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Captive wildlife experts call for urgent transformation in tourism practices

A panel of leading wildlife experts has issued a strong call for ethical transformation within South Africa’s captive wildlife tourism sector. The discussion, titled “Roaring Responsibly: Navigating Captive Wildlife in Sustainable Tourism”, was held at WTM Africa which is currently underway in the host City of Cape Town. 

The panel, moderated by Natalia Rosa of Big Ambitions, featured Dr. Louise de Waal of the Blood Lions campaign, Cathrine S. Nyquist, co-founder of Panthera Africa, and Harry Gavin Reynolds, Director of Wild Choices. 

The panellists argued that the captive wildlife industry has become trapped in a cycle of inertia, with significant financial investment making facility owners reluctant to enact meaningful reforms. 

“Our responsibility as tourism custodians is to make the right decisions,” said Reynolds. “We must become more intentional and hold members accountable to achieve better outcomes for the animals.” 

He stressed the importance of appropriate guidelines. “The problem with applying ethics is that it can be hard to decide which should be applied in a captive wildlife space, but we came together as an industry. The Swiss cheese approach denotes that no single layer is perfect, but multiple layers combined ensure success.” 

Nyquist and de Waal highlighted obvious red flags for travel partners to consider, including feeding, interactions, and breeding. “Animals need enrichment, which is provided at Panthera Africa. Our facility houses lions, tigers, and other cats that were saved from poor conditions in breeding facilities, and the visiting experience is purely educational, alerting visitors to the issues,” explained Nyquist. “Education should be done with compassion.” 

Reynolds has identified at least 63% of facilities within the South African context fall short. “The conversation is what is our role as the tourism industry and businesses to achieve sustainability instead of waiting for the government to act. Inconvenient decisions and difficult conversations need to happen from tour operators to facility owners that differ in ethical considerations,” he says. 

Nyquist felt that we should “put yourself in the paws of the animals”. De Waal agreed, saying, “We need people to ask questions, do their research, and choose accordingly. Breeding is a big red flag – we do not need to breed in captivity.” 

De Waal believes that the captive industry is damaging to South Africa’s tourism reputation. “If we are not changing as an industry voluntarily, we will be forced to change. There is no policy position paper that has been approved by government, and whilst associated tourism activities are looking at voluntary exits, we don’t have a lot of options. It will take time, but politics will change.” 

The travel industry was encouraged to be part of the change that is needed and refer to the SATSA guidelines and/or Wild Choices, visit Panthera Africa, and watch Blood Lions. 

Rosa closed the panel mindful that “it’s a journey, not a destination. We need to create actions to educate and create critical mass, helping people understand what they can practically do.” 

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