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Working with Lions

What do students do after a Wildlfife course?  


The following text is an extract from a newsletter written by:

Frances Bell
Wildlife Student
ACS Distance Education

Please note any opinions expressed in the document are solely those of the author and are therefore independent from ACS Distance Education, its employees or affiliates.


July 2014
So….. an early flight and all for nothing!  The plus side was meeting up with a couple of mates from my lion farm days who were attending the predator course with me.  Very nice to have company in the airport for a change – especially since the wait for everyone to turn up got longer and longer.  So much for a 9am rendezvous and transfer to the reserve where we were to be based for the next 5 days.  It was around lunchtime before everyone arrived and our in-country co-ordinator got us into a minibus, then out to the home of David, the vet who would be “looking after” us.  Once there we had to hurry up and wait for our driver cum camp cook cum guide and in the meantime we discussed what we wanted from the course.  One unexpected development was that we were basically designing our own course – yeah, I’m sure you can already guess where this is going.  I would have been happy to stick to the syllabus – after all, I had booked based on course content.  At this point I still thought we were going to get all of that.

Our camp was about an hours’ drive away.  There were 4 tents raised on platforms with ensuite bathroom, three to a tent so, since “Team Lion” members were obviously already well acquainted, we shared.   The arrangement worked out well despite bunking with the only guy on the course.  One night I read out selected bits of my lion farm diaries – that in turn sparked a whole series of reminiscences which resulted in us all howling with laughter.  We were still giggling the next morning.

Disappointing surprises were in store for us on our first proper day of the course.  We’d already been told we were to visit Ukutula lion farm ... and it’s not somewhere I would have gone by choice.  We then found out that there weren’t many predators to do anything with and the bulk of our “work” whilst with David was to consist of darting buffalo and antelope.  Hmmm….. shades of the vet internship, then.  However, that was for the future as the buffalo that had been scheduled to be darted that morning had gone and hidden themselves in thick bush – clever buffalo!

Instead we were taken to Lake Predator Park.  Even now I’m not sure what category the park best slots into, as there were a lot of different animals there in very small enclosures.  There didn’t seem to be any intensive breeding but the enclosures were all small, dirty and with no enrichment, and it was open to the public.  I guess the best description would be to say that it was part zoo, part home to the animals for someone who was an animal hoarder.  Amongst others, there were three Asiatic moon bears who had been hand reared and I’m still at a loss to even guess what they were doing there in a less than adequate enclosure.  There was one lone lion cub – apparently her siblings had been sold which left her to a lonely existence.  There were also leopard – one of whom was old and had balance problems; one wild dog who was going nuts on his own in an enclosure next to spotted hyaena; lions, of course; tigers; and though we didn’t see them, rhino.  A lot of the lions had hygromas – a large fluid filled swelling on the elbow which is most commonly caused by constantly being on too hard a surface - and most were overweight.  

David’s aim in taking us to the park was to help him in his endeavour to bring the owner round to improving conditions for all the animals, which long term involved the cessation of any breeding, decreasing the numbers of animals held and increasing the size of their enclosures.  For that I have to applaud him.  ...  Our role was to provide enrichment so over the course of the next few days we had discussions on what enrichment we could realistically provide for the predators; planning what we were going to build; and sourcing materials – bearing in mind that we had an extremely low budget to work with.  We were also given the schedule for the rest of our time with David, which mostly entailed darting antelope, building and installing enrichment at Lake Predator park, having a presentation from an avian specialist vet one evening…. but otherwise, no lectures.

That night around the campfire we were given an exercise where we had to form teams and take on the role of either a lion breeder, a conservation group, a game farmer or a local community and the scenario we were given was that one of the conservation reserves lions had got out, killed some livestock belonging to the local community, and we all had to work together to find a solution.  Well – all I’ll say is I’m glad I ended up on the conservation team because I could not have been on the lion breeders’ side.  The debate got a little heated and I confess I got a little irritated with my conservation colleagues as they were all for giving in to whichever other group felt like arguing!

The next day the buffalo were still hiding, so instead we went off to a farm where roan antelope needed to be darted so as to be moved from one paddock to another.  The bonus to this work was that we got divided up into teams and each had a turn accompanying David as he did blood work.  Those of us who wanted to get involved were welcome to do so, and I was able to inject antibiotics as well as draw blood from a roan antelope jugular vein, then treat the wound where the dart was removed.  The thing about the antelope on this farm was that they were very habituated to people and barely gave us a second glance as we went in for David to dart.  Roan antelope are endangered in the wild, like the sable antelope, but every man and his dog wants to farm them since big males can go for literally millions of rand at auction.  Let’s all jump on the commodity bandwagon – not impressed.

