Kate on Conservation

Big Cats in captivity — Shamwari Diaries: Interval

lion kings in captivity kate on conservation title card

One topic that I’ve never shied away from on this blog is that of wild animals in captivity.

Since beginning my ‘Shamwari series’ at the start of 2019, I’ve had the opportunity to trace my developments in attitude and education when it comes to wild animal welfare.

An avid zoo visitor as a child, I took to proudly documenting all of my zoo visits and capturing on film the endangered or vulnerable animal species I saw on my day trips.

My carefully organised and lovingly created “zoo check” folders, documenting my visits

It’s been suggested more than once that these visits to the zoo were the contact points that enabled my love of animals; though I know, in fact, it was my pre-existing love for wildlife that made these excursions appeal.

  • Animal research by Kate on Conservation
  • Animal research by Kate on Conservation
  • Animal research by Kate on Conservation
  • Animal research by Kate on Conservation
  • Animal research by Kate on Conservation

Though to say I was naïve, does not tell the whole story.

Naïve suggests un-researched and unintentional, whereas – to the contrary – I lapped up every flyer, guide book and sight of signage that suggested ‘conservation’ on every planned zoo visit I made.

My collection of zoo guides from a time where I wholly trusted the message of zoos.

I bought it all, got the t’shirt and took it home in a brightly branded zoo-advertising plastic bag. So what’s changed?

I’ll try to explain as coherently as I can, the different institutions that contribute to captivity and the complications that arise with each.

Kate on conservation big cat study
At age 14, I wrote a 200-page project on big cats, with a view to telling the story of these magnificent creatures and their place on this earth. 15 years later, my knowledge and my medium may have changed, but my vision and commitment remains the same.

What are private game reserves?

At 18 I fulfilled a lifelong dream and visited South Africa. If you haven’t gathered by now, (where have you been?!) the purpose of that trip was to volunteer for three months at Shamwari Game Reserve and visit the Born Free Big Cat Rescue Centres housed within the reserve’s 25,000 hectares (250 square km).

A game reserve is essentially a managed area of enclosed land, created as a safe haven for wildlife.

As a managed site, populations within it do have to be managed – unlike the wild, where animals can roam over fenceless territories and move out of contact with one another.

Lions relax on Shamwari Game Reserve

Some game reserves allow trophy hunting (which I am strictly against), while others, like Shamwari, buy and sell “stock” in auctions (such as the case of the eland we helped to unload) or trade with other reserves (as with the case of the mischievous African Wild Dogs).

Game reserves that do not allow hunting can also be called ‘nature reserves’, which is a term we’re obviously a lot more familiar with in the UK, but this is often a term used to refer to areas where plants and the entire eco-system at large are cared for with the same conservation line. In a game reserve, the area is managed specifically to be preferable for the animals’ needs. 

A lioness captured for the vet
A lioness is treated by the vet at Amakhala game reserve to have a contraceptive administered. This kind of population management prevents a need for culling.

I was recently asked how to identify a game reserve that allows hunting from one that does not; I think the only way to really know which Game Reserves allow hunting and which don’t, is to dig around online! (Organisations such as Blood Lions and Captured in Africa can help).

Lion farms / breeding facilities

While some game reserves allow trophy hunting on their property to control so-called ‘surplus predators’ or ‘problem stock’, a dark supply-and-demand industry of captive big cats booms.

There are an estimated 297 lion breeding parks in South Africa, around a third of which offer cub interactions to the public. 

Lions Canned Hunting Africa

The number of lions in captivity is thought to be between 6,000 – 8,000, although estimations also reach as high as 10,000. In comparison, there are only 20,000 wild lions left in the world.

I touched upon these tourist facilities in my latest Shamwari Diaries blog post about a day excursion I booked to go ‘cheetah walking’, but perhaps Beth Jennings told it best when I interviewed her last October about her campaign project ‘Claws Out’

Beth: Under the heat of the African sun I prepared for a hard day of work – bottle feeding, cuddling, bathing and playing with lion cubs. I thought I was living the dream, but this was only the beginning of my worst nightmare.

