Paarl croc guide killed: This is why animal parks and interaction need to stop

2017-01-16 14:28 - Louzel Lombard Steyn
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Crocodile. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

Cape Town - The death of a loved and respected guide at Le Bonheur Crocodile Farm in the Western Cape sent shock waves through South Africa over the past weekend. 

According to News24, Johan Burger's body had to be retrieved from one of the farm's crocodile pools, which he had helped designed at the end of 2015. 

Police spokesperson Captain FC van Wyk told News24 that workers arriving for their shift came across his body around 08:50. 

An inquest was opened into the circumstances surrounding Burger's death, Van Wyk said. 

Following Burger's death, the crocodile farm says the croc pond tours have been suspended until Saturday, 21 January, while other activities on the farm remain operational. 

What message is being sent? 

According to the Le Bonheur website, guided crocodile tours are conducted on the property every 45 minutes. 

The tour involves guiding guests across ramps leading to open, artificial ponds which house more than 1 000 crocodiles. The crocs are fed by park officials. 

Guests and kids can also do a crocodile cage dive, and pose for photographs holding baby crocodiles. 

There is no doubt that the tour is a thrilling one. And some would even argue that the tours and interaction stimulates and advocates education about crocodiles to the general public. 

But what's the real message these tours are sending to the public? 

In a natural environment, handling baby crocodiles and getting within centimetres of croc-infested waters - or feeding crocodiles - would be unthinkable. But yet, in man-made, enclosed environments, common sense, nature's laws and natural hierarchy are the first to go out the door. 

Visitors to animal interaction destinations cannot help but have a more relaxed way of thinking about the real dangers of nature... 

There can only be one winner 

Crocodiles, like all predators, are deadly creatures. And if you put humans and animal predators in the same enclosure, only one victor will remain. 

In June last year, when a child accidentally slipped into a rare gorilla's enclosure in Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, the 17-year-old gorilla, sitting in his enclosure, was shot dead within minutes - even though it showed no aggravation to the child. 

SEE: Animal Interactions: Did the US Zoo really have to kill a rare gorilla?

The child's life was more important that the gorilla's, there's no question about that.  But had it not been for the unnatural environment of the zoo, the incident would have never occurred in the first place and both the kid and the gorilla could have lived.

But as we see with the tragic death of Johan Burger, the outcome isn't always a positive one for human beings. 

In South Africa, in 2015, a same zoo-enclosure scenario delivered a much more gruesome and devastating result when American tourist Catherine Chappell was mauled to death by a female lion during a self-drive safari at the controversial Lion Park in Johannesburg. 

The Lion Park said they would end lion cub interaction, but they have since retracted on their announcement saying the financial gain from the cub petting is just too good to give up. 

SEE: Joburg Lion Park: We want to ban petting but we need the money

It’s a quick win with devastating consequence 

Any South African will tell you that no zoo or animal park compares to a visit to the Kruger National Park, for example. If given a choice between any zoo or aquarium in the world, and seeing the animals in their wild state – the latter will and should always win. 

SEE: Con or conservation: 6 Critical questions to ask about wildlife sanctuaries

But visitors don’t have the time or patience to put aside a few days to drive through SA's national parks. They want to go somewhere where they are guaranteed that advertised ‘African experience’, where they can see, feed and ride some of our Big 5 and other predators. 

They want selfies with lions, crocodiles and elephants and the Kruger just doesn't provide this. 

So what do they do? They frequent and indirectly support places that operate under the 'cloak of conservation', which in actual fact only contributes to the unnatural caged-culture of wild animals. 

READ: Five lies you need to stop believing about the lion cub petting industry 

The writing is on the wall 

Attacks on humans that occur where animals are kept in enclosures and cages, compared to the attacks on humans by wild animals, are exponentially more. 

Why? Because wild animals don't want to interfere with humans. The issues arise when they are forced to. 

Considering the examples of deaths of humans from animals in captivity - like the crocodiles on Le Bonheur and the lion at the Lion Park - one cannot help to wonder why deaths aren't as frequent in places like the KNP, for example? 

Despite the much larger concentration of lions in the Kruger, these wild lions haven't snatched humans from their cars, or even the open safari vehicles. 

Are zoos and animal parks able to reinvent themselves? 

In South Africa, zoos and animal parks will have to reinvent themselves... or face not being backed up by SA Tourism

The newly appointed CEO of South Africa Tourism, Sisa Ntshona, last year spoke out against tourism products based on the exploitation of wild animals, saying he will work with sustainable tourism authorities to 'eradicate' the industry. 

He made his sentiments about animal interaction and animals in captivity clear when he said "South African Tourism does not promote or endorse any interaction with wild animals such as the petting of wild cats, interacting with elephants and walking with lions, cheetahs and so on.

SEE: New SA Tourism CEO hopes to 'eradicate' cub petting and animal interaction

He said the marketing efforts of SA Tourism is to promote an authentic and credible tourism experience to all our tourists, and this includes an "authentic wildlife experience to keep it as “wild” and natural as possible," Ntshona said. 

It was a bold statement to make, but change is already on the cards. Just last week, a poster advertising cub petting in OR Tambo International Airport was removed after a number of organisations slammed it as going against sustainable tourism. 

SEE: SA airport to remove cub petting images that give tourists the wrong message

Elsewhere on the globe, change is visible too. 

Most recently the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced over the weekend that after 146 years, the curtain is coming down on "The Greatest Show on Earth" - as it will be closing its tent forever in May 2017.

The iconic American spectacle was felled by a variety of factors, company executives say. Declining attendance combined with high operating costs, along with changing public tastes and prolonged battles with animal rights groups all contributed to its demise.

SEE: The big top comes down: Ringling Bros circus is closing

In March 2016, one of the biggest captive animal exhibitionists SeaWorld finally announced they will no longer breed killer whales in captivity and will soon stop making them leap from their pools or splash audiences on command.

Orca shows have been called off across the globe, with great applause from conservationists. 

SEE: Bittersweet conservation win as notorious SeaWorld orca, Tilikum, dies

And while the highly controversial marine zoos' existing killer whales will remain in captivity, SeaWorld at the time said that "new, inspiring natural orca encounters" are on the cards for visitors. 

It's by no means liberation of the current captive orcas, but the move shows that with enough pressure and public awareness, change is possible. 

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