September 21st, 2012: It’s our last night in Africa. We’ve decided to leave Lion Encounter a day earlier than expected and have sequestered ourselves in the Protea Hotel in Livingstone. Kim’s been suffering from a cold for the past few days and it became obvious that we needed to get a decent shower and a good night’s sleep in before we begin our two-day journey back home (twenty-four hours of which will be spent in the air). It’s not how we wanted to end our time in Africa. Then again, it’s reflective of how our trip has been. We leave feeling conflicted, worn out, and let down. We’ve seen some gorgeous sights, heard some amazing sounds, traveled to some humble places, caught up with some much-missed lions and friends, and have met and made some new ones along the way.
In proving foresight may be vain,
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go oft astray,
And leave us not but grief and pain,
For promis’d joy.
At the same time, that nagging question: To what end?
Lion Encounter offered to book a room for us, which made me laugh a little given our recent boat debacle. Thank you, but this was one piece of our trip I wanted definitive control over. As I lie in bed dozing off I’m trying to figure out where things went sideways, where expectations failed, and what could be learned from it all. We arrived in high spirits, hoping to be able to contribute in some way beyond simply paying money to volunteer in exchange for photos of us with lions. We wanted to throw ourselves heart and hands into a cause we feel strongly about. Instead, what we ended up with was our heads in our hands at times, and it definitely wasn’t the TIA variety of WTF, either. What expectations should we have of ourselves as volunteers and of the program we’re volunteering for? What expectations should that program have both of us and of themselves? How do you provide an experience that fosters support for your program, but beyond that also provides the means to create an articulate advocate not just for your cause but for conservation in general?
It was sad to see so much volunteer potential left untapped because of the dysfunction among the various entities under the Andrew Conolly Empire and because it would seem that money up front is more important than engendering a deep and knowledgeable love for the cause. That is not to say those involved in running the programs don’t care passionately about the volunteer experience and ALERT’s mission. They most certainly do. With few exceptions, every person on staff cares a great deal and works very hard. That said, regardless if it’s the desired end result or not, it seems the purpose of volunteers is mainly for the money they bring in, with little consideration for what skills they might have that can further ALERT’s aims and what skills they should leave with in order to be articulate ambassadors for the program.
At Antelope Park the primary focus seems to be on the quality of the party atmosphere, while empowering volunteers with a robust set of conservation tools they can wield with intelligence once they leave is a very distant second. If you don’t already have a strong understanding of ALERT’s conservation aims, and the details of how they’re to be implemented, you won’t leave much the wiser. You will certainly come home with a suitcase full of great memories and a deep and sincere love for the lions you interacted with, but how many vols will know what the minimum acreage is for a Stage Three release site? How many can name the first Stage Two release pride and why they failed?
Even at places like Lion Encounter, where there’s substantially fewer lions and vols, and where their focus is much more attuned to ALERT’s mission, it’s a similar MO. Most vols come having seen glossy adverts of people walking with lions, or having watched Lion Country, and get caught up in the belief that it is the same as being a committed conservationist. And once you spend even a minimal amount of time with the Stage One lions, they imprint on your heart so deeply that it’s difficult to disabuse yourself of the notion that walking with them and having your photo taken rubbing their bellies is a tangible act of species preservation. That is not meant to be disrespectful to the intelligence and heart of those who’ve volunteered. I have been there myself and have felt exactly the same way, but many believe that if you took away the hands-on aspect there wouldn’t be as many volunteers; which makes the conservation program first and foremost about those who are volunteering and not about saving lions. And therein lies my concern.
Few of the vols at LE were even aware of ALERT’s other sites at Victoria Falls and Antelope Park, much less knew that there’s a certain very special lioness by the name of AT1 who prowls the Ngamo release site carrying the future of the program on her shoulders. That is not to put the blame entirely at ACE’s feet. People show up with different levels of knowledge and understanding of the program and the cause that they’re volunteering for. The question is: what can be done to make sure that when they leave they’re able to hold their own with a stranger and pass along the same sense of excitement and passion they felt while there? How best can one walk away from such a volunteer experience and continue fight for ALERT’s cause? What should ALERT know about each volunteer before they arrive so than they can make the most of their time and commitment?
Which brings me to the following question: Would you ride a lion?
I will be the first to admit that I’ve made some decisions in my past that I now regret and, if given the opportunity, would’ve chosen otherwise had I known then what I know now. That’s part of human nature and part of discovering who we are as individuals as we go through life. The real measure of a person, I’ve always felt, is how they act on that information and how they change themselves (and hopefully those and that around them) for the better as a result. So what does this have to do with riding lions, you ask, much less volunteering?