I volunteered in 2015 and within days I realised that the trip had been mis-sold and I had been lied to by the travel agency and the park itself.

The reality of handling lion cubs or walking with lions in South Africa is that they will never be released into glorious, wild reserves. They will be hunted – their heads hung as a trophy and their bones crushed into cake.  

Claws Out Beth Jennings at lion breeding facility

Within South Africa, canned hunting is entirely legal and somewhat encouraged. A canned hunt is a trophy hunt within a fenced enclosure, ensuring success for the hunter. As well as physical constraints, the lions are often hand-reared and habituated to humans therefore see no reason to flee.

All too often I receive messages from volunteers assuring me that the park they visited has “no involvement” with hunting however, this is false. There is absolutely no benefit to hand rearing lion cubs and volunteers should not be paying thousands to do so. Absolutely no park that offers hands on interactions is ethical – no exceptions.”

The canned hunting industry

Having had my own experience of visiting and volunteering in South Africa as a teenager in 2008, I’m afraid I remain dubious about any place that breeds predators and endangered animals. Especially if they are offering experiences of interacting with hand-rearing animals.

Literature handed out at the Global March for Lions
Literature handed out at the Global March for Lions

It’s incredibly hard to make hand-reared animals born of captive parents suitable for release. Especially without them being too accustomed and trusting towards humans.

Although it has been done, (George Adamson’s Kora pride being the prime example), it remains skeptical as to its long-term success – and whether deliberate or not, once hand-reared and trusting of humans; you have an animal that’s perfect for hunters. 

Kate with Lion cub, Shamwari
Kate on Conservation, duped by the canned hunting industry back in 2008.

As I said following the Global March for Lions in 2015, I have heard more than once the argument that canned hunting provides a problem-solving method of population control, helpful in distracting those wanting a lion pelt trophy – or better still, a severed head to mount on the wall – from killing wild lions illegally in reserves (such as the case with Cecil the lion).

It makes sense. Until you discover that those lions bred (or captured) for canned hunting are often chastised, beaten, drugged or have teeth literally ripped from their gums to put them at a disadvantage to the hunters (who can pay a few hundred pounds more to shoot them with a crossbow, incase that sweetens the pot).

 I’ve read of one of the places I visited (Daniell Cheetah Project) being exposed as raising lions for a breeder who had links to supplying the trophy hunting industry; when the link was revealed, they claimed they were unaware of the breeder’s intent, and have since become ambassadors against canned hunting. 

Many breeding centres (knowingly or unknowingly — though in most cases the former) simply supply dubious reserves with animals destined for the bullet.

Although they claim to be linked to animal rescues and rehabilitation, it’s worth questioning why – if that were true – would a rescue centre or sanctuary need to breed animals?

Animals rescued from poor welfare deserve to live their days in peace in a sanctuary, not to become a supply chain for cubs.

What are *real* sanctuaries like?

I first encountered Sinbad, the miniature lion in his home at one of the Born Free Foundation‘s Big Cat sanctuaries at Shamwari Game Reserve.

Sinbad was at the Julie Ward Centre. His legs were stunted in their growth when his teeth were pulled from his gums to make him a more suitable photographer’s prop at the French zoo he was rescued from. He couldn’t eat properly without them.

sinbad the lion at born free sanctuary

But Sinbad the miniature lion grew. Not physically. He was given the opportunity to adapt from a confined cell in a zoo to a lush enclosure in South Africa; the closest to the wild that the small lion can possibly survive in. And he thrives.

You see, it’s easy to appreciate nature when we watch it on the television. We admire it when Sir David Attenborough so beautifully narrates the journeys that creatures great and small, land and sea, make in the wild – but it’s easy to overlook the journeys of animals in captivity.

