Tourists love petting tours – but the ‘cute’ animals can be lethal

Mail on Sunday serialisation of Lord Ashcroft’s new book, Unfair Game, published on 14 June 2020.

WITH their huge paws, sweet faces and soft fur, lion cubs are among nature’s most endearing young creatures. It’s no wonder tourists flock to the many parks in South Africa that give the chance to cuddle and stroke these delightful animals.

What the innocent visitors do not know, however, is that they are helping to prolong the agony of these cubs and others which, like them, have been bred solely for the purposes of making money.

At a safari park outside Johannesburg, visitors can, for about £5, enter a dusty lion cub enclosure for ten minutes.

During a visit by my team one day last August, three cubs, including two rare white lion cubs, were dozing in the midday sun. Lion cubs need plenty of rest but these ones were not left in peace for long.

Their keeper prodded them awake so that they could be stroked, picked up and played with and, of course, pose for that all-important selfie.

The animals looked well and were extremely docile – so much so that the stories one hears about cubs being sedated to guarantee their good behaviour are eminently believable.

The guide told the tourists that the park has a total of ‘about 75’ lions. Oddly, only 25 were available to see. When asked about the 50 others, the guide provided no concrete answer, saying something about them being in what he jokingly referred to as the ‘retirement village’ area.

Subsequently, operatives working for me entered that enclosure unobserved. They counted about 15 old-looking lions, some wild dogs and three cheetahs. Pens containing the lions were cramped and the enclosures were covered in a foul carpet of faeces and chicken feathers. The big cats looked
hungry, pacing the fences. Their final destination remains unclear.

Another entertainment at the park that August day was to go on a ‘lion walk’. These have become a very popular way of enhancing tourists’ interaction with the predators while adding an element of risk.

Anybody taking part must sign a release form, acknowledging they accept responsibility for the situation into which they place themselves. This is no surprise considering that several tourists have been mauled to death on safaris in South Africa.

During my team’s visit, two male lions – far larger than the cubs made available for petting and cuddling earlier – were driven up to the enclosure on a trailer.

When released, they were very curious and energetic, but the guides kept them occupied by throwing chunks of pungent smelling raw meat in their direction. They were little more than circus animals, trained to obey.

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