In February 2015 I left the U.K. for what I thought would be the adventure of a lifetime — two weeks volunteering with lion cubs in South Africa. I was led to believe my trip would benefit lion conservation in Africa and that the cats I worked with would eventually be released into reserves. However I soon discovered I was just one of hundreds of volunteers being duped into spending thousands of dollars on a complete lie.
I booked my trip through a U.K. agency aimed at young adults looking to work abroad with animals or "find themselves" in Thailand. I was immediately drawn to a trip called "Live with Lion Cubs," and in no time I had paid my deposit and started the countdown. The trip was sold to me as two weeks working on a lion reserve in South Africa, which I had to pay for, and I was reassured by the agency multiple times that the park, Ukutula Lion Park & Lodge, had absolutely no involvement with the hunting industry. I naively believed what I was told and couldn't wait to cuddle some cute cubs.
From the very beginning, I was completely besotted by the cubs and in awe of the adult lions. But it wasn't long before the penny dropped.
Like many so-called conservation lodges, Ukutula breeds lion cubs excessively, and during my stay we were told we had to care for the 2-week-old cubs we handled because they were too "unruly" to stay with their mothers. At the time, the statement seemed convincing, but I have since realised it is utter nonsense. To say a lion cub is too "unruly" is like saying a cheetah "runs too much" — it's in their nature.
This natural behaviour was the first thing we were taught to control. If a cub became too excitable or aggressive we had to smack them across the nose so they would learn it was unacceptable.
The second warning sign came during my first evening when I had to lock five cubs, weighing up to 20 pounds each, in a single crate no bigger than one you'd keep your dog in. They were stuck there from 5 p.m. until 8 a.m. the next morning, with no access to food or water, simply because they had outgrown their enclosures.
All five cubs were kept in the tiny cage visible in the background overnight. Beth Jennings
I could hardly bear the guilt I felt while doing this, but I was in no position to change the rules or even question the park owners' decision.
That was just the beginning, and I began to document everything that happened during my stay. One 12-day-old cub was taken from his mother to be "hand-reared;" in reality he was locked in a cage in reception overnight, and received little to no care during this time. Young cubs were also passed around to groups of 20-plus tourists, crying for their mothers the whole time. I also took photos of the cages where the lions were locked up, which were shabby with broken wires sticking out.
Two-week-old cubs were passed around groups of paying tourists.Beth Jennings
Fortunately, I was in regular contact with a previous volunteer and members of the Campaign Against Canned Hunting. Through them, I learned that absolutely no facility that lets you touch, cuddle or walk with their lions is a true conservation effort — and I was being taken for a ride.
Despite what I was told, there is absolutely no benefit to hand-rearing lions from a conservation point of view, as doing so renders them useless for releasing into the wild — releasing a hand-reared lion has never been done, and (most likely) never will. So why breed lions for tourists to raise if not for conservation purposes?
The answer is simple: money.
Parks such as Ukutula can reportedly earn up to $48,000 a month from paying volunteers like myself, making lion breeding extremely attractive to people with more money than morals. Female lions are bred excessively all year round, producing more litters than they naturally would in the wild, ensuring there are endless cubs for naive tourists to cuddle.
Once the lions become too big to be handled by volunteers they are used for "lion walks" — an activity that takes volunteers and tourists into the bush to supposedly witness the lions in their natural habitat. Ukutula's lion walks consisted of making the lions perform circus tricks on tree stumps in return for small lumps of chicken and little else. We were given sticks to defend ourselves, as the lions had been trained to understand what the sticks signified — punishment.
But once these lions become too big for these walks the real question is raised: Where do the lions go next?
Likely, canned hunting. The practice of canned hunting is entirely legal in South Africa and involves a captive-bred lion — like those I helped raise by hand — being placed within a fenced reserve with no means of escaping, only to be shot by a tourist who wants the thrill of a lion hunt without the effort. This utterly abhorrent practice means that there are cubs being bred across the country with the sole intention of shooting them when they are big enough and pretty enough to become a trophy on someone's wall.
Ukutula has refused to provide me with evidence that their lions do not end up hunted, despite the fact that they have a partnership with a local hunting facility only a 40-minute drive away. I questioned the legitimacy behind such a partnership, but at the time I was assured the lions would be sold to responsible owners and eventually released into reserves, which I now know is bullshit.
I also know that Ukutula's lions have previously ended up in American zoos — not my definition of conservation by any means — and have even vanished entirely, resulting in endless social media campaigns demanding answers. The reality is, hand-reared lions cannot be released into the wild and in fact are only good for making money.
Many volunteers are completely unaware of the direct link between handling cubs and the lions that are shot in canned hunts, which is why I began a campaign to help volunteers like me avoid being tricked into supporting them. Had I known the truth before departing for South Africa, there is no way on Earth I would ever have touched a lion cub.
Although it may be appealing to cuddle cubs and have your photo taken with a little Simba, it's so important to remember that doing so does not benefit lion conservation in any way. I totally understand how easy it is to be sucked in, and I so badly wanted to believe the trip would help the lions I worked with, but in reality I now have to live with the guilt of not knowing whether the animals I bonded with will be alive in a year — or if they even are today.
So, please, if you are looking to work for a park to help lion conservation, do not go anywhere that lets you work hands-on with the animals. No park that offers this interaction is a true conservation effort, and giving them your money means the real good guys are missing out on donations.
You can read more about my story and how to find good conservation groups on my website, Claws Out.