And true sanctuaries offer that chance of mental and emotional development.

sinbad the lion at born free sanctuary

Kerry Sedgewick, who’s worked at both Shamwari Game Private Reserve and neighbouring Amakhala Game Reserve, has visited the two Born Free Big Cat sanctuaries at these locations. I asked her about the experience:

Kerry: “When visiting the Born Free Sanctuary at Shamwari I met the Lions and Leopards that had been rescued. They had been rescued from a life of cruelty by private owners, zoos and circuses. Upon hearing each of their stories, I felt disgusted that we could treat animals in such a away, but also relief that these individuals had found a new and better life.

I was 25 when I visited Shamwari and Amakhala in 2013. My reason for visiting was based on my love for Africa since first watching Born Free when I was 9, and a strong desire to not just look at wildlife, but also a place that works with the local communities.

Lion photography by Kate on Conservation
Brutus the lion at Born Free’s rescue centre at Shamwari

To me this was vital in visiting a place who also did active work in conservation and did not allow any hunting.

Comparing animals in the wild to animals in a zoo, I know which I preferred. I had never been a fan of Zoos, but this confirmed it even more how much I disagreed with Zoos.

Animals belong in the wild, they also belong in sanctuaries in the native land, just like what the Born Free Foundation do.

I know it felt better seeing animals in the wild in Africa than seeing animals in a zoo as a child. My parents didn’t like Zoos either, and would rarely take me based on their own disagreement.

Kerry campaigns against trophy hunting with Born Free Founder, Virginia McKenna

I view Zoos now as empty, dire, miserable and just a money making scam. When you can see the hard work that goes into giving animals a real second chance to that of so called breeding programmes (though a small percentage of Zoos do play a small role in some rehabilitation, with rodents, amphibians, etc) it makes it quite clear who is in it for the money, and who is in it for the best welfare of the animals.

I would not visit a zoo, aquarium, or any kind of facility that have animals captive for any kind of entertainment. I would advise people to visit genuine sanctuaries, either at home or abroad. You will get more out of it and know the animals have a better life than in a zoo.”

The Zoo debate – what’s the problem with zoos?

“Bright green eyes stare out from a neatly tangled criss-cross of metal. Green metal. Green like grass, leaves, trees.

The view is skewed from those eyes. A picnic bench, a wooden sign with a map printed on it, two adults with a child and a push chair.

sad leopard behind fence

Once fierce, those eyes are now shrouded in dull frustration — just a flicker of wild in them — a flicker when a lump of meat thuds on the floor at a scheduled hour; or maybe when some small, unfortunate finch squeezes between the criss-cross of green metal.

I suppose it all starts with zoos.

A zoo where the lions used in the filming of the Born Free film were sent to spend the rest of their days.

A zoo where a leopard called Kuma lived in squalid conditions.

A zoo where a gentle giant, mentally disturbed from loneliness and isolation (in war zones, we’d call this torture tactic ‘solitary confinement’), reaches out his trunk in affection to touch a face he recognises after 13 years.

Pole Pole at London Zoo with Virginia and Bill
Pole Pole at London Zoo with Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna. This moment spawned the birth of the charity ‘Zoo Check’, which would later re-name to Born Free Foundation

To me, visiting zoos with my family as a child are some of my fondest memories.

Zoos taught me about how incredibly diverse the natural kingdom is; that there is a huge world out there filled with magnificent and exotic creatures and, perhaps ironically, that they should be protected and respected.

It was perhaps a hard pill to swallow then when I became a supporter of the Born Free Foundation and discovered that the animals they were rescuing were not just privately owned trophy pets, kept in rooftop cages at some European tourist spot I’d probably never come near to encountering – they were coming from places that I associated with animal conservation, education and the ‘safe havens’ that allowed me the chance to encounter these animals up close, in the living flesh. They were coming from zoos.

kuma the leopard born free sanctuary shamwari
Kuma the leopard at Shamwari, after being rescued from a zoo.