In the afternoon we made our way to Ukutula for a tour.  The manager/owner did not make an appearance to give us the talk that was agreed on, and to answer the difficult questions that Team Lion had for him.  I was saddened and maddened but not surprised when the bulk of our group descended en masse on four 3 month old cubs to cuddle and generally irritate them.  They were sleepy and really weren’t interested in being handled, in fact there were one or two who were desperate to get away but as usual, no-one thought about what they might be supporting, despite Team Lion’s uncensored information on what happens to cubs used for petting.  Needless to say I and my Team Lion colleagues didn’t touch any of the cubs.  What astounded me more than anything was that several of the girls on the course were studying animal behaviour, yet none of them had any clue that the cubs were exhibiting classic “leave me alone” body language.  One girl laughed while a cub freaked out at the sight of her water bottle – seeing that common sense was not going to prevail I stepped in and told her what was going on and to move it.   The same free-for-all ensued with 10 older cubs in the next enclosure – and we were no sooner out than another larger group followed us in.  

My concerns with Ukutula were rather increased than allayed when Team Lion did a count of the cubs under the age of 1 year and found there were 67 of them.  Again, the question is – where do they all go?  Why would you possibly want 67 cubs?  Despite what breeders will tell you, they don’t often go to reserves – reserves are already fully stocked.  They don’t go to overseas zoos.  They do sometimes go to other breeders, but why? – so they can be overbred producing cubs for the petting industry and to get money into the coffers through expensive overseas volunteer programs.  The ultimate end for too many of these animals is either canned hunting, or the lion bone trade.  Lion farmers will tell you anything to keep you coming so they can rip your money off you.  If you find a lion farmer who tells you to your face that his lions go for hunting or for the bone trade, you’ve found one of the very rare honest ones in the industry.  

As usual, the enclosures at Ukutula were mostly too small for the number of animals they contained.  One of the older cubs had a horrible hygroma that was clearly bothering him and had not been treated.  The hyaena were in very small camps; both cheetah and caracal exhibited classic stress behaviours, and the caracal had a barren enclosure with no enrichment and nowhere to hide from the onslaught of tourists. There was also a serval that, so the story goes, was a rehab case in the process of being readied for release, but he spent his time cowering in a corner in his completely denuded enclosure with no enrichment and again, nowhere to hide from tourists.  Now as a rehabber I know how bad this is – animals who are being readied for release must be removed from human contact as much as possible, not put on show.  By that point of the tour, I was boiling with rage.

The next morning we were out at Ukutula again, this time to dart lion and hyaena.  Team Lion were raring to take blood from adult lions but there were a couple of student vets who were very pushy and it was hard for anyone else to get a look-in.  However, we did get to do some cool stuff. One was an examination of the male and female hyaena – or more correctly, we were encouraged to feel for ourselves the difference between what the nether regions of a male and female hyaena are like since they look very similar.  After that little highlight, I was able to draw blood on a hyaena.  Unfortunately the hyaena in general didn’t take kindly to being darted and two of the three had to be attempted more than once.  Watching ground staff trying to get hyaena back into their enclosure was a painful affair and I found myself commenting that perhaps they should have let Team Lion’s experienced hyaena handler do it – however by the time I voiced this opinion the hyaena was well and truly stressed and I doubt that even he would have found it easy.  This time the manager was present to answer questions but as usual evaded all the difficult ones… and what I found astounding was that although he was well aware that there were some of us who had been working on lion farms, he somehow was unaware that some of his lionesses were pregnant and so answered our question as to the huge number of cubs by saying that the pregnancies had caught him unawares – huh??

After lunch at Spur – again – we found ourselves back at David’s property, gathering and building enrichment items for Lake Predator park.  We didn’t finish till after dark so it was late by the time we had our first proper lecture, from the avian and exotic specialist vet who presented us with material on acute respiratory conditions in birds, and admission procedures in reptiles.  I’m sure by that stage everyone was fed up with my questions but I was beyond caring – after all, I’d had more experience in working with animals than most of the course participants and in the absence of any of the lectures promised in the syllabus, was eager to gain as much out of whatever else was going as possible.  