Next door to Lion Encounter, the upscale lodge that they rent their land from keeps a number of elephants that guests can ride for a fee. At night these elephants, whose numbers include a young calf, are chained up behind an electrified fence. The chains are about a meter in length, meaning that an elephant can touch and interact with its nearest neighbors but not with other elephants across the enclosure. Obviously, being so restricted means they can’t move at all during the night while they’re in chains. Every evening as we sat outside the White House enjoying Zambezi lager I’d watch the elephants – shackled up, unable to move freely, waiting for the next day to come so they could be sold again for rides and the amusement and entertainment they bring.
I have no doubt that they are well looked after and cared for by the lodge. The fact remains, however, that within a stone’s throw of an animal conservation site one of Africa’s iconic species – intelligent, extremely social, known to love deeply and mourn grievously, proven to be self-aware, and being slaughtered in large numbers for their ivory – was chained up and made to perform for profit. More disheartening, vols could get a discount through Lion Encounter to ride these elephants, which some happily did.
Antelope Park has their own group of orphaned elephants, whom they’ve given refuge to. In exchange for room and board, Amai, Chibi, Jecha, and Tombi are made to give rides to vols and paying clients, as well as parade around AP’s lawns for special events. I know that it costs a great deal to house and feed them, and again I’m not doubting the quality of care they receive, nor the fierce love shown to them by staff and vols alike, but it’s troubling to see that many of those who’ve come to work on restoring the lion to its proper place in the wilds of Africa are at the same time happily willing to participate in the exploitation of another iconic and threatened animal, regardless how well looked after they are. That is not a criticism about spending time with the elephants, nor a complaint about AP having given them sanctuary in the first place. I know they’re allowed to wander freely during the day when they’re not being ridden by vols or clients, or are otherwise being made to perform. I know they seem happy, at least publicly. That doesn’t mean, however, that forcing them to do things they otherwise wouldn’t in the wild is right. Especially for a place in the business of trying to return other African animals to the wild.
It’s an exploitation that we happily (and now regretfully) took part in during our first volunteering stint at Antelope Park, and I understand the appeal and the attachment. They’re cute, they have distinct personalities once you get to know them, and they’re immensely awesome to spend time with. But do they need to be ridden or forced to perform in ways they otherwise wouldn’t naturally do simply for our amusement? No. At some point you have to take a moment and think about the cause and effect of participating in this. What is an elephant’s natural state? Regardless if they’re housed and fed, is it right to strap blankets, saddles, or riding platforms onto their backs and force them to perform for pleasure and profit? (Notwithstanding the fact that their bodies are not physically designed to carry such loads.) With some reflection, hopefully you come to the realization that these are magnificently intelligent and sentient beings that deserve sanctuary and the opportunity to simply be, instead of being saddled, literally, into servitude.
Hence the question that was rattling around my head during our last week: Would you ride a lion?
You can’t claim to be for the conservation of one iconic African animal – whether as a volunteer or as an organization, no matter how noble or worthy your aims are – while you’re actively participating in the exploitation of other iconic and threatened species. ALERT doesn’t directly initiate this participation, but their sister organizations under the ACE umbrella do, and ALERT benefits from that. You can’t have the founder of your organization say it’s okay to cull elephants, or have others in his employ state on record that elephants are treated well in circuses and live happy lives there, and expect the claim that you have only the best of intentions for those species you are working to save to have the merit and standing it deserves. You cannot. And I say that as a supporter.
The ease with which that line was crossed during our stay really dug at me. “It’s not really that different from what we do with the lions here,” someone said, when I offhandedly remarked about vols signing up for elephant rides. True, but every lion cub that comes through ALERT’s Stage One program has the hoped for potential of being part of a Stage Two release pride. The same cannot be said of the elephants there whose lot in life, day in and day out, is to be ridden for profit.
It’s part of a larger problem that isn’t just restricted to ALERT and ACE. Panthera’s President, Luke Hunter, a long-time critic of ALERT’s approach to lion conservation, has himself gone on record as saying he supports the trophy hunting of lions. To save them we must kill them! Simply mind-boggling and perverse.
As previously stated, none of us are immune from participating in or supporting something we think is okay only to discover later was wrong. Regardless how we reached that moment of clarity, we reached it. In the end, it was simply disappointing to see a missed opportunity to teach volunteers why other iconic species like elephants are just as important to Africa as the lion is, and why they should be treated equally, even if those animals aren’t the primary focus of ALERT’s conservation efforts. Why? Because “Environmental Research Trust” should stand for something better. At least, for something better than discounted elephant rides.
