Paul Hart has twenty years experience working with lions and in May 1998 began construction of the Drakenstein Lion Park. Situated in the Cape winelands only 30 minutes from Cape Town Paul is devoting his life to caring for mistreated lions rescued from poor conditions both in South Africa and further afield.
The Drakenstein Lion Park website can be found here: www.lionrescue.org.za
What is the history of the Drakenstein Lion Park and what inspired you to launch upon such an initiative?
I started working with wildlife as soon as I left the military in 1987, first at a zoo and then in the game translocation industry. The world was made aware of the horrors of canned hunting in 1998 and at this time I was contacted by a private individual looking for a home for his lions, BUT he did not want them to end up on hunting farms! I started looking around for a place that could take these lions and soon came to the realisation that there were almost no facilities that were not involved, either directly or indirectly, in the canned hunting industry. The decision was made to create a sanctuary for these original lions, where they could live out their natural lives safe from persecution.
From very humble beginnings I was approaching more and more individuals and organisations who wanted to rehome lions into a lifetime care facility. We have continuously expanded our facilities to cope with all these new arrivals; sadly we can only help a very small fraction of these lions in distress.
From where have the lions in your care come and how do you aquire them? What is their physical condition upon arrival and how do you then bring them back to a healthy state?
All, except one of our 15 lions, come from South Africa. The majority would have probably ended up on canned hunting farms had they not found refuge at the Park. As a rule we do not buy lions and will only consider this option as a last result if the animal concerned is in obvious danger. Sadly, finding lions that are in need of sanctuary is not difficult, there are literally thousands of captive lions in South Africa and most are kept in appalling conditions. Rehoming a lion can take months and sometimes even years of negotiation. More often than not, by the time all the bureaucracy and paperwork has been done, it is too late for the animal concerned. It is definitely not as glamorous as one may think and often heartbreaking. Some of our lions have arrived in very bad health; often rectifying their physical condition is much easier than dealing with the psychological problems associated with an abused animal. Our policy of compassion and respect goes a long way to improving both the physical and psychological problems the new arrivals may have.
How many people are employed by the park and what training have they received / are receiving?
We have a very small and dedicated team of four people. All have worked at the Park for a long time and have received extensive on site training.
What are the weekly costs involved in running the park and how are they met? What is your action plan for pursuing new donations?
It costs us in the region of R1000.00 per month to feed and care for each of our lions. This is over and above all the other costs relating to infrastructure and improving existing facilities.
We do not actively pursue donations, but only seek donations for specific projects that cannot be absorbed by our budget. In this way we can be completely transparent with our use of donor funds. All too often animal welfare organisations raise money for animals and most of this money is then spent on salaries and office rentals instead of the animals!
Most of our income comes from admission fees charged to visitors, this money enables us to care for our existing animals on a sustainable basis.
The success story of Bai, rescued from Cameroon, (www.lionrescue.org.za/ourlions.htm) must have brought a lot of attention to your activities. But getting her to the park was just the start of the journey: what is involved in hand rearing such a cub and how can you ever hope that such a lion does not become overly habituated / dependant on human interaction?
Bai’s biggest problem was that she did not know she was a lion. She was severely human imprinted when she arrived. Because of her health problems, she had to live in the house with us for a number of months and when the time came for her to move out, it was a big adjustment. Initially Bai had to have human contact 24 hours a day! She would become completely distraught if she did not have human company, even after being introduced to a young male. Her first three months in a camp meant that someone had to be with her 24 hours a day! We gradually weaned her off the human company and now she is content with a rub and scratch once a day.
Any lion kept in a captive environment becomes habituated; this is not something that can be avoided. The important thing is to create an environment of trust and respect with minimum human intervention in the daily lives of the animals.
How are the lions housed within the park? And how do you try to maintain the idea of prides when the lions come from such diverse origins?
Because we are a genuine sanctuary, our lions are not housed in large prides. We rescue individual animals and not prides. They have all come from diverse backgrounds and subsequently cannot be housed together. Lions will generally only tolerate family members, unless they are introduced to each other as cubs. Only two of our lions have arrived as cubs, the rest were all adult when they arrived. Male lions are most at risk from the canned hunting industry; hence we have far more male lions than females. This of course poses problems with compatible social groupings. Wherever possible, we house at least two lions together for companionship.
In the wild a lion’s territory can extend over a large area: what amount of space does each lion have in the park and how do you simulate a truly wild environment; one that is stimulating for the lions?
Space is very relative to what the lion has come from. We have a lion that was housed in four square meters; most of our other animals come out of 400 square meter camps (the minimum requirement under South African law). It takes a lion a long time to adjust to the environments we house them in, most have never seen trees before, or walked on grass and the Park’s camps are so far removed from what they have lived in most of their lives, that they become completely overwhelmed!
Obviously, a wild lion’s territory is relative to the amount of prey species available. The less prey, the more territory required. Our lion camps average between 6 000 and 10 000 square meters. This is a dramatic improvement on what they are used to. We cannot simulate a truly wild environment, but our camps provide a far more enriched environment than what most of them have been kept in for most of their lives.
Recently you have commenced with an extension project: how will ten extra hectares aid the park in caring for the lions?
The newly acquired land will enable us to rescue more lions in distress and provide them with a lifetime home. For most abused large predators a captive home is the only alternative.
How does the park appeal to the tourist marketplace, bearing in mind the many other wildlife attractions in South Africa and what impact do you think that the 2010 World Cup will have on your activities?
We market to primarily animal lovers. One must remember that we are not a zoo. Our facility is designed in such a way that the lions choose when they want to see people. All of our camps are designed in such a way that it is the animal’s choice as to whether to be seen or not. We are well situated and not in a remote location, so we receive a lot of passing trade.
