South African actress warns travelers: Do not visit these lion tourist attractions

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South African actress and wildlife advocate Pearl Thusi is collaborating with the Humane Society International/Africa to warn travelers to South Africa not to visit lion tourist attractions that offer lion cub petting and lion walks. These facilities breed lions in captivity, often under harsh conditions, exploit their cubs for photo opps, and then sell them for canned hunts or for Asia’s lion-bone trade. More than 370,000 Americans visited South Africa last year, making the United States the second-highest non-African country of origin for tourists to the nation.

HSI/Africa and Thusi, who appeared in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and the ABC television series Quantico, launched the “Snuggle Scam” awareness-raising campaign today – World Lion Day – with video of Thusi’s visit to a lion cub-petting and lion walk tourist attraction in Gauteng. The actress witnessed first-hand how easily well-meaning travelers can be hoodwinked into financing the cruel captive-breeding lion industry. HSI/Africa then took Thusi on safari, where she could see lions roaming free in the wild.

“I’m so humbled and proud to be a part of the HSI family,” said Thusi. “It’s been my life’s dream to make a change for wild animals and be part of the system that loves, appreciates and protects them. I pledge to do my best to learn, grow and fight for the rights of Africa’s wild lions and all animals that need the same assistance. Now that I know the truth behind the captive lion breeding industry and the sad exploitation of these lions from birth to death, I am horrified that this is how we treat the king of the jungle. We should promote Africa as an authentic, wild and rewarding tourism destination and not support this industry. I know that together we can all make a difference and improve things for wildlife and humanity.”

Breeders at tourist attractions that feature human-lion interaction often claim that the lions are orphaned and will be released back into the wild. The truth is that they are bred in captivity, removed from their mother, and have no ability to survive in their natural habitat. Lions imprinted on humans are dangerous and unpredictable.

In the wild, lion cubs remain with their mothers for 18 months, and females rest for at least 15-24 months between litters. Cubs born on breeding farms are taken from their mothers when they are a few days – or even a few hours – old to be used as living photo props. The removal of cubs forces the mother into an exhausting and continuous breeding cycle while incarcerated in enclosures, sometimes without adequate food, hygiene, or the ability to express their natural behaviors.

Fake “orphan” cubs are exploited for unsuspecting visitors, and volunteers from all over the world pay thousands of dollars to hand-raise them. Once cubs are no longer cute and cuddly, they are used for lion walking experiences. Once they are too dangerous for that activity, some are sold for canned hunts, in which they are shot by trophy hunters in fenced areas from which they cannot escape. Others are killed for the bone trade—either for display or for use in bogus medicinal tonics in Asia.

Audrey Delsink, Acting Executive Director and Wildlife Director of HSI/Africa said, “Most people come to South Africa because they love lions and other wild animals. They would be shocked to learn that the cute lion cubs they pose with for selfies will one day be killed for profit. We are thrilled to work with Pearl to raise awareness of the ‘Snuggle Scam,’ to urge people to stay away from these facilities, and instead to see these magnificent animals in the wild where they belong.”

Key facts:

• Only about 20,000 lions remain in the wild.

• Between 6,000 and 8,000 lions are suffering in captivity in some 260 facilities across South Africa, marketed to tourists as lion interaction experiences. With fewer than 3,000 wild lions, South Africa has more lions languishing in captivity than in the wild.

• Lions are a threatened species, listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). While the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) prohibits the trade of bones from wild lions, it does allow South Africa to export bones from captive ones.

• It is impossible to differentiate body parts from wild vs. captive lions, so the legal export of captive lion bones facilitates the illegal export of wild lion bones.

• It is difficult to distinguish between lion and tiger bone, so the legal trade in captive lion bones also undermines efforts to stop the trade in tiger bones, which is completely illegal.

The “Snuggle Scam” initiative comes in the wake of South Africa’s announcement that it would nearly double its lion bone export quota from 800 to 1,500 skeletons, and as the South African parliament prepares to host a colloquium on captive lion breeding on August 22-23.

On #WorldLionDay, HSI and Pearl Thusi urge travelers, travel guides, and tour operators to fight lion exploitation by refusing to participate in or promote human-lion interactions, such as bottle-feeding or cub-petting, walking with lions, or canned trophy hunting. Click here for more information.