It’s hard for me to align myself with the position that every zoo is a torturous hell hole that no good can come from. But I certainly feel that way about a few. A disposition that’s only been strengthened by my time at Shamwari Game Reserve.

It’s a confusing journey to be on; to love animals, to want to be around them to appreciate their beauty and power, to oppose denying them the opportunity to live wild and free. Because being around them often contradicts the scenes of freedom at Shamwari that are etched in my memory.”

Back in June 2014, I penned the above post on here. By December 2014, I’d concluded: “To put it simply, I no longer have an internal argument as to whether the educational benefits of zoos justify the isolation and unnatural surroundings of a captive environment: through research, discussions and uncompromised honesty, I now see clearly that they don’t.”

captive tiger

Shubhobroto Ghosh, author of ‘Dreaming In Calcutta and Channel Islands’ (a book which recounts the writer’s voluntary ‘zoo checking’ work for the Born Free Foundation in North East India from 1997 to 1999), and the man responsible for the Indian Zoo Inquiry, shared the following thoughts on this blog in June 2018:

“Zoos have been around for thousands of years since people started collecting animals as symbols of power or curiosities. Individuals collected animals as status symbols and zoos signified the domination of man over nature. The birth of the ‘modern zoo’ ostensibly changed the ideology behind the concept. Zoos turned into scientific institutions. Or did they?

People have a lot of fun watching animals in zoos, especially children. Lions roar and monkeys swing and bears pace. But is what we see at zoos a distorted picture? Are the animals a travesty of nature? Do they behave abnormally? Does captivity restrict their lives and cause premature death?

There seems to be a growing body of research suggesting that the behaviour of zoo animals is abnormal and many animals go mad due to the effects of captivity.

‘Stereotypic behaviour’ in zoo animals has become a major issue concerning animals in captivity. In recent years, Dr. Georgia Mason and Ros Clubb of Oxford University have published papers suggesting that large animals like elephants and polar bears suffer in captivity. Their findings have been published in the world’s leading scientific journal, ‘NATURE’. The zoo community however is insistent that these researches are flawed and the papers are sexed up for publicity and dramatic effect.

There are more zoos now in UK than ever before and the Federation Of UK Zoos claims that this is a sign of the failure of the anti-zoo lobby in Britain and everything is fine in zoos. 

The Federation Of UK zoos also claims that the British zoo community is progressive and is pushing for improvement regardless of the anti-zoo lobby. But perhaps the most striking example of the failure of the British zoo community comes from the Cornwall Monkey Sanctuary in Looe, Cornwall.

This institution seems to be the only captive facility in UK that accepts that captivity for animals is insidious and destructive.

This place, started by guitarist Leonard Williams, provides the most stringent criticism of animal captivity from within the captive animal community itself. Animals are held in captivity in Cornwall because they cannot be set free and not because they claim a stake in conservation. 

This unique zoo, is the subject of the article, A Zoo With a Difference: The Monkey Minds Of Cornwall. This centre shows that animal conservation in captivity in zoos can be questionable at best and — at worst — a con in the name of conservation.”

Are there good zoos & safari parks and bad zoos & safari parks?

Here in the UK, the zoo model is generally two-fold; the business side of getting feet through the door to spend money on admission, food, gifts, etc. through PR and marketing based on observing animals in enclosures; and the associated charitable side, which donates to research and projects based on conservation of wild species and population growth.

For clarity, I fully support the latter, but not the business model of the former, as it simply clashes greatly with my ethos of compassionate conservation (that is considering the individual animal’s needs in conservation, rather than simply a population at large).

The reason being: I don’t believe that by enticing members of the public through the door, who will spend an average of 6 seconds looking at a caged animal in a non-native country, bred to supply ‘stock’ to other zoos (and therefore existing primarily to generate profit for a business – of which large stakes are spent on business management, maintenance, marketing and overheads) is contributing to wild species conservation.

But the question remains; can the vital conservation work exist without the business element?

A view from the inside of zoos

Last winter; five shock big cat deaths at zoos and safari parks left animal lovers reeling.

