In February 2015 I left for the adventure of a lifetime – 2 weeks volunteering in South Africa with lion cubs. As an avid animal lover I thought that there cannot be anything better than playing with liom cubs all in the name of conservation, but I quickly realised how wrong I had been.
I booked my trip through UK agency Real Gap who are aimed at young adults looking to volunteer around the world for conservation or to simply work abroad on their gap year. The top rated trip was “Live with Lion Cubs” and it appealed instantly. I spent a year of my life planning my trip and paying off the huge fee – £1,250.00 for trip alone + flights at around £500.00. I used all of my savings and every penny I received for my 21st birthday as I thought saving lions would be a great way to spend it. I was not allowed to know the name of the park until the agency had received my non-refundable deposit, but it was not actually until a month before my trip they disclosed it was a well known lion park on the outskirts of Brits, Ukutula.
Prior to my trip, my knowledge of the canned hunting and cub petting industries was extremely limited. I had come across the CBS expose about Lion Park around a week before I was due to depart, but I was reassured Ukutula was in no way involved with hunting and that they held all of the correct licenses from the South African authorities. I have since requested to see such documentation on numerous occasions but it has yet to be disclosed to me. We were told the lions were bred for conservation and would eventually be released into reserves around Africa.
I arrived at the park on 2nd February 2015 with my hopes and my head high only to be treated like an idiot for the entire two weeks. It was one of the most hostile, unwelcoming environments I have ever found myself in and that was due solely to the staff. I was made to feel stupid if I asked a question about the lions and often laughed at if I chose not to partake in moving animal carcasses. The owners of the park were friendly for the first few days but soon started to avoid me and not engage in any conversation with volunteers, with the exception of those who had stayed previously. There was a real sense of hierarchy at the park with previous volunteers acting as though they were the park’s answer to the Lion Whisperer, yet the utter naivety and lack of initiative was astounding. For my first 4 nights, there were 5 lion cubs weighing 8-10kg each being kept overnight in a small dog kennel. We would pile them on top of each other and lock them up from 5pm-8am the next morning which was an action I instantly questioned. On my first night I was reassured that they were due to be moved into ‘The Devils’ enclosure but there was not enough room until some of The Devils were also moved to larger enclosures; it was 4 days before anything was done. This was the first thing that made we wish I could fly home that instant.
The following two weeks consisted mainly of passing 3 week old lion cubs around tourist groups of around 10 people, including school children, multiple times a day. The cubs were exhausted and were only allowed to be fed at certain times of the day, no matter how hungry they seemed to be. The guilt I felt when I had a cub suckling on my finger looking for food was immeasurable and yet I was in no position to help. It is important to note that during our induction talk, the owners noted that they were actively cutting down cub breeding which would mean less experiences open to volunteers and tourists, yet since I left the park in February at least 10 new cubs have arrived, including two tigers. On another occasion we were walking through The Devils’ enclosure and noticed a young cub with a wire wrapped around his paw – every time the gate opened the wire tightened. We unravelled the cub and tied up the wire as best we could and instantly told a Ranger, but it took at least 2 hours for anything to be done.
During my stay and as my suspicions grew, I found a Facebook group called “Volunteers in Africa Beware” and came across horror stories from previous volunteers. This included having their phones searched after speaking out and sexual harassment from the Rangers. I found this incredibly easy to believe after having been on the park for a week. During this time I was warned by various individuals from the online community that I should avoid posting anything negative on social media as they usually checked our sites – I was in a state of panic as I found reviews on Trip Advisor that backed up those claims so I kept myself to myself and did not raise any questions I thought might put me in danger. Since my return, the staff have made a point about how I did not question their intentions and now I’m sure it is clear why I made that decision.
It would have been easy to come home and pretend that my two weeks were great and continue to post my “lion selfies” on social media, but the gut wrenching realisation that I may have contributed to the canned hunting industry was too much to bear so I decided to share my story through a blog. I also pursued a refund through Real Gap under grounds of misrepresentation and inadequate health and safety standards but their response was utterly laughable. I stated that every penny I expected from my refund would be donated towards charities fighting canned hunting and they have refused to give me anything back. As an agency that “prides itself in its support of its volunteers” my claims were refuted and they not only implied I was a liar who was in a relationship with a staff member, but also that I was intolerant of other cultures. My jaw dropped to the floor as I read their response to my complaint. With regard to implying I am intolerant of other cultures, I reassured them that this was not the case and sent them evidence of a staff member mocking a religion on Instagram – again this was ignored. They told me how they were surprised to find I had had such an awful time since my social media seemed positive and I therefore questioned why they had been checking my pages and why I was not informed they would be doing so before I booked, needless to say they ignored this too.
I think the moment I finally snapped was when I looked through my photos and was reminded of a day on Ranger duty where we had visited the “sister park” Kunkuru. I had completely forgotten this day, during which we took 15+ crates of chicken to feed the park’s lions that were being held on Kunkuru before being transferred to “a reserve in the Congo”. (I now realise such a reserve is highly unlikely to even exist.) I was absolutely astounded to find that Kunkuru’s website offers a vast list of hunting opportunities and even that “large game can be hunted by prior arrangement”. I do not condone hunting of any kind and I felt sick to my stomach knowing I had stepped foot on that park without being made aware of this fact. Volunteers are constantly reassured that the park do not promote hunting and nor do they make a distinction between “ethical and unethical hunting” yet they are keeping lions on a park that offers exactly that. I was speechless.
The response to the blog has been mostly positive, yet I constantly receive abusive messages from past, present and even future volunteers. It seems the need for a “lion selfie” greatly outweighs the need to save these beautiful animals from extinction. People simply do not want to accept the fact that cub petting is widely discredited and that no park that truly contributes to the welfare and conservation of lions will offer this interaction.
I cannot undo my time volunteering with lion cubs and ultimately perpetuating cub petting and breeding farms, which is why I vowed to take a stand and share my story to as many people that would listen. I made a massive mistake in choosing this trip and that was made clear during my first week at the park. Real Gap could not have offered me a more disappointing response and nine months later the complaint is ongoing. With an investigation open with ABTA, Real Gap have been presented with evidence of Ukutula’s link with canned hunting and breaches of ABTA’s guidelines but have accepted absolutely no responsibility for contributing to this. My relentless campaigning has resulted in being invited to European Parliament in Brussels to join a panel discussing the ethics of cub petting and canned hunting. Blood Lions will be screened and Ian Michler himself will be joining the panel, so I’ll be sure to mention Real Gap and their unprofessional behaviour.
Lastly, the campaigning since my trip has led me to host a fundraising concert in aid of the Campaign Against Canned Hunting’s Karoo Wildlife Centre. Evarose, Big Sixes, Jim Caesar, Kralc Life and The Running Guns all agreed to play for no fee to raise money for CACH and tickets sold by the dozens. I also released the first ever run of Claws Out t-shirts to raise some extra money and amazingly, they sold out within a month. Designed by the amazing Shannon Lane, t-shirts were shipped to the UK, France, Canada, South Africa and America.
It’s been a busy year but I think this is only the beginning. When I returned from South Africa I set myself the goal of contributing towards the fight against canned hunting and cub petting and nine months later I’m on the path to stopping Real Gap and other UK agencies from supplying volunteers to cub breeding facilities. I don’t think Real Gap or Ukutula realised what they were taking on when I found out the truth.