It seems innocent enough, does it not? Doting parents flutter, smart phones flash, and a flock of children jockey for position as the little lion cub passes from one set of hands to another. It’s a baby animal, after all—what’s not to recommend? Such is a common scene in the cub-petting business, but behind the veil of “adorable,” which lends the practice a guise of innocuousness, lies an insidious motive. Cub-petting is merely the first station en route to the vile end that so often awaits these lions in the so-called “canned hunting” industry. Following the cats’ infancy, industry orchestrators shuffle the adolescents to lion-walking outfits—pretty harmless, isn’t it?—until finally, they jettison the mature adults to hunting fraternities. As actor Jerome Flynn lamented, it is here where “mankind’s ultimate power animal… [is left in the hands of] a legal industry that strips away all their power, respect and freedom” (Flynn 2014).
At Tenikwa Wildlife Awareness & Rehabilitation Centre, one of the organization’s guiding objectives is to assist big cats who have fallen victim to, or are at risk of entering, this surreptitiously sinister cycle. In particular, it aims to illuminate the struggle of Africa’s white lion. MKulu, whom Tenikwa acquired from breeders in the Free State around two years ago, is the facility’s resident white lion. His presence, according to Marketing Manager Steven Hendriks, has attracted interest in the facility from far and wide: “with MKulu being a white lion, people come to South Africa and they want to see it, see a white lion.” MKulu’s success in drawing crowds has enabled centre facilitators to eradicate misconceptions surrounding this “trophy” cat.
One such misconception appears, on the surface, to be relatively minor. However, it breeds startling implications in the debate surrounding lion captivity. As Hendriks shared, many people who are unfamiliar with their biology assume that white lions are albino, which is not the case. In fact, “it’s a recessive gene; a lot of people get confused with that.” Again, some minuscule genetic misunderstanding might seem rather inconsequential, but to canned-hunting proponents, the error affords a certain degree of vindication. If the deck is stacked against white lions in the wild, they argue, then it only makes sense to keep them in captivity so as to ensure their survival—until, of course, time comes for the hunt. But white lions can subsist—and thrive—in the wild. Though, as Hendriks noted, they may at times “find it difficult to adapt… [or] to hide away and hunt,” white lions maintain primacy in the food chain. In an interview with CBS News, Linda Tucker of the Global White Lion Protection Fund asserted that white lions “are apex predators in command of their natural environment” (CBSNewsOnline 2013). In addition, the formidable felines “can camouflage themselves up to a couple of meters away, and you would never see them in their natural habitat, if they want to” (CBSNewsOnline 2013).
Those who support the canned hunting industry tend to turn a blind eye to these realities. Instead of viewing the extraordinary creature from a respectful distance, the hunters “pay… millions of rands, millions of dollars to go and hunt white lions, just because of the trophy aspect of it.” As Hendriks continued, to the hunter, the cat’s coveted coat “sits nice (sic) in the bar area… the skin looks nice in a big mansion.” This objectification and devaluation have proven to be disastrous for the white-lion population. Instead of subsiding in recent years, canned-hunting camps have burgeoned on a tragic scale: the last fifteen years alone witnessed the creation of more than 160 facilities in South Africa (Global White Lion Trust 2017). Furthermore, the trade of lion body parts—which typically end up in eastern markets—remains alive and well (Global White Lion Trust 2017). Sadly, the momentum does not show signs of any imminent decline.
At Tenikwa, Hendriks and his fellow staff-members invite visitors to adopt their resolute belief that the white lion’s situation can, must, and will improve—with education. Personally, Hendriks takes great heart in his recent e-mail exchange with an American big-game hunter: “He said that since he’s visited Tenikwa, he’s completely changed his mind. Getting that close to the animals… hearing the purr and feeling that breath on your skin, it’s completely changed him… It doesn’t take much to pull a trigger when you’re standing a hundred yards away from the animal looking through a telescope. But when you’re standing right next to it, when you actually feel it breathing, he says that what’s changed his mind.” For the sake of the white lion, let us hope that this feeling—which a visit to Tenikwa inspires—becomes contagious.
“Canned Hunting – Lions in Crisis.” Global White Lion Trust. Accessed July 17, 2017. http://whitelions.org/about/campaigns/canned-hunting/.
CBSNewsOnline. “Greatest threat to Africa’s white lions: American hunters.” YouTube. May 19, 2013. Accessed July 17, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gz5hMRTPtyQ.
Flynn, Jerome. “Canned hunting of white lions is despicable – it’s time we marched to stop it | Jerome Flynn.” The Guardian. March 11, 2014. Accessed July 17, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/blog/2014/mar/11/canned-hunting-white-lions-despicable.