On 22October 2018, it was well-documented in UK press that at Indianapolis Zoo, Zuri, a 12-year-old lioness, killed the father of her three cubs by locking her jaws onto his neck and suffocating him.

Margaash, an eight-year-old snow leopard was shot dead at Dudley Zoo, on 23 October, after a zookeeper left the door to his enclosure open and he escaped.

On 8 February 2019, 10-year-old Melati, a rare female Sumatran tiger at ZSL London Zoo was killed by her potential new mate on their first introduction.

On 12 February, thirteen-year-old Shouri, a rare Amur tiger died in a fight with two other tigers at Longleat Safari and Adventure Park.

And on 22 February, Mojo, the 7-year-old lion died after a fight with a lioness at Knowsley Safari Park.

Of course, with my biases, it’s easy to think “No zoos good, all zoos bad”, but what does all this really mean to someone who actually works with animals in zoos all day, every day?

One of the things that upsets the people in my immediate circles about captivity is a lack of social development, and of course the relatively recent spate of big cat fights that resulted in the animal losing its life, has led some to question the wisdom of keeping big cats together in confined spaces.

So does this put pressure on zoos to separate social cats? And are the mental health implications of doing so worse than the risk of an occasional accidental death?

In a surprising and fascinating conversation, I got to speak to a zoo keeper (who, for reasonable reasons, shall remain anonymous) about their work in caring for big cats.

Zoo Keeper: Looking after big cats and having the chance to see them behave naturally is a privilege and I believe a good zoo allows them to do so.

There are obvious differences to how animals will behave in the wild and in captivity but the better zoos encourage those wild behaviours to come out. Big cats are particularly challenging as they are animals that in the wild would have territories where the size largely depends on the prey species within.

During the migration, for example, lions will venture very far away as they have a regular supply of food, in a way a good zoo enclosure is like this. Everything is supplied to them so the natural need to move far away looking for resources is removed. All zoo big cats have been bred in captivity for generations and therefore do not know the areas in which they originated.

A lion tastes the air in his zoo enclosure

Using lions as an example, they are the only sociable cat which can either live nomadic or in large groups but they are never together all of the time. The most important thing zoos can do is offer choices.

Most big cat enclosures nowadays will offer multiple spaces, be that separate enclosures and indoor areas, this is important as it means that instead of walking a mile away to get away from an individual a tunnel or a door brings them into what is effectively a new area where they can get away from the group.

Feeding is important, cats that live in groups like lions can be fed together which can improve group dynamics by encouraging interaction over food. Lion feed time is a big event in the wild and a bit of aggression is heathy as it is where the hierarchy comes into play, if lions know where they stand they are less likely to cause issues outside of food time and this constant reminder during feeding time can keep the dynamic stable.

Whenever there is a story of a lion death which has been caused by other lions in a zoo or safari park there is always one major question asked – Why was the lion not separated beforehand?

Complications of lion separation in captivity

With experience of this, there are two main reasons. Lion society is incredibly physical and most small issues are sorted out with tooth and claw, you therefore cannot blame every new injury an individual may have on something truly malicious. Also, the moment you start separating an individual away from the group for a significant amount of time they will not be welcome back.

Removing a social animal away from the group it has lived with all its life can be incredibly damaging and can massively compromise welfare and lead to high stress levels and depression. If you separate that animal with another what will happen if the original problem animal passes away? It will then be very difficult to reintegrate the one that is left back with the original group.

We have to think long term and to make sure that decisions made for one individual do not affect the future welfare of others.

Lion society is tough both in the wild and it can still be so in a zoo, most lion deaths are either from horrendous injuries or starvation, normally initiated by their own species.

Lions in the wild will kill each-other, so why is it such a shock that lions have been known to do so in zoos and safari parks?

For the most part zoos and safari parks try to keep lions in stable groups so that this doesn’t happen but all animals, especially big cats, are unpredictable and sometimes a situation that has been nothing but positive can change in seconds without any major indication.

