Cape Town - A Joburg mom thought a visit to a lion sanctuary would be a good learning experience for her family but ended up changing her mind about lions in captivity.
While the sanctuary in question says it does not offer lion cub petting, it confirmed it does supplement its income with lion tours and game hunting.
'Something very strange'
Claudia Eicker-Harris, a 44-year-old creative director and author from Craighall in Johannesburg says she visited the Glen Garriff lion conservation project, located in Harrismith in the Free State, on August 28 while on route to the Drakensberg for a family holiday.
“There is something very strange going on there," Eicker-Harris told Traveller24 in an email, as she questioned the authenticity of the establishment.
"We thought it would be a good learning experience for our 10-year-old daughter,” but Eicker-Harris is of the opinion that the “animals are in areas far too small for them" and that overall the family did not feel safe during the experience.
Eicker-Harris says a woman who took them through the lion sanctuary was in "no way equipped to handle any dangerous situations".
Identified as Kathleen Murrell, Eicker-Harris says the elderly woman had no official title and appeared to be a volunteer at the sanctuary.
"At one point we were standing in a corridor between two fenced areas and the lions started running towards my daughter. I felt that she was in real danger. There were no staff around, except for the woman who was certainly not able to provide any form of protection.”
Eicker-Harris says she found it strange that Murrell patted some of the lions, "putting her hand through the fences", despite her telling the family that they were “being bred to be put into the wild.”
“The lions are hand fed and have ongoing human interaction, including being petted, so how they would be introduced into the wild I am not sure,” says Eicker-Harris.
When the family discovered that the farm actually accommodates hunters who pay to kill the antelope - it made them feel even more uneasy about the operations.
“Some of the lions appeared very depressed and maybe even drugged; and some seemed very anxious. I didn’t see water troughs in any of the enclosures and many of them had no shade at all. One of the strangest parts was that they ask for a cash donation, but there is no office and no paperwork is given.”
“I just have a very bad feeling about this place.”
'Operational game farm, prides itself in providing a safe and ethical sanctuary'
Traveller24 contacted Glen Garriff, querying the concerns raised by the Eicker-Harris family during their visit.
Glen Garriff CEO Traci Shannon says Glen Garriff as an operational game farm, prides itself in providing a "safe and ethical sanctuary for the protection of lions".
“We are a registered non-profit company, with all revenue generated through donations and self-funding by our family and friends. What must be kept in mind though, is that perceptions of what the person concerned had of the Glenn Gariff operation may not be the reality.”
The first lions were introduced to Glen Garriff in 2002, which is 100 years after the last two wild lions were hunted down on Platberg in 1902, according to the sanctuary.
According to Shannon, Glen Garriff does not rehabilitate lions to be released into the wild, despite the family being told this.
“The concept of Glen Garriff is to provide a sanctuary for lions, the preservation of a disease-free gene pool and for the safe keeping of mistreated lions.”
The sanctuary also no longer breeds lions, having recently sterilised its male lions, with females in its pride groups receiving veterinary administered birth control.”
Shannon says the costs of maintaining the enclosures, feeding and the veterinary health of the lions runs in excess of R150 000 per month - which is why the organisation "facilitates the paid tours, accepts donations, as well as allows hunting as part of conservation programme".
'Hunting done ethically'
The organisation says it is in no way involved in canned lion hunting.
“Yes we allow hunting as part of conservation programme, operated by licensed hunters, and are ethically done. We generate a far higher income through live game sales, most of which is ploughed back into the running of the lion sanctuary. That the guest saw some of the “back of House” operations, and formed an opinion, does not make the opinion an educated one,“ says Shannon.
Shannon questions Eicker-Harris’ assumption that some of the lions seemed “depressed” or drugged.
“This is a very strong comment based on no educated insight as to the behaviour of our lions or to lion behaviour in general. Lions spend most of their time, both in the wild and in captivity, being inactive. That they happened to be at the sanctuary at a time of little or no lion activity does not mean our lions are “depressed”.
“We are open at any time for inspection by any recognised animal welfare organisation. We have nothing to hide and are confident that what we set out to achieve in the establishment of Glen Gariff lion sanctuary still stands, and we will continue on the same track."
'We left R200 for the lions'
“We rely on donations and to a large degree on self-funding to cover our costs. All the donations we receive come through GoFundMe and to a small degree from direct donations from visitors. The funds are utilised exclusively for the lions sanctuary and are overseen by our auditors,” Shannon confirmed to Traveller24.
Eicker-Harris says the family was told there was a R1 000 donation fee for 1 to four people but this was waivered by Murrell, when she could see how visibly upset they were about the experience.
"When we left Kathleen said she could see that we were unhappy and said we didn't have to pay the full fee. I told her that I didn't think we should have to pay anything because I didn't want to support whatever was going on at the facility. But I said I would give R200 if she promised it would go to the lions.
"I think Kathleen really does love the lions and thinks that what they are doing is the right thing to do."
It’s no secret that South Africa’s lion hunting industry is supported by lion cub petting and interactions - as revealed by the documentary Blood Lions. Alarmingly, the world’s wild lion population is estimated at less than 20 000 in total.
SEE: Rhinos and elephants: Australia does what South Africa won’t
Experts believe South Africa’s pro-lion bone trade adds impetus to the overall endangerment of the species by creating demand - this as local lion populations are said to be on the increase. But it's not the first time the local recovery of a species sees rules in play that undermine the global concern - Elephants and Rhino being a similar example. Even more so, the 2 000 wild lions estimate remains jarring when weighed against SA’s some 8 000 lions in captivity versus the estimated 6 000 lion skeletons that have been exported from our shores in the last decade.
SEE: #ShockWildlifeTruth: More than 6000 lion skeletons have been exported from SA
So while many often romanticise about a close encounter with lions, the harsh reality is that lions in captivity will never be a pretty sight - as the Eicker-Harris' family recently experienced. And it costs money - a lot of it - where the risks are raised - stoking the debate around the role of lion sanctuaries, lion cub petting and South Africa’s notorious canned lion hunting industry overall.
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