Captive animal interactions aimed at tourists, such as elephant-back safaris and 'lion walks' have been popular tourism activities in Zimbabwe and Zambia in recent years.
Despite obvious concerns over the welfare of animals kept in captivity and exploited for financial gain it appears that tourists leave their moral and ethical compass at home when they travel. Many of these captive animal interactions claim 'conservation value' in their work, however the merit of these projects is highly debatable (see for example the debate on captive lion interactions or 'lion walks') and their methods controversial.
National Parks, on the other hand, are designated to protect and conserve wild animals in their natural habitat. Occasionally, such as the case of the Elephant Orphanage Project in Kafue, Zambia, captive animal facilities may operate within National Parks. The EOP is a legitimate wildlife sanctuary, rescuing injured and orphaned elephants in extreme cases of hardship and rehabilitating wherever possible. It is operated as a charity, and in no way profits financially from the animals.
Against this background, tourism operators in Zimbabwe have in the past even captured baby wild elephants from the wild, removing them from their maternal herds and enslaving them into captive operations. Operators using lions have large-scale breeding programmes to supply a constant production line of young lion cubs suitable for walking with tourists and resulting in large numbers of adult lions being condemned to spending the rest of their lives in captivity.
Do either of these types of captive-animal tourism interactions have a place in National Parks? One would have thought that the answer was an obvious 'no', but two operators in Victoria Falls are currently trying to obtain concessions in the Zambezi National Park, Zimbabwe, to operate their captive elephant and lion interactions within the National Park itself. The ALERT Lion Encounter and Shearwater Adventures both have controversial histories (see links below).
There are many and detailed arguments against the operation of captive animal interactions within National Parks, and it remains to be seen if these two operators will be able to bend rules and entice National Parks with their promises of financial returns and other sweeteners in order to achieve their aims. However, the fact that both these operators are pursuing this course of action suggests that they are confident that they have a chance of success.
As increasing pressures drive Africa's prized wildlife resources towards extinction, the value of our National Parks to protect and conserve species diversity for the future increases. National Parks need more legal, financial and human resources to protect increasingly threatened wild animals. The challenge for conservationists is to connect protected areas, not divide them with fences, excluding wildlife from tradition seasonal movements.
The operation of captive animal interactions within National Parks should not be seen as a short-cut to delivering conservation aims or a 'safari experience' to tourists - indeed many tourists can go and see elephants and lions in captive game parks in their home countries - and are certainly not in keeping with the wild Africa which the tourism industry promotes so strongly as a drawcard for tourism to the region. Safari tourists want to see wild animals in the wild - not captive bred or trained animals in a captive environment.
Conservation of Africa's valuable wildlife resources depends on the protection of large, inter-connected natural areas which need to be actively managed to protect and promote wildlife. The establishment of captive animal interactions does nothing to help achieve these aims, and even undermines them. For this writer there is no place for profit-based captive animal interactions in Africa's National Parks, and those who believe there is are promoting a future where Africa's great wildlife treasures will exist only behind fences and in captivity.
Let's hope that Zimbabwe's Park and Wildlife Authority see through the charade and reject these proposals. If not, their reputation, and that of Zimbabwe, for wildlife conservation and as a top African safari destination will surely be negatively affected. As will, of course, the conservation of wild animals in the Parks themselves.
Time for tourists to vote with their feet and stop supporting operators and agents who promote captive animal interactions and instead visit national parks for a true safari experience and witness the majesty of Africa's wildlife in the wild. You'll be doing more to help conserve Africa's wildlife just be being there than these captive animal operations will ever achieve.