Can a leopard change its spots?


Captive wildlife policy changes are forcing this highly controversial industry to adapt. As many big cat facilities end human contact for the sake of conservation, Louzel Lombard Steyn looks at what it takes to keep up with best practice in South Africa’s wildlife tourism industry.

Wildlife interaction policies in South Africa are changing for the better to phase out all interactions with infant wildlife, walking with predators or elephants, interacting with predators or riding on wild animals.
In October this year, the Southern African Tourism Services Association (SATSA) released the Guide for Evaluating Captive Animal Attractions & Activities in South Africa, aimed at helping operators and tourists make good travel choices with a “locally born ethical framework”.

The radical policy changes contain strict disqualifying criteria for facilities involved in any hands-on interactions, performing wildlife and any facilities with possible links to the illegal trade, trading in body parts, canned hunting, breeding of lions and tigers, misleading advertising, deceptive behaviour and any lack of transparency.

It has been heralded as a major win for responsible tourism in South Africa. For the first time, a guideline exists to separate authentic sanctuaries and centres from those operating under the veil of ‘conservation’.
The guide will help the South African animal interaction industry navigate new territory, says SATSA spokesperson Hannelie du Toit. “Captive wildlife attractions and interactions remain a complex, contentious and emotionally charged issue. But there is an increasing movement against tourism experiences that
potentially harm animals.”

According to Keira Powers, SATSA Animal Interaction Committee chairperson, there has been a shift in tourists’ expectations of South Africa. “To keep up with the market, businesses and organisations offering animal interaction/captive wildlife attractions need to learn about and adopt practices and activities that are in line, or else they may see their revenue streams drying up.”

“If the bad practices improve, it’s a win for the animals in their care, a win for their businesses and a win for South Africa’s tourism reputation as a destination,” she adds.

Galaxy the white lion safe after a life of exploitation in the film industry.

What it takes

The newly restructured Zululand Cat Conservation (ZCC) Project outside Hluhluwe, KwaZulu-Natal, is one of the organisations that has ended all interactions at their facility, despite criticism from local and
international visitors.

“About two years ago, after two cheetah interaction incidents, we re-evaluated and changed our entire approach to tourism to end all interactions. Visitor numbers dropped immensely, but we made the stance and pushed forward,” say owners Louis and Cecillie Nel. They inherited what was previously called Emdoneni Lodge Cheetah Project from Louis’ mother, who first homed four cheetahs from Namibia in 1994.

“It was borne of a genuine need for conservation. Over the years, the project has successfully released over 30 cats back into the wild. These include four cheetahs, 13 caracals, 22 servals and four African wildcats.However, for a long time we let social pressure and tourist demand for ‘up close’ interactions overshadow our good conservation foundation. This led us down a dark road in terms of wildlife interactions,” they add.

“In the background, our organisation has always been rooted in rehabilitating big cats like cheetah, serval and caracal. The project has a 25-year transparent track record of release programmes for rehabilitated cats. We couldn’t jeopardise that, and looking back now on the recent SATSA changes, we know we are on the right side of history.”

Panthera Africa Big Cat Sanctuary in Stanford in the Western Cape is another example of progress within the captive wildlife industry. In fact, says one of the founder-owners Lizaene Cornwall-Nyquist, “if it wasn’t for the bad stuff, much of the good work and progress wouldn’t have happened either. It would have remained covered up.”

Before starting Panthera Africa for big cat rescues, Lizaene had first-hand experiences with the darker side of wildlife tourism. Working at a South African wildlife ‘sanctuary’, she started to recognise links between the facility and the canned hunting industry, as well as unethical breeding and abuse – all hidden from the public eye behind the encounters and petting experiences offered to visitors.

“I found out tigers were sold and killed for the tiger bone trade,” Lizaene recalls. Breaking all ties with the facility, Lizaene and her partner Catherine Cornwall-Nyquist, a former volunteer at the same facility, started the Panthera Africa Big Cat Sanctuary. Their wildlife refuge pioneered big cat rescue and conservation in South Africa and operates under the strictest ethical guidelines, offering educational tours focusing on the captive big cat industry.

Looking ahead

Both Zululand and Panthera Africa have welcomed the SATSA policy changes, and say they hope
to be an example for other facilities of how change is possible within the industry.

For the facilities within the industry falling outside of the new SATSA criteria, Powers predicts a very difficult road ahead. “However, it will separate the wheat from the chaff, and the true rehabilitation centres and sanctuaries will prevail. We have to focus on the long-term vision – of a destination that attracts tourists far into the future because of our unique wildlife,” she says.

The SATSA policy changes will be implemented with full effect by the end of July 2020, after the SATSA annual general meeting. As SATSA is a member-driven association, it will “first collaborate with its members and the broader tourism industry to translate the comprehensive research findings into practice”, du Toit says.

SATSA’s overall stance is clear, however: the facilities that choose to continue any prohibited activities outlined in the guidelines will not be recommended to international tourism services by SA’s largest inbound tourism association.

Until the guide comes into full effect, facilities, as well as tourists and operators, can use the comprehensive SATSA ‘decision tree’ to align themselves with industry best practice.


Written by Louzel Lombard Steyn. Photos by Zululand Cat Conservation and Panthera Africa

Copyrights 2020 Safari News. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission. 

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