As zookeepers, we want our big cats to present as many natural behaviours as possible but not all natural behaviours are seen as positive by the press and the general public.

Not that incidents like this are actively encouraged, but in the wild it is a normal part of lion life. If zoos work to provide a natural setting and environment for these animals, then all these natural behaviours will find a way to flourish.

The death of any animal is heart breaking for everyone, but think of the keepers who have to see the animal die and remove that animal by hand and then watch all of the articles written in the newspapers and comments on Facebook.

Believe me, no one cares more than the keepers that worked with that animal and every single scenario that may be thought of has already been attempted or discussed thoroughly. All keepers have a duty of care for the animals they look after and it is a commitment we all take incredibly seriously.

Can big cats live a good life in a zoo and a safari park? I believe they can and I wouldn’t continue my work if I didn’t believe that.

Is there such thing as a good zoo or safari park? A good zoo is the kind of place I think a big cat would walk past and think “This looks relatively good and easy, I might stay here for a while”.

Good zoos and safari parks offer their big cats multiple enclosures and larger spaces, different feeding opportunities, environmental enrichment techniques and where possible a natural grouping in which to live.

They are different places to the zoos of the past, and are more and more sconnected to conservation.

All zoos in the UK support conservation efforts in some way (they have to by law), either from a native species aspect or work alongside conservation organisations to carry out work in the animal’s natural habitat.

Some zoos even run their own conservation organisations or employ teams of people who are based directly within these conservation initiatives.

As a zookeeper I urge anyone to visit zoos and to ask questions before any judgements on current standards are made. I know they are not for everyone, but we all try our best to do what is right for our cats.

Zoos alone are not the solution but I believe if we continue to work with conservation organisations, we can be an important tool within the conservation toolbox.

What’s the alternative to big cats in captivity?

The wild. It’s hard to imagine what ‘wild’ really means? Because eventually, even in a place like Shamwari, you meet a fence.

But most would consider an area like the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Africa’s biggest game reserve (stretching more than 150,000 hectares / 1510 square km) to be ‘the wild’; owing to its sheer size and the natural animal behaviours that are documented there.

Lions relaxing

After looking at pros and cons of big cats in captivity, I would be remiss in my duties if I were to present the wild as being the problem-free solution to all. Because simply, there are problems.

Namely; human/wildlife conflict.

What is human/wildlife conflict?

Many have never seen big cats in the wild with their own eyes. Never had the privilege to witness the king of beasts in its true, free-roaming splendor. To feel the encompassing adoration, fear, small-ness that our ancestors must have felt when confronted with this most awesome of predators.

Big Cat Diary host and cameraman, Jonathan Scott, is one of the people certainly has; and who, in turn, has given us one of the closest, most intimate looks at the big cats that make the Maasai Mara their home.

“Angie [Scott] and I have been following a group of lions named the Marsh Pride in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve since I first came to live there in 1977,” Jonathan explained during an interview in February 2017.

jonathan scott with lions

“We know some of these lions more intimately than our friends. We recognise them as individuals: unique characters, many of whom we have watched from birth until death. We despair at times when a lioness loses her cubs or is badly injured or dies, in the same way that our hearts are filled with joy when we share quiet moments with a mother lioness and her newly emerged cubs.”

At the end of 2015, the Marsh pride was back in the public’s consciousness after a mass poisoning at the hands of humans.

“The poisoned lioness was 17 and a surviving cat from Big Cat Diaries in 1998 – one of Bebe’s pride.

People asked if we were shocked and surprised by the poisoning. We weren’t. It is a fact of life for lions living among pastoralist or, in the case of the Marsh Pride, on the edge of a protected area – half inside the reserve and half outside – among the Maasai.

It was a tragedy, but rather like with the case of Cecil the male lion; killed illegally by a trophy hunter in Zimbabwe, the killing of [the] high profile [Marsh] lions caused a storm on social media and in the local and international press.

