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Hugging lions or conserving lions?

Monday 11th November 2013

Hugging lions or conserving lions?

                Sirga the lioness to be “reintroduced to the wild” not having contact with humans 

A  recent article in the Daily Mail with the title “The lioness who hugs hoodies: Amazing pictures of abandoned big cat and her heartwarming bond with men who saved her” has made the rounds.

It refers to “conservationists” Valentin Gruener and Mikkel  Legarth “saving lion populations” in Botswana. It is a feel good article about them having formed a special bond with a lioness they rescued as a cub as she was “abandoned by her pride”. 

The lioness, named Sirga, is supposed to be “returned” to the wild at some point, even though she is highly used to humans – though Gruener and Legarth say they only allow Sirga to interact with them and nobody else. That is clearly not true as there are numbers of photos from past “volunteers” at Modisa all interacting with Sirga, and Sirga remains a big attraction for all (see picture above).  

The article in the Daily Mail received about 730 comments, overwhelmingly positive and adoring. Some comments did mention that this kind of activity was not saving lions at all, and that adopting a lion as a pet was ultimately going to be detrimental to the lion. Such comments were shouted down.

But my interest was aroused for four other reasons:

First, Gruener and Legarth operate their Modisa Wildlife Project from Gantsi, a small town in the northwest of Botswana. Their base is the Grassland Lodge, operated by the De Graaff family whose most prominent member is Christian De Graaff, Botswana’s Minister of Agriculture. 

Recently, a Botswana newspaper reported that De Graaff had been breeding lions on his properties and selling them to South Africa – most likely to end up as trophies in the “canned” lion hunting industry. De Graaff has shipped out a considerable number of lions – his latest export was of 22 lions on October 25, and there were 26 lions shipped in 2011 and also 12 in 2012 ( Read the articles here and here.

Questioned by the newspaper journalist, De Graaff said all the lions belonged to him. The article also mentions that Grassland Lodge is a major location where lions are bred for export. 

As the Modisa Wildlife Project is based at one of the lion breeding facilities (Grassland) operated by the De Graaffs, they must surely know about these large numbers of lions being exported. Asked about this on their Facebook page, they replied:

“That completely wrong - all the lions are still here at Grassland Safaris. First of all you can't own lions here in Botswana. All lions belongs to the Government and it's up to them where the lions will go if they are going. We just got here less than 2 years ago and we gave all lionesses birth control implants to stop any breeding. Those lions are not ours but we still helped out with the veterinarian care. The only lion that is with Modisa is Sirga and she is only handled by myself and Valentin and we detest Canned Hunting and want that business to be shut down ASAP!! - we want to help the lions and the nature. We are not working with Christian De Graaff who is getting blamed in that article written in a local news paper in Botswana. Christian De Graaff is a minister here and the newspaper is supporting the opposition party and therefore they are doing everything to give the current government a bad name - we are working with William De Graaff and keep in mind that in the end the Government own the lions. The only lion where we as Modisa have a say is Sirga.”

That is quite an interesting and badly spelled ramble, but basically the message is (I think) that they deny all knowledge of the constant sale of lions.  They say that the lions belong to Botswana while De Graaff is selling them in droves. 

Grassland has about 30 lion in pens, and there seem to be no plans to decide their future. They form an attraction for the lodge, but nobody at Modisa seems to be coming up with measures to ensure anything but their continued captivity. These lions were captured in the wild, and are now being fed donkey meat. Gruener and Legrath regularly interact with these lions as can be seen on pictures of the website. 

Second, if Sirga belongs to the Botswana government, why does the wildlife department allow her to be treated as a pet?

Third, Mikkel Legrath recently gave a presentation at a TEDxCopenhagen forum, a rather disjointed blather about how the lion trophy hunting ban in Botswana is all a big mistake. The talk was called “How the ban on lion hunting killed the lions”.

He made some preposterous statements ($750,000 to hunt a lion – the most one was ever sold for was about $120,000 and most of that went to the operator) and some that were misinformed (he said trophy hunting of lions stopped in 2000 – actually there was a moratorium from 2001-2004, and lion hunting resumed 2005-2008 after which the ban became permanent). Apart from saying proper solutions (to the lion hunting ban) needed to be found, none were suggested. But the overall message was that the ban on lion trophy hunting was a big mistake. Legrath also mentioned that the cattle farmers threatened by lion predation exported their beef to the EU. That practice was closed in late 2010 as the abbatoirs in Botswana did not meet EU export standards, and has not been revived since. 

Legrath is a former Scandinavian Airlines System flight attendant and Gruener formerly worked at an oilfield in Canada. They joined up in Namibia, apparently, at the Harnas Wildlife Foundation that also had captive lions. After they left, a tourist was killed at the game farm after allegedly entering one of the lion enclosures at night

Fourth, the Modisa Wildlife Project takes in a considerable number of paying volunteers, who spend weeks if not months at the Grassland Lodge site. They are supposed to feed the captive  predators and learn about the “bush” by getting lectures, spending a night out ion the “wild”, building campfires, and sightseeing according to the Modisa website. Modisa also claims to have a connection with the University of Texas at Austin, who send students to Botswana under the guidance of Dr Thoralf Meyer. These students perhaps spend a day or two at Grasslands.

The University of Texas describes their program as follows:

“Climate change, the focus of this program, is a subject of critical importance for both scientists and global citizens. The majority of the program takes place in the Kalahari, a remote and relatively undisturbed desert environment that provides an ideal natural laboratory for exploring climate change issues such as carbon storage, food production, and the interactions between humans and the environment.” 

Where the Modise Wildlife Project contributes to the University program is not clear apart from perhaps providing site accommodation. Greuner claims to be a “research associate”, a qualification not acknowledged by the University of Texas.

To sum up:

a) Gruener and Legrath operate on a ranch owned by the De Graaff family who captive breed lions to be supplied to the trophy hunting industry in South Africa. They say they are not aware of such captive breeding while they are based at one of the captive breeding sites and must know about the many lions being exported per year.

b) Legrath openly supports lion trophy hunting, something that is kept from the many volunteers lining up to “save lions” at their programme.

c) Sirga the “saved” lioness to “be returned to the wild” is a major attraction for all manner of tourists. Far from being prevented from human contact, she is the main attraction for droves of cuddlers, walkers and gawkers. She can never be returned to the wild. 

d) Hugging, petting, stroking and walking with captive lions does not benefit their conservation unless there is a structured rehabilitation programme. 

e) The Modise Wildlife Project aims to make a difference in wildlife conservation but seems to be a typical paid volunteer setup where people pay a significant amount of money to participate in projects whose actual conservation impact is allegedly minimal. This is how your money “contributes” at Modisa.

f) Gruener and Legrath have had significant success in marketing themselves with a “tame” lion. A successful formula pioneered by George Adamson.

Is the Modise Wildlife Project bona fide? Their facebook site has well over 100,000 likes. Is that our current measure of effective wildlife conservation or just effective marketing? 

Picture credit: studyabroadbotswana.blogspot

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Posted by Chris Macsween at 17:15

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