The lack of regulation of animal interaction is resulting in a blurring between education, entertainment and conservation, Satsa members heard at the conference in Stellenbosch last week.

Colin Bell from Natural Selection acted as moderator, and said animal facilities had often transgressed and not implemented best practices. He said there were about seven categories for animal interaction businesses; an exhibition centre, such as zoos where no mention of conservation or welfare came into play; sanctuaries, where animals needed to be sterilised, seeing out there last days in comfort; rehabilitation centres; game reserves; breeding centres and research centres, which are supposed to have no tourism at all.

It was noted that some of these sanctuaries did not function as sanctuaries.

Bell mentioned that ten years ago there were hardly any lions in captivity; today there are about 10 000 captive lions, with only about 12 000 wild lions, a situation that is clearly driven by commercial interests rather than conservation.

CEO of Fair Trade Tourism, Jane Edge, said the industry needed to realise that captured wildlife exists and will continue to exist, therefore there was a need to define the ethical operations and to ensure that ethical operations were not regarded in the same way as the many unethical operators.

Edge mentioned two negligent practices – animal welfare abuse and the lack of transparency, which amounts to fraud. She said it did not have to be solely about conservation, but also education and entertainment. However, Fair Trade Tourism is adamant that operators must not make false conservation claims.

She said that it was known that the captive industry, with exceptions, was not primarily about conservation. Placing humans in direct contact with wild animals was also unethical, as there have been many attacks.

Fair Trade Tourism has published certification criteria, which were developed through a consultative process, with considerable input. Edge suggests using these criteria as a basis to move forward. 

Mandy Freeman from Tenikwa Wildlife Awareness Centre said that, since the release of the feature film Blood Lions, which raised awareness of the exploitative industry, many facilities had been tarred with the same brush. She said she had to defend the centre every week.

Sales Director at Tourvest DMC, Suzanna Benadie said many clients were mature in terms of their understanding of responsible tourism, however markets varied, and emerging markets, which could be consumer driven, wanted a photo while petting a lion, which placed a lot of pressure on the industry.

She said many deals were won or lost on animal interaction, and this should not be the case. It should be about diversity of offering and pricing, not whether the company was willing to make a pit stop at a particular centre or not.

Social media has become a powerful tool, according to Gerben Hardeman, Manager Responsible Travel and Tourism, Dutch Association of Travel Agents. He said that from a consumer perspective, a large number of complaints on social media about animals in captivity had pushed the industry to start phasing out of some of these activities, such as elephant rides. However, the challenge was to come up with new products that still provided meaningful, authentic and local credible experiences, as people’s livelihood also came into the equation.

CEO of SA Tourism, Sisa Ntshona said South Africa and Africa should take the lead in regulating these interactions, instead of waiting for the rest of the world to take the reins, as ‘these are our animals in our country, so we should be progressive’.

Ian Michler from Blood Lions stood up and said that Satsa had been a leader with the Born to Live Wild pledge, which already had 98 members who had signed up, long before Thomas Cook made its announcement last week.

He said Bell was correct in saying that conservation had a role to play, because we are dealing with wild animals, not domestic, so why are there 10 000 predators in cages in this country when not a single one of them plays a conservation role?

Michler asked Satsa members to use their weight and call for a ban of breeding of non-conservation animals, therefore resulting in the ability to cut out the issues SA is dealing with at present. He said breeding first, and then compliance would take care of itself. He said it was necessary to be careful not to confuse entertainment and education, as conservation was not involved if animals were in a cage.

Michler added that Blood Lions did not create confusion about what was currently happening in SA. The confusion was created by the industry, which jumped between all these different categories, resulting in the general public having no idea as to what they were involved in.