#ShockWildlifeTruths: New Garden Route wildlife park places big cat welfare under spotlight

2018-01-02 08:38 - Kavitha Pillay
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George Wildlife and Animal Park. (Photo: Facebook)

Cape Town - A new wildlife park that officially opened in George - after many years of trying to open its doors to the public – has garnered greater attention regarding the welfare of big cats in South Africa.

Owned by JP Kameel, George Wildlife and Animal Park opened on 16 December “for educational purposes”, according to Kameel.

Kameel, who has worked with various species of big cats at a number of wildlife sanctuaries for 12 years, told Traveller24 that he opened this park to “make people aware of how endangered these species are.”

The Park is home to 2 Bengal tigers, 2 cheetahs, 2 serval cats and 2 caracals.

“We don’t only talk about the animals that are here, but also about those not there,” he says about the Park’s aim to educate the public on big cats and wild cats.

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However, Nicola Gerrard from the Blood Lions campaign says "The big question for us is why are we needing a facility such as this?”

“South Africa has a great network of world famous national parks protecting significant biodiversity and heritage and we should be encouraging people to visit these wilderness areas. Conservation professionals agree that captive bred predators do not contribute to conservation targets," explains Gerrard.

Permits to keep wild animals

Despite the argument from Blood Lions, Kameel has gained permission from relevant authorities to open the Park. This includes a “permit to keep wild animals in captivity for exhibition purposes” from CapeNature, which governs such parks in the Western Cape.

This permit is valid for one year from date of being issued and is subject to renewal. It costs only R350 to obtain this permit – an arguably small price to pay considering the number of possible negative consequences as a result of keeping such animals in captivity.

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The permit comes with a number of terms and conditions, but one of the “special conditions” that stands out states that it “does not authorise any form of non-essential human/wildlife contact or direct physical interaction.”

George Wildlife and Animal Park has already contravened this condition as can be seen in their Facebook posts. Click here to see the Park's Facebook page.

CapeNature further states in the permit that it “does not support, condone nor encourage such non-essential human/wildlife contact or interaction. Cape Nature regards such activity as highly irresponsible, undesirable and potentially dangerous and urges the responsible person/ permit holder to refrain therefrom at all times.”

Furthermore, when asked who takes care of the Park’s animals and what are their qualifications to do so, Kameel told Traveller24 that his “staff don’t have experience” and that he trains them to take care of the cats. “They clean the enclosure, prepare food an give information to the public but do no physical work animals at all,” he says. However, the Park’s Facebook posts prove otherwise.

He added that he takes animals away for cleaning and shows his staff how to do it.

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Kameel told Traveller24 that he worked for 12 years with tigers, cheetahs and lions at two different wildlife parks – Kango Wildlife Ranch and Jukani Wildlife Sanctuary.

“At Kango I was a senior animal trainer which involved hand-raising cats and feeding them, working on programmes for their enrichment – such as what they eat - and generally looking after them to keep them occupied so they don’t get bored,” he says.

He said he is using this experience and knowledge to run the facility he opened and train his staff.

He admitted that he is “not 100% sure about training requirements” to work in a Wildlife Park but says “you do need to get a permit” to open the Park and follow “CapeNature’s specifications to keep the animals”.

He says that these specifications include the size and area of the enclosures, water and food requirements, and ensuring that a vet checks on the animals.

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Kameel says that “all legal paperwork is in place” to run his facility and he shared with Traveller24 the licence obtained from Western Cape Government and other documents that allow him to open the Park.

However, according to the licence from Western Cape Government, the Park will also home farm animals including pigs, goats, chickens, rabbits, geese and a pony. This is a cause for concern as these animals are potential food sources for the wild cats which may attempt escaping their cages to gain access to the other animals.

When asked what is the procedure to follow if one of the wild animals escapes its enclosure while visitors are present, and how are staff equipped to handle this situation, Kameel did not provide an answer to Traveller24.

Big cat enclosures

When asked about the Park’s code of conduct regarding how the animals are treated, fed and taken care of, Kameel says they follow the “Animal performance act – a very important permit that allows you to exhibit animals to public”.

The size of enclosures are 80m x 40m for 2 tigers, 60m x 40m for 2 cheetahs and two 30m x 50m enclosures each for the caracals and servals.

Kameel says that for the caracals and servals he has met the “exact specifications”, while the “other two [enclosures] are almost double the minimum requirement according to CapeNature”. 

On the Facebook page, Kameel mentions wanting to open this Park since a few years ago. When asked why it took so long to open he told Traveller24 that he “started the project in August 2013” but “a lot of things were going on.”

He said that people brought up “stuff about canned hunting” and had questions about lions and canned hunting, resulting in “years went by trying to go over this”.

He says he does not want to get lions as they are “difficult to keep in captivity and need bigger enclosures” and he does not have enough experience with lions.

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We asked him how he feels about keeping animals that are endangered?

“In my opinion it’s right if you do it in the right way,” says Kameel, adding that at the Park they explain to visitors that “there’s no point in killing the animal”.

“I give the animals the best chance of living here. I’m not allowed to breed them and the public is not allowed to touch animals,” he adds.

Captive breeding

Kameel says that all the cats are under one year old, and he bought them from Letsatsi la Africa in the North West, which is “a predator park that breeds and sells to other parks all over the world” according to Kameel. When asked how it’s possible that he is not allowed to breed the animals but Letsatsi la Africa is allowed to breed, he says that “different provinces have different rules for breeding”.

This comment shows that irrespective of what rules are followed, authorities somewhere in the country allow for captive breeding, which leads to cub petting and canned hunting – proven to cause more damage to wildlife rather than help save it.

While the George Wildlife and Animal Park may appear to have the best interest of these animals and the community in mind, like many other private parks that keep captive bred animals, its perpetuation in the breeding and sale of more wildlife that indirectly feeds commercial ends rather than making a positive change to conservation efforts must be considered. 

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