Our last day with David was taken up with installing our enrichment items. We’d decided on a screen for the wild dog enclosure to give him respite from seeing hyaena all day long, and also put down a lot of sand on his concrete floor.  We hoped that would help not only with his joints and any foot problems from being on too hard a surface, but would also decrease his stress levels.  He seemed quite wary of the screen at first but by mid-afternoon was starting to come out of his enclosure and investigate a bit.   The hyaena got a nice layer of sand over their concrete floor as well, and for them we provided enrichment in the form of elephant dung – kindly provided by an elephant park at Hartbeespoort Dam.  In one enclosure we gave them a big heavy duty plastic ball filled with dung and they battled for custody of that then carried it around like treasure.  The wild dogs screen was also a hit with the hyaena – I’m sure it will provide endless entertainment as they try to figure out how to tear it down!

The lions and tigers all got catnip sprayed onto boxes and they loved that – they rolled around in it and pulled the boxes apart and some of them were fighting over the boxes to get to the catnip smell!  They all got elephant dung as well and had a blast rolling around in that, so all in all scent enrichment was a huge success.  A group of younger lions got two tyres on a sort of pulley system which they started investigating while we were there, so that was also a hit.   A tawny male and his two lionesses got a two tiered platform, I’m not so sure that was a success but then, someone did put a huge blue multifaceted ball on the top and personally I think it freaked them out.  But at least it provided shade.  Two male lions housed together got a huge wooden reel used for electrical cabling.  One of them began to investigate but got a fright every time he tried to pull it upright and it fell back.  They got quite grumpy and I’m not sure if it was the scent stimulation, the new toys or just so many people and so much noise; or if it was that they’d been confined for the entire morning while all this was going on.  After lunch we moved on to the leopard enclosure where we installed a low platform and a box of catnip, dung and a few other scents sprayed onto logs.  The male loved the box with catnip and was all over that, but the female was ecstatic – there’s no other word for it – with her platform.  We put nice soft sawdust down for her and she loved it so much she didn’t even use the ramp we’d built to make it easy for her, and jumped straight up into it and rolled all over the sawdust.  We’d built an A-frame for the other leopard enclosure so they had somewhere high up to hang out, but didn’t get time to install it.  Instead we made sure everyone got elephant dung and a box with catnip, so at least none of the predators missed out.  It grieved me though, that we had no time to do anything for the bears.  It was such a buzz to see all the animals so enthusiastic about what we’d done that several of us stood with tears in our eyes as we watched.  Some forms of deprivation are so easy to fix.

The next morning we broke camp and spent the whole day travelling to uBhetyan-O-Africa, another predator park.  We had time for little more than a brief tour of the animal camps and a late dinner before retiring to the dormitory – oh joy!  Sharing with 12 girls was something I’d hoped not to have to do again. During our two day stay at the park, we finally began having the promised lectures and covered a lot of material to do with housing, conservation and basic rehab care.  The day ended with another tour of the facilities where we took good note of the fencing, space allocated and the condition of the animals.  While housing here was much better than the Lake Predator park, many of the animals were overfed and all were stressed by the arrival of and overcrowding by so many people.  Aside from the lions, there were hyaena, wolves, fenec and bat-eared foxes, honey badgers, black-footed cats, large spotted genets, serval, caracal, meerkats, capuchins, golden hand tamarins, and one lone banded mongoose. I didn’t have much free time to spend with the mongoose but did so whenever I could – mongoose are very social animals and I felt for this one being on his own.  

Off in the distance we could see blesbok and wildebeest, and at night the dormitories were visited by 4 rhino – 3 adults and a baby.  Nights were freezing but some of us stood in silent awe just watching as they ambled past camp without giving us a second thought.  

I was concerned at the presence of non-native species such as the fenec foxes and the monkeys.  I wondered at first if they had been rescued from the pet trade but I found that the monkeys, at least, had come from a place called Mystic Monkeys which has a dire reputation.  It seems that even places that try to get housing right don’t stop to think about the ethics of what they’re supporting by having non-native species in captivity.  I also had issues with the practice the farm had of breeding colour variations in antelope.  Things like black impala and white blesbok don’t often occur naturally, but they bring in big money from hunters and there is a growing trend to breed exclusively for colour variations for that reason.  This selective breeding ultimately ends in the same health and lack of genetic diversity problems as breeding white lions and tigers, since you start with a very small number of animals and finish with a hugely inbred population. 

