In the Shadows of Lions
-I’ve made multiple trips to countries in Southern Africa over the last decade, and I wanted to dig deeper into these stories, so I can make more educated decisions when I travel. My name is Elisabeth Brentano and I’m a photographer and writer and much of my work is in the tourism industry. I’m certainly not an expert on conservation, but I am very passionate about wildlife and helping others see value in protecting it. (birds chirping)With the digital generation making travel more of a priority, it is important to support sustainable practices and to avoid activities that don’t respect the environment and local cultures.
I wanted to talk with as many people as I could who work in tourism and conservation so I could better understand what sustainability means to them. Tourism is a huge part of the economy here, but it’s also directly linked to the future of these animals, and as tourists or even people who enjoy consuming travel content online, we can do so much more than we might think when it comes to assisting with conservation efforts. (wildlife chirping)Majestic and powerful, big cats are one of the main African wildlife attractions. There are still a number of places that allow visitors a chance to play with lion cubs, and while it may seem like an amazing experience and photo op, tourists should be aware of what actually happens behind the scenes.
(tourists chattering)- [Elisabeth]: Rather than spending the first year or two of their lives with their mothers, many cubs are taken away after just one month.
They are put in cub petting programs at the age of three months, where they are handled by hundreds of tourists each day. When I visited a location that offers cub petting, I was horrified to see how the animals were treated, and how little space they had, all in the name of making money.- [Worker] You are welcome to touch the cubs.- So obviously, you know, I think if someone found this place via Google, type in lion cub petting, alongside this, the link to this park, you find tons of articles talking about how lion cub petting is linked to canned hunting, how it’s a bad practice, how if you’re coming to Africa, it’s something you should not do, yet there are still tons of people here.
When the cubs are taken away, the lionesses go back into estrus and often mate immediately afterward, producing cubs five times faster than they would in the wild.
While many of these so-called parks and sanctuaries claim they do not breed captive lions, that didn’t seem to be the case here. Are these their cubs, or?- [Elisabeth]: Okay, okay. When they reach the age of 12 to 18 months, the lions can meet a number of different fates. Many are slaughtered for their bones to supply the black market in Asia, while others are sent to canned hunt farms where they might be drugged, baited, and shot at close range by paying customers.
(shooting repeatedly)- [Elizabeth]: While sustainable hunting is an essential part of conservation, it’s important to note that canned hunting is an entirely different practice, and it is considered unacceptable by recognized hunting organizations in South Africa. Not all of these animals end up hunted or slaughtered, but promoting this practice on social media is detrimental to global conservation efforts, as it only encourages captive breeding and private ownership.
On top of that, most places that offer cub interaction do nothing to help wild populations, which are rapidly declining thanks to poaching, habitat loss, and conflicts with humans. (lion roar)While we need to be mindful of what we put online, it’s also a great way to connect with others and share resources.
After posting a few Instagram photos of big cats with radio collars, I received a number of questions, so I took those straight to Natasha de Warn in Brits, the head conservationist at Erindi Private Game Reserve in Namibia and founder of the Global Leopard Project.- The collars are made to protect the animals, more than anything, and to protect the people that live outside the reserve.
Unfortunately, in today’s terms, every game reserve is an island in amongst humanity, and we have to make sure that if an animal gets out of the reserve for some reason, we don’t want him to get hurt by the people outside. We also don’t want those animals to hurt livestock, potentially even farmers and their families and so on. So the biggest reason that we put collars on is to make sure that there is a safety mechanism if those animals get out of the reserve.-
Another big question on this trip is what is a wild animal? Is it an animal that hasn’t had any sort of contact with humans? Because if that’s our definition, we need to think very carefully about the animals that we see and photograph during our travels, because most of them are habituated to cars, they’re habituated to the sound of a camera shutter clicking, and perhaps they’ve ever been part of a rehabilitation program where they were released back onto a private game reserve.
Quite simply, without management, the tourism industry would fall apart, and there are a number of misconceptions about the roles of rangers and guides, both of whom are key to balancing this equation. I spoke with Doug Lang, founder of the Safe Ranger Project, which is supported by the Game Rangers Association of Africa, whose mission is to provide field rangers with first responder training that is specific to the remote regions they patrol.-
So we’ve got the tourism aspect of it, which is where we have our guards, and the other side is on the conservation management, and this is where we’ll have our game rangers and our field rangers. So your anti-poaching, your field rangers, all of these guys are on the conservation management, meaning that they are actually the backbone, so those are the ones that are actually keeping this reserve functioning. Everybody has a very important role to play. Without the tourists, we wouldn’t have the reserve, but as equally, without the conservation management guys, we wouldn’t have the animals, and the ecology and the environment to actually support the tourism.
– [Elisabeth]: While radio collars and fences are easy to identify, there are thousands of brave men and women working behind the scenes to protect these animals. I wanted to learn more about their job responsibilities and what motivates them to risk their lives every day. I visited the Southern African Wildlife College, which works with local and international conservation organizations and agencies, as well as the Game Rangers Association of Africa.
