A vacation to South Africa and the opportunity to see iconic animals in the wild is a dream come true for anyone. I recall my first trip and the anticipation and excitement of catching a glimpse of “the king of the jungle,” the majestic African lion. When we spotted my first lion pride on a game drive at a private reserve near Kruger National Park, my heart filled with joy. Graceful, muscular, and regal, the dominant male in the pride instilled in us both awe and a bit of healthy fear. A wild lion is after all…wild.

Yet what stunned me much more than the unforgettable sight of my first lion pride, was the sad realization that while South Africa’s wild lion population is estimated at just over 2,870 lions, over 7,000 lions suffer there in captivity. That is almost three times the number of South Africa’s wild lions! The breeding and tourism industries exploit these lions for cub selfies, “walk with lions” activities, volunteer scams, trophy hunting, and the international bone trade.

For the poorly informed traveler, who would turn down the chance to pet a cuddly baby lion or to walk on foot alongside these striking big cats? Seems like a once in a lifetime chance, right? Wrong.

Lion and tiger cubs in a cage

Photo credit: Pippa Hankinson

Thanks to Expedia’s efforts to increase public awareness about tourism that promotes wildlife abuse, travelers can become much better informed about the unfortunate side of South Africa’s tourism. Breeders remove the lion cubs from their mothers at just a few days, and offer them as living photo props or fake “orphans” for paying volunteers to hand-raise. In the wild, cubs remain with their mothers for 18 months before becoming fully independent and a female rests for at least a year (11 – 25 months on a South African reserve) between births. The removal of days-old cubs forces the female into a stressful life of exhausting and endless breeding.

The conditions in which the captive-bred lions live are shocking; confined to tiny enclosures, sometimes without adequate food, hygiene and ability to express natural behaviors. Many tour operators offer travelers to “walk with” lions, never revealing that when these lions are older they may well be killed for their bones (commonly exported to Asia for use in traditional medicines) or sold to trophy hunters. With greater frequency, tourists are injured or even killed in interactions with lions and other predators.

A pride of lions in the wild

Photo credit: Vanessa Mignon

Humane Society International has collaborated with the team behind the award-winning film Blood Lions® to end this cruelty. Offering these activities damages South Africa’s tourism brand. That is why we are calling on tour operators to sign the “Born to Live Wild” pledge, committing to this statement:

“Lions and other predators are wild species and we wish to continue promoting Africa as an authentic, wild and rewarding tourism destination and we wish to continue our support and promotion of the formal conservation community in their endeavors to secure the survival of Africa’s predators in the wild.”

Encouragingly, 102 safari and tour operators from around the world have already taken this pledge. Help us spread this message by signing our action alert!

Unfortunately, lions bred in captivity cannot be released back into the wild, and the world’s leading lion experts see absolutely no conservation value to breeding them. The only value is commercial and the breeding industry benefits financially by falsely convincing South Africa’s visitors that petting, hand raising, and walking with lions helps save lion “orphans” and funds efforts to release them into the wild. Sadly none of this is true. In fact, the African Lion Working Group (ALWG), with a membership of over 100 leading lion scientists and researchers, stated clearly “Captive breeding of lions for sport hunting, hunting of captive-bred lion and the associated cub petting industry are not conservation tools. In our opinion they are businesses . . .”

A large group of lion cubs being pet by tourists

Photo credit: Ian Michler

Tourists traveling to South Africa should know the sad truth; that selfies with cute lion cubs come at a great cost and cause suffering to these animals for their entire lives. Yet there is great hope! The tide is turning against wildlife abuse. In 2017 Instagram announced a new policy whereby any search for hashtags like #LionSelfie or #LionWalk now results in a pop-up warning, which reads “Protect Wildlife on Instagram: Animal abuse and the sale of endangered animals or their parts is not allowed on Instagram. You are searching for a hashtag that may be associated with posts that encourage harmful behavior to animals or the environment.”

We celebrate Expedia joining this and other similar efforts and urge all customers to sign our action alert calling on tour companies to help end lion exploitation in South Africa and elsewhere!

The views and expressed opinions on these pages are those of the organizations listed, and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Expedia, Inc.  Any cited research mentioned by these organizations is sourced by them and has not been verified or independently evaluated by Expedia, Inc.