Our last day at UBhetyan-o-Africa had us attending short lectures with even shorter practicals in the morning, centred on darting, crating and tracking.  We saw a dart gun, had an inspection of the crates commonly used for moving animals, then had a go with the telemetry equipment, then we hit the road again for a visit to state-of-the-art captive facility – the fences were beautiful, the electrics were solar powered, and there was a purpose built “clinic” room for any vet procedures.  We were told that one brand new fence alone cost ZAR1,000,000 and I really wanted to know how that was funded.  No answers were forthcoming.  If animals had to be in enclosures this was the Rolls Royce of them all, but the fact was that even though there was more space and not many animals in each enclosure, they were still fenced in – and I suspect were still being raised to be hunted.  After that it was lunch at Spur – again – then on to Care for Wild, a rehab facility.  According to the advertised plan we were supposed to have 5 days here to get hands on in wildlife care, but with only a couple of days of the course remaining, that was clearly not going to happen.  We arrived after dark so it was a case of eat and then crash, since we had to be up at 4am to get to Kruger at the next morning. The consolation for Team Lion was that we were acommodated away from the rest of the girls, in the owners’ lovely house with spectacular views!

The Kruger trip was in stark contrast to my previous visit – being the middle of winter it was bitter cold and there were a lot of people on each vehicle.  Not so much birdlife around as on my previous visit but I did get to see some species I hadn’t encountered before, and the highlight – though I was way too slow with the camera – was seeing two honey badgers in the wild!  Just a quick glimpse of two black and white backs scuttling down a track away from us, but a sighting none-the-less.  Another very late finish to the day since when we got back to Care for Wild, the vehicle ran out of petrol and we had to wait some time for staff to come and remedy the situation.

And then it was our last day.  With our departure scheduled for lunchtime there wasn’t much opportunity to get in the rest of the lectures we’d been promised.  We had some hurried lectures on hand-rearing and immobilisation and were promised notes via dropbox – which did appear in due course; we had a very quick tour of the centre where my one criticism was that certain volunteers were allowed to go in with animals who were being readied for release.
We arrived in Nelspruit separately from our luggage which caused me some anxiety…. I’d foolishly left passports and money locked in my case and was dreading the prospect of being without any of it on arrival in Jo’burg.  However the luggage made an appearance just in the nick of time, which saved me from a major attack of “oh crap, what do I do now?”  The other surprise about this part of the trip was catching up with someone I’d worked briefly with at Lory Park.   South Africa, for all its size, can be a very small world to inhabit!

Once at Jo’burg airport, Team Lion parted company with the rest of the crowd, but not before expressing our dissatisfaction about the course to the in-country co-ordinator.  As far as I’m concerned, designing our own course was a strategy that failed miserably.  Our sole aim in taking the course – to get theoretical knowledge to back up what we’d experienced first-hand, was defeated by the deficiencies of the course.  Whole sections on genetics, breeding, and care of female predators before and after delivering cubs were just missed out.  Besides which, we didn’t get any hands on time at Care for Wild.  It didn’t help that we spent a total of 3 and a half days of the 10 day course simply travelling.  We all subsequently wrote letters to the company formally expressing our disappointment.   A number of things were promised as compensation which I’m happy to say were forthcoming, but not before we had to make it clear that we were standing our ground and were not about to be fobbed off.  As usual we were told that everyone else was happy with the course and that in previous years the program had been attended by vet students who weren’t as serious about captive predator management as we were – well whether or not that’s the case was hardly relevant to the discrepancy between what we were promised and what we got.  I made several suggestions about how they might improve the course but whether any of it will be heeded is up for debate.  To date the course content on their website has not changed.  

There were bonuses to what actually happened on the course – seeing how well our enrichment worked, the presentation from the avian specialist vet, and getting to do clinical work with the animals was all much appreciated. Though I have been very critical in the writing of this newsletter, I participated as fully as I could in whatever was going on.   The varying degrees of care and compassion taken with housing animals was interesting to see. Most of the course participants thought they’d seen the worst at Lake Predator park and this was a source of some amusement to Team Lion, since we know just how bad it can really get.   However, this is the second time in less than 6 months that a travel company has failed to deliver what was promised and I don’t think I can be blamed for deciding never to book anything through a company again!

As for Team Lion, we all went to a nice hotel for the night.  The next day we waved goodbye to our big cat expert, while we were off on another adventure…. Botswana, here we come!

Postscript 4 October 2014
A couple of weeks after our departure from Care for Wild, we were saddened to learn that one of the baby rhino, who had been injured and orphaned after poachers killed his mother, was himself killed in a poaching incident at Care for Wild.  Not only was he killed, his feet were also cut off.  I hope Karma comes for those who perpetrate these atrocities and others on any animal – in the meantime we must keep fighting to keep them safe.  RIP little Sabi.


Thanks to those friends who provided stills of Lake Predator Park and Ukutula where I only had video footage.



[26/01/2022 22:19:46]

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