The Daily Telegraph - Blood Lions warns against the dark side of African voluntourism
December 1, 2015

New film alleges links between wildlife projects visited by British gap year travellers and tourists and the controversial canned lion hunting industry.

A new film is a warning to gap year volunteers and tourists looking for close contact experiences with lion cubs.

Blood Lions focuses on the captive lion breeding and canned hunting industry in South Africa and raises questions about whether a number of centres that offer activities such as cub petting and the chance to “walk with lions” are part of bona fide conservation, research or education projects.

Pippa Hankinson, one of the film’s producers, says gap year students – including many from the UK – visit South Africa to volunteer with projects raising orphaned lion cubs.

“Volunteers are told these cubs are orphaned and that they are going to be rehabilitated into the wild but lion ecologists and conservationists have told us it is simply not a viable conservation option, and that there are few records of re-wilding any bottle-fed, hand-reared cubs into game reserves.”

She estimates that there are around 6,000 captive lions in South Africa, often at facilities that welcome overseas volunteers, and claims that many of these end up in the hands of the canned hunting industry or lion bone trade. According to one of the sanctuary owners interviewed in the film two to three lions each day are hunted in fenced-in areas - a practice that is legal in the country.

Her film shows “unacceptable” conditions at various facilities visited by tourists with “dozens” of cubs kept in small areas.

One centre that features in the film, Ukutula Lion Park near Johannesburg, was visited by Beth Jennings, a British volunteer, earlier this year.

“I was naive,” she said. “I love animals and here was a chance to work with lion cubs - but I wish I had done more research.”

Jennings booked through the agency Real Gap for a two-week volunteering holiday at Ukutula, a trip which cost nearly £2,000.
“The red flags went up as soon as I arrived,” she said. “From what I could see lions were locked up in enclosures that were clearly too small. There was no access to water or food overnight, and the blankets were covered in urine.”

After a few upsetting days Jennings began to do some online research into the park and found them heavily criticised on a popular Facebook page “Volunteers in Africa Beware” (, which aims to help volunteers “avoid the trap of breeding farms masquerading as conservation facilities.” On the site are postings by volunteers, lists of recommended projects and warnings about others.

Jennings has since started a blog, Claws Out (, outlining her negative experiences, and warns against any park offering hands-on interaction with lion cubs.

Willie Jacobs, owner of Ukutula, denies that the animals at his park are poorly treated and accused filmmakers, and other critics, of attacking it to raise their own profiles.

He admit that its lions are bred on site ("in a limited and controlled program, under veterinary supervision") and will not be released into the wild, but denies that volunteers are told otherwise, and says that every effort is made to ensure they never end up being hunted. “We have the backing of respected scientific organisations, who regularly inspect our facilities” he said. “All our lions are electronically tagged and monitored for life, and we only move them to zoos or other research or education facilities that meet our ethical guidelines. I actually support the film – or at least the issues raised – because there is a problem with animal welfare in South Africa.”

Hankinson, however, suggests Ukutala keeps “far more lions than are required for research and education purposes.”

Real Gap said it no longer offers trips to Ukutula, or any other lion cub projects. A spokesman added: “We fully support the campaign to stop canned hunting and at no point has any evidence been received linking Ukutula with animal cruelty or the canned hunting industry.”

For those wanting to volunteer with lions, research is key, according to Hankinson.

“We are certainly not slamming all volunteer projects,” she said. “Some are properly run. The problem is that there is no organisation accrediting or registering projects so volunteers must ask the right questions for themselves to ensure they are supporting ethical projects. We hope this film and our website empowers volunteers and viewers to ask the correct questions to enable them to make informed decisions.”

Hankinson suggests that tourists or volunteers keen to see lion cubs should ask the organisation two key questions: where do the lion cubs come from and where are they being released.

Ultimately she hopes Blood Lions will enable policy change. “We have been overwhelmed by the response to the film. Tour operators are already more rigorously scrutinising programmes and itineraries that offer opportunities for cub petting and walking with lions. We have made an important start.”