The college is located in the Greater Kruger National Park, and each year they train hundreds of national resource managers, field guides, and field rangers who make a career out of conserving and protecting wildlife.- For us, wildlife means so much. We have tourists coming in, which brings in income, which is improving a lot of livelihoods, so people see the benefits, and they want people to be responsible for their actions as much as they want people to come here.-
[Elisabeth]: While the job of a ranger is to conserve the environment and protect wildlife, poaching incidents occur so regularly that their jobs are now taking on a strong law enforcement role. We need to do everything we can to bring awareness to the poaching crisis, as this will have a major impact on tourism in Africa, and the wildlife we so often take for granted in the years to come. Are there poachers in Kruger National Park right now?-
[Wouter]: The chances are very high that there are poachers actively now in Kruger National Park, yes. The rangers from the pickets were deployed, looking for detection zones, looking for signs of entry or for poachers itself. If they find signs of entry, like tracks, for example, they will deploy on the tracks, start the tracking, get the dogs in, helicopters, or aircraft, whatever is necessary, and then from there, the operation starts.
Then we will run the tracks, put stopper groups in place, all those kind of things, and hopefully, we get the poacher before animals falls.- Yeah. – Yeah.- It’s a different commitment because now you’re literally putting your life on the line.- [Leader] Load your rifle. Safety catch on fire!- I understand that a lot of the rangers, or evens staffers here at the college, would not necessarily wear their uniforms into town because they are targets, where that uniform is a ticket into the park for a poacher.
– Two guys were attacked right next to the Kruger Park in the villages in which they lived. They were attacked, particularly or specifically for the uniform. They lost their uniform and boots, and we reported that, and about three months later, the same uniform and boots were recovered from a poaching group.-
[Elisabeth]: In addition to violence, corruption is a huge problem. Poaching syndicates are extremely well funded, and as a result, they will attempt to bribe anyone who can give them information.- But here is the true situation. We are all human. A lot of people are not getting paid a lot of money.A field ranger will earn round about 70000 and a year. Okay?
They will come and offer him a 100000, which is a year plus salary, and some people will bend for that. Some people will be in a condition, where they believe that that is the way out.- What sort of selection process do you have to make sure that you’re hiring rangers you can trust?- Okay, so first and foremost, before I even start to train somebody, they must come with what we call police clearance certificate. This indicates that the person has got no criminal record. So legally we need that because if you train a person in this country, they cannot get a firearm license or a competency certificate to handle a firearm if they’ve got a criminal charge against them.
When you’re now starting to select the people, you put them through a brutal selection. There’s no other word for it. After that selection process, you then put them through polygraphing. Last year we ended up with 18 people after selection, and we ended up with three of them testing positive. In other words, in other words, there is deception indicated. And the question, the first question you ask is why is this happening?
Then you realize, wait a minute, the syndicates aren’t stupid. They’re trying to infiltrate their people into the system, and where is the easiest to do that? Training center. (guns firing)- [Steve] These people are working tirelessly without maybe making a lot, but whatever is driving them is the passion to make sure they protect all these resources, and our role is to also want to make them understand or to remember that we have communities who are living around this protected areas.-
[Elisabeth]: Communities need to be part of the solution by seeing value in tourism and wildlife, and also by benefiting from it. As far as communities online, we have to be aware of the impact of social media. You might not think that posting a photo of a rhino on Instagram and location tagging the name of the park or reserve is a problem, but in doing that, you could be directing poachers straight to the animal. If a park or reserve has asked that you not share photos of a rhino, it’s important to respect that.-
Social media, although it’s great to tell the people where you are and things like that, it does assist poachers in that situation, and people might think this is farfetched, but it’s not, because these guys are looking at technology the same as what we are looking at technology. How do we do this? Poachers have posted their successes in the past, and that has been used to get them, but they use the same thing against us. So one’s got a be really careful in terms of that.-
[Elisabeth]: I was well aware of the fact that you know, an increase in elephant scan contribute directly to habitat loss, which then affects big cat populations.- Yeah So if you want to save the cats, you have to control the elephant populations, but these animals are not roaming freely. They’re enclosed in spaces. –
[Ruben]: Yeah. Now you’re sitting on a situation where you’ve got overpopulation within a small area, which you have fenced off. We have interfered, like it or not. We’ve interfered.-
[Elisabeth]: As humans, we have altered the course of nature, by building homes, and farming, and contributing to climate change. So it’s up to us to better manage the planet, and the wildlife on it.
And when visiting other countries, it’s also important to be aware of our impact.- Tourists must educate themselves as to what conservation really is, and understand that sustainable utilization and all of those issues connect to what they are doing as well. I think the second thing, I might walk into the firing line with this, but tourists shouldn’t be too quick to judge, you know?
Sometimes they’re really quick to judge and say well, you know, I heard of this thing and I saw this thing and this is what has happened. So one’s got a be really careful before you judge, because we are exposed, often, to a lot of armchair conservationists, guys that look at social media or they look at the media and they see what’s on the media and things like that, then they go like well, they should be doing this, they should be doing that.
The government must sort out the guys that are doing the illegal stuff or unethical stuff. The ethical guys must really go out there and sell themselves properly and say this is what we do and this is how we do it. So I think on both sides of that coin, people have got to go and again, educate, whereas I feel the law must take care of the people that are being unethical.-
[Elisabeth]: If we have discussions with those who are on the ground, in action, whether it’s rangers, guides, professors, students, biologists, or lodge owners, we have a lot to learn, and it might not be the perfect solution or what we expect, but if we can all get on the same page, I have hope that we can move forward.-
[Doug]: If we can get people to really start getting a feel for what it is to be in nature that, for me, is what it’s all about. It’s not necessarily going and saying I’ve seen an elephant, I’ve seen lion, I’ve seen a cheetah. To actually leave with deep-seated experience and wanting to make a difference, to actually go home from a place like this and say I want to do something more to protect it.