Africa / South Africa / travel / Wildlife

Playing with Lion cubs in South Africa : Is a like worth more than their life?

An ex-breeding farm lion at Lionsrock in Bethlehem, South Africa

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There is no doubt we are now a fast-paced generation. Several studies now show we opt to take in more via video and image rather than text. Social media has given us the ability to constantly be updated and instantly showcase our own lives. We are being encouraged to live every moment, tick off a never-ending bucket list and then place it online to give others the desire to do the same.

I cannot say I am completely against this train of thought, part of my job is to show incredible places around the globe and encourage people to want to go there as well. But with the ease of being able to do this, with no real monitoring**, is there a potential to give a platform and access to a darker side of the tourism industry?

The answer is yes and it is happening every single day, every single minute in fact.

Wildlife tourism is a growing industry, we are a nation of animal lovers and the desire to see magnificent animals in the flesh is something many pen on their bucket lists from a small child. But as this desire grows, sadly so does the need for a more exciting experience, the urge to get closer.

Enter the Lion Parks in South Africa. Lion Parks offer tourists (and locals) the opportunity to get up close and personal with some of the continents most beautiful animals. Lion Parks, often also dressed ‘safari parks’, offer guests the opportunity to have guided tours around their grounds, during these tours you will see Lions, Leopards, Caracals, and in some cases even Tigers in their enclosures, and the grand finally of the tour – the opportunity to bottle fed and cuddle a lion cub, or whatever cubs are currently available on the facility.

Sounds incredible right? Definitely one for your bucket list?

Wrong, your lion selfie has inadvertently just sentenced that cub to death.

Lion Parks, or ‘breeding farms’ are businesses, businesses which are making $100k each and every year through a long chain of events.
lion cub likes on instagram

The truth behind the Lion Parks

For the unknowing tourist, you may question what is wrong with what is happening here. The animals in the parks look reasonably healthy, your guides have stories about how the cubs have been rejected by their mums, therefore hand reared and eventually they will be released onto reserves to live a life in the wild.

The guides will tell you everything you want to hear and will encourage you to take the photos so your friends and ‘followers’ will want to come along too.

Essentially, the guides are not lying. The cubs will eventually be sold to reserves, canned hunting reserves with yet another price tag over their heads. The price tag of a bullet.

The lion cub you just cuddled, has now been passed onto the next link in the horrendous chain of events. The hunting industry is particularly popular with a certain type of western tourist, an industry where they are presented with a price list containing every type of animal they are able to hunt, simply choose from a list, pay the money (up to $45 000 for a male lion with a thick mane, females go for significantly less at around $5000 -8000) , the animal and the hunt is then provided. A hunt where the animal is designed to not be able to lose.

But wait, there is yet another link in this chain. The Lion’s bones. The carcass of the hunted Lions is often sold to various parts of Asia, disguised as Tiger bone for medicinal purposes. It is thought each skeleton is worth $60 000 by the time it has been processed and sold the end consumer as ‘ tiger’ cake. From 2014 to 2016, South Africa legally exported an estimated 1300 lion skeletons each year.

You can quickly see how much of a lucrative business this has become.

And what about the adult cats you see in the parks? Essentially they are breeding machines, constantly pregnant, producing cubs for the next group of unwitting tourists to take their selfies. Cubs which are snatched away from them at just four weeks of age, in some cases even younger.

And when they have no longer have a use, when they are no longer able to breed, they are replaced and face a similar fate to the cubs which have been stolen from them over the years.

Currently, there are an estimated 300 breeding farms across South Africa alone, across these farms there are an estimated 12 000 big cats. Currently, this ‘industry’ is showing no signs of slowing down, and with this process currently being legal in South Africa, these animals do not currently have a glimmer of hope.

Suddenly your lion cub selfie doesn’t seem so appealing, right?

An ex-breeding farm lion at Lionsrock in Bethlehem, South Africa

Yet every hour, a new cub selfie or photo is uploaded to Instagram. Not through ignorance, but a lack of knowledge, a person on their travels getting wrapped on the excitement. A person thinking about the likes and comments said photo may receive.

Deep down they may know it’s wrong, but they decide to push the voice to the back of their mind because the nice lady who shows them around the Lion Park has a scripted answer to every question you may have.

I am a firm believer in education. As responsible travellers, we need to be educating people on the truth behind the Lion cub selfie, not through embarrassment and shaming on photos. But though evidence explaining the process, in an ever-connected world, slide in their DMs with a link to an article explaining the truth.

By reporting the images when we see them on social media. These constant ripples may eventually create a large tide in which these platforms take this more seriously.

Most people would not even dream now of posting a photo of them riding an elephant in Thailand, through pure embarrassment, let’s make the lion selfie the same.

If you know someone who is going travelling or visiting South Africa on a holiday, bring it up in conversation before they leave, give them an ethical solution to where they can responsibly see animals. They may not have even considered visiting the cubs, but if they have you will have potentially stopped them making a terrible mistake.

We do not want to be known as the generation who were known for choosing a like over a life.

We do not want to be known as the people who funded mass production, factory farming of animal cruelty.

So next time, you see a smiling tourist posing with a Lion cub on Instagram. Do not hit the like button and coo over how adorable the cub is. Think of the difference you can make to ensure another generation of cubs are not born for the bullet.

Where should you be seeing the lions in South Africa?

Game drives in national parks

South Africa is home to the Kruger National Park and various other national parks, nothing will ever beat the thrill of seeing a pride of wild lions. Of course, there is no guarantee of seeing any species in these parks but in my opinion, it makes it more exciting.  There are often beautiful lodges surrounding these parks where you can stay and fully immerse yourself in the African bush or even if getting back to nature is more your style than most even offer camping.

Visit a true sanctuary

True South African lion sanctuaries are hard to find, but they do exist. True sanctuaries are not run for profit, are not breeding, are not using their animals for commercial purposes, and are providing permanent, appropriate homes for their animals. I really recommend thoroughly doing your research before deciding to visit somewhere which calls themselves a Lion Sanctuary.

According to the book ‘Cuddle me, Kill me’, there are four true lion sanctuaries currently in South Africa:


Born Free at Shamwari

Panthera Africa 

Drakenstein Park 

These sanctuaries offer a home to big cats rescued from captive breeding in these industries as well as other locations around the world, such as circuses and war-torn countries. By visiting these places you will be supporting the efforts made by these charities as well as helping to give the cats back their humanity.

These should be the alternatives you can offer people when they mention visiting a lion cub park in South Africa. We need to ensure that people know the truth and have a solution before they visit these facilities, rather than discovering the truth afterwards, by which time their money has supported the breeding industry.

In a time when social media is so powerful, it is of utmost importance that we use it in the correct way. Use it to be an educational voice for the thousands of lions across South Africa who have had theirs taken away.

For more information on Lion Parks in South Africa I recommend:

Cuddle me, kill me – Richard Peirce 

Blood Lions 

Four Paws International

**In 2018, Instagram has put a wildlife protection policy in place for certain hashtags. In the case of Lion farms, if you search the hashtag #lioncubpetting you will instead see a pop-up, which prompts you to click a link to find out more regarding wildlife exploitation. However, you are still able to bypass this and see the images, these images have not been removed from the platform. More common hashtags such as #lioncubselfie do not come with these warnings and what if people are not using hashtags at all?
An ex-breeding farm lion at Lionsrock in Bethlehem, South Africa

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