lions that had died in the project to prove there bones had not been sold. They also showed us pictures off the lions and to me it seemed they had problems from birth and not due to neglect for I can\\’t say I saw anything that indicated maltreatment. If I recall correctly, there was a Representative of the Zambian wildlife service on site to monitor the project. They also claim they bought the first cubs indeed from a breeder but did not specify on why that man was breeding but they also said they have stopped buying from him due to maltreatment and the awful state the cubs they bought from him were. So I can imagine that they did support indirectly canned hunting at least once. But now the most important question; is this conservation worthy? At the moment I have to agree with you and other articles and say probably not. I do think now that tourists walks are way to dangerous and to many things can go wrong. An exception perhaps if the tourists would stay far behind and watch them like that and stopping the touching. What did bother me was that there is no stage 3 site (according to them due to budget reasons) and thus there can be no stage 4 (release into the wild). But does that mean that I think the entire idea behind it is bad? also no. For what a lot of people are not getting that the lions that are (in theory) going to be released in the wild, will not be the ones people walked with, it will be the young from lions in a stage three project (but David said to me that due to lack of funds they were considering trying with young animals born in stage two release site). The concern that lions born in this program would be killed by wild lions is a good concern and one I asked them myself. They said that what they are planning to do in a few years is release a small group in a region that could support lions but has none or underpopulated. The idea of the plan was that considering the steep decline in lion numbers, it might be wise to wonder if a reintroduction plan is needed. So I would say lets see if any lions are released, see how they do and if they don\\’t or it fails miserably, we can pull the plug, but before that I am still giving them a chance to prove it. Because I have to say that a lot of the things I talked about with David on wildlife in Africa wasn\\’t wrong and there existed dozens of articles and books that supported his analysis on the current situation and background, so the man does now what he is talking about! If he is a fraud, then he is one that was not ignorant on the subject of conservation. As you mention in your article they do some good work with communities especially the elephant watching to help population prepare to defend their crops. So to sum it up; I think there are problems with the project and legitimate concerns that should be investigated, practices that should be reconsidered and questions asked. But I can not agree with statements of neglect or maltreatment because I would lie if i claim i saw evidence of this happening in Zambia. Either way the project did make me reflect on the subject of conservation and inspired an academic and potential career for me in the sector of wildlife conservation. So either way I still think it was worth it as a personal experience
I think a hard discussion , as long as canned hunting it allowed, it doesn’t matter there is still an animal useless killed. It doesn’t matter if it is raised in a Lion walk program or it is raised by a breeder who might kept his lions under very bad conditions. I suppose in Africa, there are not such laws as we got in Europe about animal welfare.
Still think there should be a general ban on canned and trophy hunting.
Africa stop trying to get rich by a few wealthy westerners who like to hunt, and change its focus to normal westerners who still can afford to travel to Africa, and enjoy it’s nature, landscapes and culture.
just shut up with your senseless article.why lion encounter why cant you write something about mukuni big five who also have lion walks but you cant see were the older lions have gone.At lion lion encounter i visited and saw lions of 2008 that means none of the lions have been sold.what about people using elephants to make money and you come from your home to sit on the poor elephant yet you say nothing thats nonesense keep your research of politics far from africa.
Firstly, I have never sat on an elephant and would never do so. Secondly, I do not claim that lions have been sold by ALERT since 2002, so I don’t see how this contradicts with your assertion that you saw lions from 2008. Mukuni Big 5 is notoriously unethical, but Mukuni exists in part as a result of Lion Encounter – it is a copycat operation that sprung up afterwards. Lion Encounter is the first, biggest and most prominent operator in the area, that is why they remain the focus of my article, though you should note that my earlier piece on this subject mentioned that Zambia Tourism did not want to be seen to promote ANY operators in Vic Falls offering “animal encounters”, whether with lions, elephants, cheetahs or whatever else.
As a past volunteer, the lions at Dambwa are fed on donkey meat. They donkeys are kept on site and shot before what is known as donkey chop. This took place whilst I was there and I was disgusted. Heavily pregnant donkeys chopped up and the foetus becoming a game.
The lions are in cages for breading and after having a fairly rich life of wondering on twice daily walks I feel this is incredibly cruel.
When I was there we were told that the lions could not be walked after a certain age. It wasn’t until later we noticed the d.o.bs where on the back of the name plates and over 1/2 of the lions were past this age. Obviously continued to be walked as they had no other lions and therefore would not generate income.
After spending a month there I started to realise the failings. Money being a big problem!
One of the directors at SafPar has shares in Lion Encounter Zambia, his name is Steve Mackomeki
Yesterday (Feb 11, 2015) I saw your article on lion-walk cons in Livingstone (there are actually two, not just the ALERT one) in one of our dailies, the Zambia Daily Nation. It is good that finally there is a little publicity about animal abuse and tourist cons in our tourism capital – the lion-walk debate having raged since about 2006 – but, because the profits are so very great, nothing was ever done about it. On the contrary, it spawned competition and Chief Mukuni also got ‘into the act’ of walking with … (lions and cheetahs, watch caracals, etc).
To this day TripAdvisor lists lion walks as No 3 of Livingstone’s most popular tourist activities; the lodges continue to take their clients to Thorntree or Big Five to walk with lions (or ride on elephants, another instance of animal abuse) – of course getting a commission for doing so – while ZAWA or WECSZ (supposedly the guardians of our wildlife) remain silent. Only Ian Manning, a fervent wildlife activist, has been an early but lone voice in the wilderness (who has been chucked out of Zambia since), alas to no avail.
I was in Livingstone last week, trying to find out what’s been happening to the lions too old to walk with tourists. I was told that they are still kept in an enclosure in Dambwa Forest (one hour’s drive on unmarked muddy roads, NW of L’stone) for purposes of breeding. In the past paying volunteers ‘taught them hunting’ but that allegedly has been stopped. What has also been stopped is visits by tourists (who paid to watch the feeding and hunting-training of lions). “It took too long, from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m., and wasn’t very popular” a lodge guide told me. I was left wondering what conditions these lions are in now if nobody gets to see them any longer. Who is looking after them? Who is feeding them on what?
It would be great, Christopher, if you were to take up Judy’s invite and looked at the Dambwa Forest operation. It also would be great if you could find out what’s been happening to the Chief’s old lions (he’d even acquired white lions) who were to be moved to enclosures in the Moemba Falls area but never did. I would not be surprised if they have been sold to S.A.n ‘tiger-bone’ traders (canned lion hunts being prohibited now, or so it is said). I have been trying to find out about it myself but, as a mere ‘concerned member of the public’, was not allowed access. I wrote about matters in 2010 (see below) but could not find anyone to publish the article.
Great article!! Good to see there are more people looking into ALERT, as in my opinion they not only scam the volunteers, but they also draw money from real conservation efforts that do work.Looking forward to following articles about this!
Thank you for this well balanced and informative article. What saddens me the most is the fact that our governments allow these unscrupulous individuals and organisations to get away with these dubious activities without even bothering to follow up or check what is going on. I am just wondering what ZAWA has to say about this sad situation which I am sure is duplicated in other ways in many other ‘tourism’ and so-called conservation ventures!