Cecil the Lion, Africa
Cecil the Lion, now world-famous

That created a far louder ‘voice’ on behalf of lions than we could have on our own. And that caused the Ministry of Tourism – and the Narok County Government responsible for the Maasai Mara – to take the situation seriously, particularly when people realised they couldn’t just wait for the storm to blow itself out.

The poisoning forced the authorities to ensure that cattle did not come in to Marsh Pride territory at night when the lions are most active and incidents with cattle most likely.

The Marsh Pride are now able to roam their traditional territory without fear of conflict with livestock owners. But this is not a problem that is just going to disappear.

Members of the Marsh Pride, including Scarface
Members of the Marsh Pride, including Scarface

Droughts and dry times mean that large herds of cattle are driven in to protected areas and on to private land illegally causing enormous problems for the government, the wildlife and local communities. There just isn’t enough pasture for all those domestic animals.

Kenya is home to large numbers of pastoralists with large herds of cattle worth a lot of money in terms of cash and a fortune in terms of cultural status.”

Often seen in their traditional red robes, adjourned with beads and carrying traditional weapons, the Maasai people are intrinsically linked with the animals and the survival of the Maasai Mara as a whole.

One of the greatest honours I’ve had since starting this blog was to share a guest post from a real-life Maasai warrior, Philip Ole Senteria.

Philip Mayan Masaai warrior photo

In February 2018, Philip provided an authentic perspective of living in a community residing alongside wild and often dangerous animals, and how — despite the poverty in these areas and the threat that poachers bring to both the local wildlife and the local community —  wildlife conservation, teamed with education and hard work can empower the Maasai people.

Philip Ole Senteria: “There are approximately 370 million indigenous people worldwide. They make up just 5% of the global population, but they hold nearly 25% of the world’s lands and waters, representing 80% of the Earth’s biodiversity.

This shows that these communities have a very close contact with the natural resources that need to be protected. It’s worth noting that, with this close connection, the natural world is then central to the human rights of the indigenous peoples as well as their economic, spiritual, physical and cultural well-being.


But it comes with complex challenges: the development of natural resources and the climate change are threatening the environments on which their livelihoods and cultures depend.

 We live in a region very rich with wildlife, but are constantly at threat from poaching and hunting, human-wildlife conflict, etc. Poverty, lack of social amenities — for example: health; schools; general economic instability; are some of the factors contributing to the issues that we face as we try to fulfil a role as guardians of wildlife.

So, what’s the best way for Big Cats to live on this planet?

As I said back in 2014: These things are rarely black and white.

They are spotted, patterned, maned or fury – they are individual animals, with individual personalities, and individual needs that must be looked at as individual cases.

There are flaws; there are positive and negatives of zoos and are positive and negatives of the wild – and all things in between.

Big captive cat

There is a need to think and understand and critically evaluate the places where wild animals reside; to look at the conditions that they live in and the work that is going on behind the scenes to educate, to rehabilitate, to give something back to nature — and ensure that not a single animal is overlooked in the process.

As cited in National Geographic; “[Some people] argue that the situation is becoming so dire in the 21st century that zoos are going to have to fundamentally rethink their mission. Why devote any resources to species that are doing fine on their own?”

“I think it’s a bit of a cop-out to say the public wants to see x, y, or z,” says Onnie Byers, chair of the Conservation Breeding Specialist Group, part of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Survival Commission. “Plenty of species need exactly the expertise that zoos can provide. I would to see a trend toward zoos’ phasing out species that don’t need that care and using the spaces for species that do.”

Born Free Foundation (formerly Zoo Check) Founder Virginia McKenna penned for the Daily Mail, regarding the release of Disney’s new The Lion King live action film;

“Today, I am vehemently opposed to the exploitation of wild animals for entertainment — in circuses, as pets, or in zoos. This is why I find it so inexplicable and disappointing that Disney continues to parade live lions and other creatures in its Animal Kingdom in Florida.