I am not sure whether 2010 will have an impact on our visitor numbers or not.
What facilities does the park offer in terms of education and do you have any interaction with local schools or youth organisations? If so, what are the children's reactions to meeting the lions up close?
We do cater for school groups and give educational tours. It is the lions who decide whether they want to meet the children up close. Most kids are overawed when seeing a lion in the flesh!
We actively oppose human / animal contact and offer no “opportunities”.
One of the visitor activities that the park offers is to sleep with the lions. What exactly does this involve and how can one take part? What kind of feedback have you had from guests regarding this initiative?
Our tented camp offers people who overnight the unique opportunity to spend the night surrounded by lions. The tented camp is situated in the middle of the Park; the noise the lions make at night is unbelievable. The tented camp only operates during the summer months and booking is essential.
What is the greatest success so far and in contrast in what areas have there been disappointments and can any lessons be learnt from possible mistakes made in the past?
Our greatest success is the 15 lions who have found a safe haven here; they are a daily reminder to us that we do make a difference, if only in these 15 individuals’ lives.
Please explain what the South African government’s decision to restrict hunting lions and other big game actually means and when it comes into force, how will it affect the many lions and other predators currently kept in captivity for the “sport” of canned hunting?
The new legislation has already been postponed until February 2008, in the mean time the killing of captive bred lions continues unabated. Whether and how these new regulations will be implemented is anyone’s guess. All that will really change is that captive bred, factory farmed lions will first have to be released into a large area for a period of two years. The hunters can then pretend that the lions are wild before they kill them. Captive bred predators will always remain human imprinted and even if by some miracle these lions are able to sustain themselves for two years (with the supplement feeding allowed by the new regulations), it will still be canned hunting.
Why can a captive bred / hand reared lion never be rehabilitated into the wild? What happens to cubs born to the lions at the Park? Does there exist the eventual possibility that they may be introduced into the wild, thus increasing the available gene pool?
A captive bred / hand reared lion cannot be rehabilitated. You cannot change the fact that the animal is human imprinted, it will therefore always associate humans with food and subsequently pose a danger to humans. A hand reared lion does not have the benefit of the learning curve that would occur if it were to grow up in a pride situation, this includes cooperative hunting techniques and social graces. Some organisations claim that by charging tourists ridiculous amounts of money to take young lions for walks in completely degraded “bush” environments, this somehow prepares them for life in the wild. Such facilities are not conservation driven, but merely exploit animals for commercial gain.
Captive bred lions cannot be introduced into wild lion prides; lions do not tolerate strangers and would kill any such lion.
All suitable (and safe) lion habitat already have resident lions. Mankind has decimated the planet to such an extent that even if a small number of captive lions could be rehabilitated there is no suitable habitat left for them to go to.
Many lion breeders make the claim that they are breeding lions to supplement wild populations. This is complete rubbish. These so called “rehabilitated” lions are “rehabilitated” for one purpose only, to kill them!
WE DO NOT BREED. ANY FACILITY ENGAGED IN BREEDING LIONS IN CAPTIVITY IS IRRESPONSIBLE AND ONLY DOOMING THESE CAPTIVE BRED ANIMALS TO A LIFETIME IN CAPTIVITY, OR WORSE!
Your work obviously attracts positive attention from abroad – but how is it viewed within South Africa itself bearing in mind the past history of canned hunting? Are opinions changing and is a more conservation minded approach to lions welfare being seen or will the large profits from canned hunting continue to influence the majority opinion?
The vast majority of South Africans abhor canned hunting. Unfortunately the hunting industry is very powerful and wealthy and continues with their practices despite public opinion.
What interaction do you have with other conservation entities and with regard to the situation of canned hunting what is the best way forward to raise public awareness of the issue, both nationally and internationally?
We are not a conservation organisation, but rather an animal welfare orientated facility. Captive animals (regardless of species) have no conservation value. We regard each of our lions as individuals who have a right to life and a right to be treated with compassion and respect.
We liaise with many international and local animal welfare orientated organisations.
Canned hunting has been widely published, but until normal people stand up to be heard and say enough, not much will change.
What is your opinion on invasive management techniques where within a fenced reserve there must be a regular replacement of the coalition males to prevent inbreeding? Indeed, where the majority of parks, both private (other than canned hunting concerns), and national are fenced what in your opinion is the best way to maintain a diverse gene pool within that lion population?
I believe that these kinds of management techniques are just an excuse to “hunt” pride males every few years. Removing dominant males has a negative effect on the entire pride, as new male will kill all of the previous male’s offspring, resulting in a tremendous loss of genes. Natural selection prevents the negative effects of inbreeding in these kinds of situations.
Having read the various articles on the website, (www.lionrescue.org.za/latestnews.htm) you are obviously a person who is confident and assured when dealing with the lions – how did you become so knowledgeable about their mannerisms and what is it that gives you the ability without fear to interact so easily with them?
I have worked with lions for more than 20 years. I do not interact with them without it being absolutely necessary for their wellbeing. I believe that my respect for them and the compassion I treat them with has direct bearing on how they treat me.
What has caring for the lions meant to your life and that of your family?
Sacrifice and more sacrifice, but it is enormously rewarding to see the fruits of our labours and the happy, content and safe animals in our care, every day.
Along with the extension project – what are your other objectives for the next ten years and how do you expect to achieve them?
We hope to be able to continue to care for our lions and others that may arrive, provide we receive the public support that will enable us to do so.
The views expressed therein are solely those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of Safaritalk.