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Do volunteers contribute to lion conservation by paying to participate in


                                            "Zero" the Poster Lion - Patrimonial damage?

Yesterday, the UK Sunday Times featured an article on the highly lucrative practice of sending paying “volunteers” to various destinations in South Africa to participate in “research programmes” involving lions. They particularly focused on the Karongwe Game Reserve where previous volunteers felt betrayed in that one of the study lions, a male called “Zero”, had recently been shot by a trophy hunter. The fate of two adult females on the reserve could have been similar, as there were also plans to have them “removed”. 

We were contacted by the volunteers, and we decided to approach the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) in the UK to ensure that future volunteers were advised by Global Vision International (GVI), a Volunteer Recruitment Agency, that Karongwe's study animals could be trophy hunted. GVI’s director of business development, Andy Woods-Ballard, was contacted by the Sunday Times and mentioned that “GVI works with the reserve to monitor and maintain a viable breeding pride to help maintain wild lion populations in South Africa … on exceptionally rare circumstances the reserve does need to intervene … either via euthanasia or a controlled hunt”.  

The Karongwe managers said Zero was 16 years old and had arthritis, and the hunter’s fee went into maintaining the reserve. 

When former volunteers learned about the planned demise of at least “Zero” at the hands of trophy hunters, they objected on the Internet. Karongwe replied “As the continuation of the species is of paramount importance to the reserve, a strategy was introduced to bring in a new blood line to counteract inbreeding. The Karongwe reserve upholds the right to make decisions … on its property. Any patrimonial damages [i.e. a reduction in a financial position] suffered by the reserve as a result of malicious and uninformed comments could lead to litigation.”

But let’s stand back for a minute and look at reserves like Karongwe and their next-door neighbour Makalali to see if they actually contribute to the conservation of wild lions. 

Karongwe is a small fenced private game reserve in Limpopo Province, measuring 85km2. Located on the boundary is another relatively small reserve, Makalali, measuring about 240km2. Both reserves introduced lions for tourism purposes and both have volunteer programmes to conduct a number of “research” projects. 

The Makalali lion programme has some recent information.

That study shows that six lions (2 males, 4 females) were introduced into Makalali in mid-1995. The desired population was stated to be about 8 adult lions and between 8-12 subadults and cubs, but over the years excess reproduction resulted in about 35 lions (aged between 15 and 32 months) that were “translocated” between 1999 and 2006. Some of these lions went to other reserves like Kapama and next-door Karongwe, but by far the largest number only had “Kalahari” as the vague destination to which they were sold. 

Due to the lion overpopulation, some females were contracepted. Two males were trophy hunted in 2005/2006 for “substantial revenue that could be re-invested in conservation initiatives”. The research report had the following cautionary statements:

“During the past 6 years, however, it has become increasingly difficult to sell [excess] lions as virtually all the other small, enclosed reserves also have excess lions, and the market has collapsed due to oversupply. Besides the above, the ethics of selling free-ranging lions to managers of small areas or breeding projects where the lions are kept in small enclosures is questionable. Tour operators or members of the press finding out that properties are supporting the ‘canned lion hunting’ industry can cause irreparable damage to a tourist venue via negative media publicity.”

 “The hunting of lions is an emotive subject amongst the general public and owners/managers of lions should be made aware of the possible pitfalls. Properties reliant on tourism as a source of income could face boycotts or negative publicity from those tour operators who are not in favour of hunting.”

A similar study was conducted at Karongwe.

Lions were introduced in 1999 (2 males and 2 females). One of the males was removed in 2002 “… as the pair [of males] was considered to be taking more and larger prey than a single male would, and a single male [Zero] would suffice for ecotourism. Again all subadult lions (eleven lions between the ages of 17 and 36 months) were removed – the study does not disclose the destinations. The study mentions that as of 2008 there were 35 small reserves with reintroduced lion populations in South Africa, and that future prospects for introducing lions to such reserves are very limited. Managers, the authors say, have to change tactics to sterilization or contraception, and culling to control lion population growth rates.

So basically, both studies say the same thing. Both reserves introduced lions for tourism purposes and are too small to contain anything but one pride. Both reserves have to intensively manage their lion populations, whether by selling off excess lions, trophy hunting males, or contracepting females. While these lions might fend for themselves in terms of catching their prey, they have to be so heavily managed that they cannot be considered in any way a natural population. Also, apart from tourism, what is the conservation value of maintaining a small pride on a small fenced reserve? The lions cannot be reintroduced into the “wild” as in South Africa there is no space or need to do so. 

Now how different is the scenario presented above by various researchers to this message put out by GVI:

“As a result of habitat loss, canned hunting and the game farming industry, South Africa’s lion populations are now increasingly under threat. It is important to develop an accurate picture of the social structure, genetics and spatial movement of South Africa’s lions as high quality data is vital in developing effective conservation efforts.

 This program is suitable for those who wish to volunteer on a serious lion conservation program. GVI works with the reserve to monitor and maintain a viable breeding pride to help maintain wild lion populations in South Africa. They are born on the reserve, grow, hunt, mate, and breed naturally but on exceptionally rare occasions, the reserve does need to intervene. To avoid inbreeding and ensure the ongoing success of the breeding pride, new lions may need to be introduced, and to protect them and ensure new cubs are not killed by rivals, older lions may need to be removed. Such actions happen very rarely and whenever possible they are sold to ethical buyers but if there are no buyers they may need to be killed, either via euthanasia or a controlled hunt. It is not part of the volunteer program but is part of conservation, in South Africa and across the world. It is a sad and unfortunate fact that limited suitable habitats, population numbers, and financial pressures force dedicated conservation organisations to choose between protecting individual animals and protecting the continuation of species in the wild.”

The bottom line here is that GVI and Karongwe are still insisting, even after being censured by the ASA, that volunteers are working to establish “vital” information for lion conservation, that they will be participating in a “serious lion conservation programme, that they are helping to “maintain wild lion populations” in South Africa. All for about £1100 for two weeks excluding other costs like airfare. 

In actual fact the research contribution made by “studying” a single pride on a small private fenced reserve is miniscule compared to the needs of truly wild lion populations. Especially since the lions are very intensively managed and offspring sold will not return to the wild (a rather vague term in South Africa – the definition of a wild lion there is one that is simply capable of hunting for itself without too much “help”).  So essentially volunteers are paying tourists lured by claims needing much investigation. When they speak out on the internet they are reminded that places like Karongwe make their own management decisions and are threatened with litigation if patrimonial damages result from negative publicity. 

And then of course there are all those volunteers recruited (not seemingly by GVI) to attend “orphaned” lion cubs on the 160-odd breeding farms in South Africa that supply the lion trophy hunting. But that is another matter …

Photo credit: Hayley de Marigny
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Posted by Pieter Kat at 14:40

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