I can never see a lion in a cage or ‘enclosure’ in a zoo and feel anything other than a profound sense of guilt and shame. Because the sorry truth is lions are in serious trouble. 

A Wild Night at the Movies - Kate Silverton and Virginia McKenna
Virginia McKenna speaks of her days filming Born Free in the 1960s at the charity’s 30th Anniversary celebrations.

Back in 1964, when Bill and I used to walk with these creatures on the plains that lay in the shadow of Mount Kenya, it seemed like Africa went on for ever, and that lions were innumerable.

I am told that across the continent there may have been up to 200,000 lions half a century ago, but now there could be fewer than 20,000 — a 90 per cent collapse in less than a human lifetime. How could this be possible? The reasons are both simple and complex.

Brutus the lion born free sanctuary shamwari

But at the heart of it are the actions of the most rapacious, senseless and self-centred species on earth — us. Lions are persecuted for predating on the millions of livestock that have come to share their heartlands. 

They are poisoned, shot and speared. Lions are killed when they come too close to human settlements — which is described as lions encroaching on where people live when, in reality, it is humans who have invaded the lions’ habitat.”

And that’s it – that’s the point of the Born Free Foundation; to strive for more than captivity by protecting wild animals in their natural habitats, as well as in private and public zoos, circuses, sanctuaries and the exotic pet trade (see the case of King the lion cub, for a more comprehensive insight into big cats kept as exotic pets).

Kate on conservation with David Attenborough Radio Times cover
Kate on Conservation, stands with lions

Sure, in an ideal world there would be no need for zoos, but as it stands, we must simultaneously try to create a safe and unrestricted wild environment for big cats while channeling the ethos of my zookeeper friend; that Zoos are not the solution, but when they work with conservation organisations, they can be an important tool within the conservation toolbox.

We don’t need to declare hate for absolutely everything that so-called good zoos work towards – we just need to ensure that there will always be a body like the Born Free Foundation’s Zoo Check that will hold anyone keeping animals captive to account, and have the ability to intervene when individual animals so desperately need a voice.

Kate on Conservation Save our Lions

And most importantly, we need to look to the bigger picture of how big cats and all wild animals can live successfully on this planet together with humans; in a positive state of co-existence.

We need films such as the documentary Blood Lions, that expose the dark truth about lion farms and trophy hunting operations to new audiences. We campaigners, conservationists, scientists and bloggers to inspire those who are not yet on our side to join us, for ours is the side of the lions; King of Beasts; the big cats and beyond.

Kate on Conservation at Blood Lions premier

As I said in my interview for Wildlife Times last year; I knew my life would be entwined with wildlife when I spent three months volunteering with Born Free Foundation at Shamwari Game Reserve in South Africa. It changed my entire life perspective. 

Seeing animals in this environment, living as wild a life as possible, really made me realise that the conditions we see in zoos and water parks across the globe are far less than satisfactory. Once you’ve seen herds of elephants roaming for miles a day, lion prides lazing in the sun with full bellies after an afternoon of hunting and leopards hidden among the branches of trees, it’s very hard to accept relatively small enclosures with basic ‘enrichment’.

The desperate plight of so many of our planet’s wild species keeps me motivated. When you hear that there are fewer than 20,000 lions left in the wild in Africa; and when in 2018 we all lost the last ever male Northern White Rhino in existence, who died in captivity (for his own protection) — it’s enough to motivate me to spend the rest of my life trying to make a difference.

What’s the solution? For you, dear reader, to start somewhere. And start now…

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HAVE YOU HEARD?! Kate on Conservation has been nominated for an Animal Star Award! Thank you kindly to my followers for your continued support of my blog and conservation work.

Learn more about canned hunting…

Want to know more about the lion hunting industry?

Learn more about big cats

Hear more from the people working with big cats?

Learn more The Big Cat People

Learn more about the Maasai

kate on conservation stands with lioness by Omra Sian

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