I must admit that before my latest visit to Zambia, I didn’t know that much about “lion walks”, lion “cub-petting” and other similar “animal encounter” activities, either in Zambia or here at home in South Africa. But from the little I did know, something didn’t seem right to me. I’ve always felt that wild animals should be exactly that: wild. I’m no conservationist, but exposing a young lion cub to human contact always seemed a strange way to help that lion subsequently have a happy adult existence in the “wild”.

I was prompted to look more into this topic by a chance conversation with a former employee at Lion Encounter in Vic Falls whilst in South Luangwa National Park a few months back. I’d asked what he had done for work before guiding in the park, and when he said he used to work for Lion Encounter I shared my skepticism about such “projects” and asked for his opinions, and why he left Lion Encounter. The scathing and heart-wrenching story he gave me left me feeling that I had to find out more.

So once back in Cape Town, I began to do some research and found that there were a number of articles questioning the ethics and methods of Lion Encounter and similar “projects” and/or operators, many of them echoing my own initial doubts but with a lot more academic weight behind them.

I remained in contact with the former Lion Encounter employee in South Luangwa who also put me in touch with a number of other former employees and volunteers, all of whom gave similar testimonies of disillusionment and deceit without any prompting from me.

Some of the most commonly raised grievances were the poor treatment of Lion Encounter staff and volunteers, the even poorer treatment (and sometimes utter neglect) of the lions, the failure to release or rehabilitate one single lion into the wild since 1999 and the mismanagement of funds.

But most pertinent of all were the repeated assertions by volunteers and former employees from Lion Encounter that their lions were (or still are) being sold into canned hunting, a concern that mirrors the current furore around Lion Park in South Africa, following the admission by the owner that Lion Park had sold lions into canned hunting less than two years ago. As far as Lion Encounter is concerned, as one volunteer puts it, though it is hard to actually get concrete proof that any of their lions have ended up being shot in a canned hunt: “if they (Lion Encounter) deny it I would like to know where are all those cubs are going? Seriously, with as much as they breed, otherwise the continent would be spilling over with lions”.

Lions being bred for canned hunting in South Africa

Lions being bred for canned hunting in South Africa

It can be argued quite convincingly that certain types of hunting as well as the significant revenue that can be garnered from hunting can potentially, in certain instances, be good for conservation, but this is a discussion for another time. It’s also true that at present Lion Encounter isn’t actually breaking any laws, even if it is selling its lions into hunting (we know for sure at least that it has sold some its lions in the past). But what I for one feel we need to take issue with here, is the increasingly high likelihood that Lion Encounter is treating its lions unethically in one way or another and deceiving the public.

Visitors to Lion Encounter pay roughly $130 for a “lion walk”, while taking part in a volunteer program costs thousands of dollars per week. Many of the visitors to Lion Encounter, particularly the volunteers, go there believing that they are doing something good for the lions. The testimonies that I have received as well as a number of others that have been shared in the comments sections of articles about Lion Encounter and similar “projects” suggest that many leave feeling saddened, disillusioned and angered by what they have witnessed, and helpless to do anything much about it. How many would ever have spent the money in the first place if they had been better informed?

As another former volunteer concisely summed it up:

“There’s absolutely no benefit to the lions and it is, in my opinion, nothing more than a money making business.”

I recently sat down and discussed all of the above with the private owners and managers of Zambiatourism.com, and happily it was quickly decided that this website should no longer be promoting such activities. We have now used the “Lion Walks” page on this site to rather increase awareness of the criticisms, issues and allegations facing Lion Encounter (as well as other similar operators). You can visit the page here to read more on this topic.

I would also like to encourage anyone who has personally visited Lion Encounter or similar “projects” and operators in the Vic Falls area to share their thoughts in the comments section here, whichever side of the argument they fall on. The same goes for any of the current staff or management at Lion Encounter et al. Open dialogue from both sides is important going forward if things are to change for the better.

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.