ISSUED JOINTLY BY ANTELOPE PARK, ALERT, AND SIR RANULPH FIENNES IN RESPONSE TO THE SUNDAY TIMES ARTICLE “AFRICAN LION ENCOUNTERS: A BLOODY CON,” PUBLISHED ON FEBRUARY 10, 2008
Date: 11th February 2008
Contact: Marleen Lammers, PR Manager, Antelope Park, Gweru, Zimbabwe Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
David Youldon, Chief Operating Officer, ALERT, Gweru, Zimbabwe Email: email@example.com
Sarah Raine, PR Manager, Real Gap, Kent, United Kingdom
The article “African Lion Encounters: A Bloody Con,” which was written by Chris Haslam, and published in the Sunday Times on Sunday February 10, is full of inaccuracies. We feel that this article strongly misrepresents ALERT, a trust that is dedicated to ensuring the future of the African Lion, and Antelope Park, where the programme is based.
The article claims that “as many as 59 lion cubs raised at Antelope Park have been sold to big-game-hunting operations to be shot for sport.” No lion from Antelope Park has ever been, and never will be, intentionally sold for canned hunting. African Encounter is completely against canned hunting. Our freely available information clearly states this. A total of 39 lions have been sold by Antelope Park since the current owners acquired the property in 1987. 37 of those lions were sold, in two groups, one in 1999 and the majority in 2002 to a captive centre in South Africa. There was a pre-condition on the provision of an export permit by the Zimbabwe Wildlife Authority that those lions could not be used for canned hunting.
Furthermore, the lions that were exported were to be monitored by the relevant wildlife authorities within South Africa to ensure that the provisions of the sale were upheld. Two further lions were sold to a private breeder within Zimbabwe, not associated in any way with hunting, in 2005. No other sales of lions have ever taken place.
The article also states that tourists and volunteers “are told that the lion cubs are being raised for release in the wild,” and that “captive-bred, hand-reared lions have the potential to become man-eaters, and thus can never be allowed to roam free.” At no time are any visitors to the project informed that the captive bred lions will be released into an unfenced area. We are fully aware of the fact that captive bred lions without a natural fear of humans can become man-eaters, and this is why this form of release has never formed part of the release programme. All the information provided by Antelope Park and ALERT clearly states that the captive lions are rehabilitated into a fenced, managed eco-system, free of humans, where they will have offspring. These cubs are raised by the pride (stage 3 of the programme), in a natural environment free of any human contact. They will therefore be able to be released into the wild with the same avoidance behaviours towards humans as any wild born lion.
Furthermore, the article states that Antelope Park employs tourists and gap-year students as guides. Antelope Park does not use fee-paying tourists or gap-year students as guides. These self-funded eco-tourists pay for the opportunity to work alongside our guides and lion handlers to further the conservation, research and community work that we undertake.
As a specific example of these eco-tourists, the article mentions “agencies such as Real Gap.” David Stitt, Managing Director of Real Gap comments: "As market leaders in the gap break market, Real Gap's policy is to endorse responsible conservation programmes. Antelope Park is an ethical, well-managed programme. It is clear in all our correspondence with our volunteers that the lions that they work with are part of a captive programme. Our volunteers do not have physical contact with those lions in the stages of the programme where the aim is eventual release into the reserves and national parks."
In addition, the Sunday Times article quotes two scientists, Dr Sarel van der Merwe and Dr Luke Hunter of the Wildlife Conservation Society, on the pitfalls of releasing lions into the wild. Antelope Park has actually received a letter from Dr van der Merwe advising us and supporting us on the work and research that we were doing. In an email that was sent on June 12, 2004, he told us the following: "Generally speaking, the feeling amongst scientists is that captive bred lions cannot survive in a natural environment. I beg to differ. I have reviewed too many reports to the contrary…I believe one can rehabilitate the lions." Additionally, we have also received the following from Dr Pieter Kat, a senior lion expert, in June 2005:
"…we can begin programmes of lion reintroduction in a wide variety of depopulated areas. Such programmes will not only be immediately positive, but will also place lions squarely in the category of animals like rhinos whose plight seems to be better appreciated by the international conservation community. This is why I am appreciative and excited to be involved by the initiatives taken by Antelope Park. Through years of self-funded and determined effort, they have developed a program of re-introduction that has a very good chance of success. Predators of any description are notoriously difficult to reintroduce, but now we have at least a workable plan. As I said, the future of African lions is in African hands. Let us salute those who have been steadfast to ensure this future, and recognize that any action is better than the currently looming extinction of an African icon if we do nothing."
In August 2007, we released our first pride of lions into stage two; a managed ecosystem where the lions have been successfully hunting for six months now. They have brought down prey from warthog to adult giraffe, which is a remarkable achievement from the captive cubs that they were. The ALERT and Antelope Park programme is also involved in conservation of other species, research and community development in order to provide sustainable programs to the benefit of Africa's wildlife and its people.
With regards to the treatment of our lions, a letter we received from WWF Southern Africa Regional office (written on January 10, 2005) following visits by independent ecologists, Zimbabwe Park And Wildlife Authority, and Society for the Protection of Animals, states that the Antelope Park programme is "highly ethical and extremely well managed." Keith Dutlow BVSc, MRCVS and Lisa Marabini BVSc, MRCVS, two vets we have been working with during the past two years, complied to this in a reaction to the article, stating that “as independent consultant vets to Antelope Park since February 2006, we can attest that since that time, no animal has ever been de-clawed, de-fanged, or drugged for entertainment purposes. Also, every lion at Antelope Park has been micro-chipped and no lions have been sold to other operators nor removed from the program under suspicious circumstances since our involvement.”
Furthermore, according to the article, “[n]either the Alert programme nor Sir Ranulph Fiennes could be reached for comment.” Neither Antelope Park nor ALERT are aware of any attempts of the Sunday Times to contact them for information. In fact, the email below sent to us by Sacha Lehrfreund from the Sunday Times Picture Desk, on 6th February, requesting photographs was responded to immediately with an offer of furnishing The Times with details of our lion rehabilitation and release programme, but no such offer was accepted. When no response was received, our marketing department placed a call to the picture desk on Thursday February 7th, but this was rudely dismissed. The paper’s representative claimed to have no time to talk to us, and refused to transfer us to any of her colleagues.
From: Evans, Sara [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Wednesday, February 06, 2008 1:46 PM
Subject: Walking with Lions - Pictures for the Sunday Times, London
We are running a feature in the Travel section about 'Walking with Lions' and I'm hoping that you could supply us with some photographs from Antelope Park, preferably of people walking alongside lions. We will of course credit your organisation. The article would appear on 10th February and we go to press tomorrow, so I'm hoping that you are able to help at such short notice.
I look forward to hearing from you soon.
Sunday Times Travel
Contrary to the article’s claims, Sir Ranulph Fiennes was never contacted by the Sunday Times either. His response to the article is as follows: “I am proud to be a small part of ALERT and I am ashamed of the uninformed Sunday Times article “African lion encounters: a bloody con” as an example of the worst type of libelous, inaccurate writing. This by a journalist bent on thrashing ALERT, a highly worthwhile body of individuals, black and white, in Zimbabwe whose sterling non profit efforts to protect the endangered African lion deserve praise not lies.”
Anyone is free to visit Antelope Park to see for themselves how we operate, and how our various conservation, research and community programmes are benefiting Africa. We feel that anyone wanting to make comment about the voracity of our aims should at least make an effort to find out about the programme and read the freely available literature.