Fancy taking a selfie with an orphaned lion, or cuddling a cub? It’s all possible in South Africa, where tourists can pay to rear lions or walk with them through the bush. The normal practice is that such visitors are told their money goes towards conservation and that the lion cubs have no parents, but more often than not, this is a lie.
A recent, harrowing animation produced by the charity Born Free seeks to educate the public about this issue. Featuring a baby lion and its keeper frolicking in the sun (to the soundtrack of Born Free) the cub is then photographed by several groups of tourists before growing up and being released into the wild. The lion spends a few days roaming the landscape before spotting its keeper once again and gambolling happily towards her. But the lion never makes it. With the keeper watching on, a hunter shoots it and then pays for the privilege.
Matt Smithers, head of marketing at Born Free says that this is the real circle of life for around 8,000 or more captive-bred lions in South Africa, which live in around 250 facilities. Once they are too large to cuddle, these lions are released for ‘canned hunting’ in which they are confined to a small area and stalked by customers with guns. ‘The hunter will typically take the head and the tail as a trophy and the bones are sold to the Far East for traditional medicine purposes,’ says Smithers.
Born Free doesn’t place the blame for this system on tourists, but rather on the South African government which has failed to outlaw this practice, and on the lion centres which disseminate false information. ‘The animation is called The Great Betrayal, but it’s not necessarily just a betrayal between the lion and people,’ Smithers says. ‘It’s also the nonsense and the lies that are told to the public. These volunteers come over and help hand-rear these “orphan” lions – but they’re not orphans. They’ve been taken away from their mothers to go into this practice.’
The charity has released a petition alongside the video and aims to attract half a million signatures, after which it will take the case to the South African embassy in London and to the government in South Africa. But the larger goal is to raise awareness. To achieve this, a video animation struck the team as the best approach. Smithers points to other effective video campaigns as inspiration, such as Greenpeace’s Rang-tan video of last year, and the 2013 documentary Blackfish about the orca shows at Sea World parks. The latter contributed to falling foot-fall, sinking shares, and the eventual end of the company’s killer whale breeding programme.
When it comes to lions, Smithers hopes the video will have a similar effect on customer behaviour. ‘The main goal is to end this awful practice, but I really wanted to educate the public too,’ he says ‘I can’t believe that anyone who knows what goes on at these facilities would ever participate in it again.’ l