Andreas Späth

International conference shuns local lion film

2015-09-21 15:00

Andreas Wilson-Späth

Despite repeated requests from South African attendees, the organisers of an international travel conference which takes place in Cape Town this week have decided not to include the acclaimed new documentary ‘Blood Lions’ in their programme even though the film raises serious questions about one of the key tourist attractions promoted during the event.

Every year, thousands of young people from around the world spend millions of rands to work as volunteers for a variety of wildlife and nature conservation projects in Africa. Many of them choose to spend time at facilities that offer visitors the opportunity to pet lion cubs and walk through the bush with juvenile lions. Most of the volunteers do so under the impression that their work is contributing to the conservation of the species in the wild.

‘Blood Lions’, which opened to acclaim at this year’s Durban International Film Festival and was recently screened in the Australian parliament, exposes lion petting and walking operations in South Africa as merely one additional revenue stream for the controversial but lucrative industry of breeding lions in captivity. The vast majority of the lions raised by this industry are destined for canned hunts and the bullets of wealthy trophy hunters – not for a life of freedom in the wild, but few of the volunteers are aware of this fact.

After watching the film, Toby Dixon of You2Africa, a Cape Town based company that promotes volunteer tourism at wildlife conservation projects, decided that its message was so important that it should be shown at the World Youth and Student Travel Conference (WYSTC) 2015 to take place in Cape Town from the September 22 – 25, an event which he will be attending himself and at which youth volunteering in Africa will feature strongly.

Dixon met with Wendy Morrill, one of the conference organisers, in Amsterdam in June. He organised a Skype conversation between her and ‘Blood Lions’ director Bruce Young as well as a private online screening of the film. After appearing to show some initial interest, Morrill turned down the offer to show the film at WYSTC 2015 at no cost.

Subsequent to further discussions, it was suggested that the filmmakers could take up a 20min workshop slot during the event to present their case, but they were told that any speakers would have to pay a full delegate’s registration fee amounting to thousands of rands. According to Young, the organisers appeared to be making their participation as difficult as possible and being “well-nigh obstructionist”.

“Wildlife volunteering in Africa is huge. Kids from all over the world want to come here to help animals,” he explains. ”The organisers of the conference are key players in this whole industry and given its location, timing and content you would have thought that sharing ‘Blood Lions’ with delegates would be a valuable exercise. We’re not trying to discourage volunteering, but we do want youngsters who end up at lion breeding facilities to ask themselves some crucial questions: where do all of these cubs come from and where do they end up?”

Another South African conference attendee, Dr Simon Morgan, who is the director of Wildlife ACT, a conservation organisation that organises volunteer programmes to support some of their endangered species work, also approached Morrill. “She informed me that although they appreciate the importance of the issue they could not accommodate a full-length film screening. I offered to screen the event during the lunch breaks at a venue nearby, but this too was turned down”.

He emphasises the fact that one of the focuses of the conference is on the so-called voluntourism sector, “which is responsible for sending paying students and volunteers to South Africa to participate on lion breeding centres. ‘Blood Lions’ clearly highlights how this tourism sector in South Africa is unknowingly supporting the canned lion hunting industry”.

When I contacted Morrill, she replied that “several discussions were had regarding if and how to share relevant content from the film with WYSTC delegates in a practical format within the scope of the event’s educational programme. Unfortunately the involved parties were not able to come to terms of mutual agreement”.

Morrill also noted that “we are, however, running a session on lion programmes and volunteer organisations for registered delegates”. This refers to a workshop “on how a volunteer organisation can identify the right and the wrong partners on the ground when working with captive cats” to be hosted by Dr Jackie Abell, the Director of Research at the African Lion Environmental and Research Trust (ALERT).

ALERT presents itself as a lion conservation organisation focused on responsible development, research and education. It promotes operations that allow tourists to interact closely with lions, including walking with lions, in Zambia and Zimbabwe. The organisation bases much of its work on the suggestion that lions bred in captivity can be successfully re-introduced into the wild.

In an article published in Africa Geographic in 2012, South African conservationist and investigative journalist Ian Michler, who is the central character in ‘Blood Lions’, criticised ALERT and organisations like it as attempting to “legitimise their lion captive-breeding programmes and money-spinning tourist operations” “under the banner of conservation, science or education”.

Also in 2012, a group of international conservation experts and researchers published a paper in which they examined the assertions made by ALERT and others. They found that “the lion encounter industry relies on animals so habituated to human presence that they can never be released”, that “untrained volunteers are placed in extraordinarily dangerous situations that have resulted in attacks, including fatalities”, and that “captive-origin lions have no role in species restoration”.

In March of this year, Lion Encounter, a programme that operates walking with lions activities for tourists in Zambia and Zimbabwe, and which lists ALERT as one of its partners, announced that it has “agreed to suspend lion walks in Livingstone [Zambia] as of November 2015 [...] until lions have been successfully released into the wild”.

A little research reveals that one of the sponsors of WYSTC 2015 is African Impact, “a Cape Town based volunteer experience organisation” which also happens to have “helped establish” ALERT with whom they continue to have a “strong partnership”.

All of which makes one wonder why industry insiders like ALERT are given the opportunity to present their case, while no space could be found for  a critical film like ‘Blood Lions’.

Undeterred, Morgan, in partnership with Fair Trade Tourism has decided to organise a screening of ‘Blood Lions’ on Tuesday, September 22 at 17:30 in the Protea Room at the Cullinan Hotel, across the road from the conference venue, which delegates are invited to attend for free (the hotel is sponsoring the use of the room for the screening). The same venue will also host screenings of some short clips from the film, followed by a discussion, on Thursday, September 24 at 18:00.

According to Morgan, “many of the conference delegates are agents sending paying volunteers and students to support dubious lion breeding projects in South Africa. They do not understand what they are supporting. By alerting them to these issues I am hoping we will be able to stop the support of all lion breeding centres until such time as proper regulations are put in place”.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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