Educating and instilling in volunteers an understanding of the difference between conservation and exploitation. Creating a relationship of investment where it isn’t just about the money up front but about long term support between volunteers and the program (which brings in more money, more dependably, over the long term). Having a list of mutual expectations where everyone benefits; including, and most importantly, those iconic species we’re working to save. These are the many things tumbling around in my head on the eve of our departure from Africa.
So if I could offer a simple list of expectations, questions, and advice for volunteers looking to commit themselves to a conservation program, and to organizations looking to achieve their conservation aims with the help of volunteers and the money they bring, it would be this.
- Know who you’re volunteering for and why. Trying to figure that out after you’ve arrived is a waste of everyone’s time, most especially the animals’.
- Leave knowing more than you arrived with so you can be an articulate advocate for the organization and its causes if and when the occasion arises.
- Always look for that occasion!
- Be a good citizen of conservation beyond just the work you’re doing for a particular organization, and understand why that’s important.
- Ask questions.
- Demand answers!
- You vote with your money. Was it well spent towards achieving the program’s conservation aims?
- Hands-on versus hands-off. What’s more important, you or the animals? Is there a balance? Should there be a balance? Who wins? Who loses?
- Understand that you can’t simultaneously promote the conservation of one iconic species while participating in the exploitation of another.
- Know who your volunteers are and what they bring above and beyond their placement fee. You take in a job application’s worth of information on each person. Find out what skill sets they have besides simply paying to volunteer and utilize them! It’s wasted money otherwise.
- Make sure your volunteers leave knowing more than they arrived with so they can be articulate advocates for your causes to those who’ve never heard of your organization.
- Teach your volunteers to be good citizens of conservation beyond just the work they’re doing on your behalf, and understand why that’s important.
- Encourage them to ask questions.
- Further encourage them to demand answers!
- Understand the true cost for a volunteer to be on-site supporting your organization when asking for additional financial contributions, and be able to show that what they’ve already given has been spent wisely. US$1,000 per week to volunteer at a lion conservation program in Africa is not the true cost for a volunteer when booking flights to travel halfway around the world, taking time off school or work, and paying for travel insurance, vaccinations, etc., are also accounted for.
- Hands-on versus hands-off. Is it being done for the benefit of the volunteer or the animal? Is there a balance? Should there be a balance? Who wins? Who loses? What’s the ultimate cost, not to the program but to the species you’re charged with protecting?
- Understand that you can’t simultaneously promote the conservation of one iconic species while participating in the exploitation of another.
September 22nd, 2012: We’re in OR Tambo Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, waiting to board our flight back to the States. I’m looking around the boarding gate, still chewing on the thoughts that kept me up the previous night. Kim and I support ALERT’s approach to lion conservation, but like anyone who gets a peek behind the curtain we’ve found ourselves disappointed with some of what we’ve been witness to. To what end? I keep thinking.
I have spent countless hours regaling our stories and talking emphatically about the importance of working to save Africa’s noble species to anyone kind enough to listen. I have memories of our trips indelibly inked on me. I want to return to Africa and see Wakanaka and her cubs walking down to a waterhole to slake their thirst after a fresh kill. I want to hear that Penya, Paza, Lewa, and Laili are proud mothers and aunts to the cubs of another pride of lions who’ve gone on to a similar Stage Four release site in some other national park on the continent. I want them to succeed. I don’t ever want Africa to lose the sounds of lions roaring.
As I glance around, looking for the camoflauged baseball caps, hunting rifle cases, and other tell-tale signs that our flight will once again include big game hunters, someone approaches Kim. Pointing at the ALERT bracelets on her wrist he says, “I’ve never heard of ALERT. What are they about?” His name is Greg, and it turns out he’s a fellow American returning home to Colorado after several weeks of volunteering for Earthwatch as part of a bi-annual census they do on large herbivores in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province. It’s one that Greg’s been involved with for over a decade, but with age starting to take its toll, along with the physical demands of each expedition, he fears this trip may have been his last. Still, he talks animatedly about the project and his involvement with it. I know that look in his eye, I can see the excitement bubbling; so much like my own when I start in hungrily on a story I can’t wait to share. Greg pulls out an iPad, showing us a video he’s been working on of his trip. It’s beautiful. It’s all beautiful. What are the chances? How lucky is it that, even after all this, Kim and I are given the opportunity to share our passions with a kindred spirit and be returned the favor in kind?
To what end? I ask myself. To that end.