September 15, 2010
It took me a long time to think about what I wanted to say about Boskoppie. The two weeks I spent there was a very interesting experience that tested all of my personal boundaries. I will split the experience into a few posts focusing on different aspects. I have dedicated this post to the larger issues surrounding lion breeding centers and will make subsequent posts on volunteering at Boskoppie and all the amazing baby animals I worked with.
The trip was organized through i-to-i, but I have chosen to wait until the end of my journey in December to review i-to-i as I want to get a better feel for their services. The only way I can find to describe the experience is a complete roller coaster or being hooked on a drug- the highs are so amazing, but the lows are dangerously, depressingly, frighteningly low. It’s funny because the lows I was expecting like cleaning up a lot of poop and total lack of sleep I actually dealt with just fine and they didn’t really bother me, it was the lows I couldn’t imagine like the endless hours of chopping up carcasses and the absolute total lack of direction or supervision in dealing with dangerous baby lions and tigers that I found shocking and appalling. I also was not prepared for the crushing racism that was a constant, making me feel embarrassed to be white because it somewhat related me to the people spewing it. I was told repeatedly TIA meaning “This is Africa,” but it just made me feel sick to my stomach, it is people who say TIA who keep things the status quo. For change to occur people must speak up and say no this is not the way it has to be- this is wrong. Going from the major cities like Johannesburg or Cape Town to Kroonstad made me feel like I was in a time machine getting a strange peak into the warped world of Apartheid, but it isn’t an elaborate ruse or living museum it is the way the still live.
One of the most fascinating things for me at Boskoppie was to gain a greater knowledge of how conservation in South Africa works. Conservation has been commoditized and breeding centers have become businesses with each endangered species carrying a price on his head not for being killed, but for being released into a game park as a new blood line. It was a concept I knew next to nothing about, and from speaking with others back at home I can say with confidence it is not something most westerners know about. It is a fascinating idea though. At first I was completely conflicted by it- a bit appalled at the trade and tourism of these endangered animals, but then as I thought about it more I began to think that it is a smart concept. At it’s very base it is the same idea being used around the world for conservation: locals should conserve their natural resources and wildlife and in return you will gain tourist dollars. The idea is being used in South America, East Africa, India, every place where there is a clash between local people and their wildlife environmental NGO’s are teaching natives that conservation brings tourism. Teaching the Masai warriors not to kill lions because lions=tourist dollars in East Africa is just a small example of how this works. The idea of breeding centers is just the same idea, but on a much larger scale. People who used to be farmers and hunters are now turning their attention to endangered species and making a nice profit breeding them and then releasing them into game reserves like Kruger. Having multiple breeding centers around SA means that new bloodlines can be traded and created to keep a healthy lion population alive.
The concept becomes more complicated however when tigers are thrown in the mix. An ecologist by the name of John Varty thought up the concept to bring the extremely endangered Bengal tiger over from India to breed and build up a larger population in the plains of South Africa. The idea has been very controversial and the introduction of a new species can cause horrible ripple effects down the food chain. It is called species introduction and if you want to know how bad it is ask any Australian about the Cane Toad and you will get an earful. For an American, just think of Yellowstone when we removed the wolf and the entire ecosystem changed, species removal and introduction have similar cataclysmic effects. However there are less than 1,400 wild tigers in India right now- that is a 97% drop in the last century. A tiger is worth more dead than alive in Asia because Chinese poachers can cell every bit of them from their claws to their meat and their hides to their whiskers, their bones are especially valuable as they are used in ancient eastern medicines. There are even some tiger farms in parts of China where an estimated 5,000 tigers are being raised only to be slaughtered for parts. It is a disturbing and stomach churning thought. However there is a very different kind of tiger farm where tigers are being raised in South Africa as a type of genetic reservoir where they can breed and eventually be released into game reserves in South Africa and maybe one day back to India when poaching is more under control. Varty has successfully taken two young Bengal tigers from a zoo in Canada and with some work, released them into a reserve in the Free State.
The idea of a monetized system to save endangered species may sound great as I described it above, but there is a flipside that must be taken into account. Not everyone is getting into the business to save the animals, many are looking at them with big dollar (or rand) signs above their heads and one can forget what is best for the species in the long run. All the animals I worked with at Boskoppie are hand reared, which makes them much easier for humans to work with, but the more human interactions they have the harder it will be for them in the wild. There also seems to be little structure or overseeing of the practice around SA and untrained people end up coming into contact and sometimes ownership of these animals. The tigers at Boskoppie were brought in for tourism and while the breeding is great for the species no plans of releasing them are in sight. Although the animals never go to zoos or circuses, I still worry about what the end goal is of commodifying these lions. The owner of Boskoppie’s son is a hunter, which I was very surprised by and although I have not seen it with my own eyes, I was told by the other volunteers that he has a rhino head in his house along with other trophy heads. The idea of an endangered species here seems ridiculous, no one seems to care about the long run and apparently permits can be purchased to kill anything- IUCN redlist be damned. It’s very upsetting to hear, and I feel very helpless in any effort to stop it. Some of the other volunteers kept looking at me pityingly and saying TIA. They told me to ignore it and enjoy the experience, but I feel that’s rather selfish. This is where the idea of monetized conservation and voluntourism becomes complicated. Many of the volunteers were there to play with cats, not thinking about how their actions make a difference in the long run. And while that’s great- enjoy your holiday- volunteers should try and look at the bigger picture and think about how our actions play a role in the larger scheme of protecting these animals.
I get a lot of comments on this post so I wanted to write something back to all the people who leave angry comments here. I am sorry if I have offended you, but this is a personal travel and photography blog and this was my opinion of my experience there. i-to-i marketed this trip incredibly poorly and misleading as a conservation program, which it is obviously not. I have heard so many different opinions from different people about Boskoppie and the breeding program in general in South Africa and I am not going to change my mind that it is not in the best interest of the lions and there is most definitely harm being done here. The only place I would go back and support would be the SanWild Sanctuary and I implore you all to educate yourselves on the truth of SA breeding centers and canned hunting before you post angry messages here about how much you loved cuddling with the cubs and how wrong I am about SA breeding centers.