Wildlife petting industry under fire after animals attack visitors
Multiple attacks in March and April have prompted conservation groups and the head of South African Tourism to seriously re-evaluate the "wildlife petting" industry.
Four attacks on visitors in wildlife enclosures within 10 days were recorded in March. Two occurred at the Emdoneni Lodge in Zululand where a 14-year-old boy from New Zealand and an exchange student from Macau‚ China‚ were attacked by a cheetah.
The student‚ Peggy Lio‚ made headlines again last week after a video of the attack surfaced.
Emdoneni staff refused to comment on the incidents.
This comes as a boy from Johannesburg has reportedly been pronounced brain dead after he was attacked by a tame lion in Lephalale‚ Limpopo‚ this month.
The number of incidents has conservation groups increasing pressure on the tourism board to restrict in-cage interaction with wildlife.
"This is a real issue because these sorts of attractions have been around for a long time. These attacks are bound to happen‚ and are something we have worried about from the get-go‚" Endangered Wildlife Trust carnivore conservationist David Marneweck said. "These animals should be wild. It seems we only value them if we can touch them or interact with them personally. We need to change the phenomena where wild animals have value outside of captivity."
Newly appointed CEO of SA Tourism Sisa Ntshona has also expressed his plans to eliminate wildlife petting and close interaction. Ntshona said he "unreservedly" supports anti-petting efforts nationwide.
Meanwhile‚ game reserves such as Emdoneni have been praised for their conservation work. Emdoneni runs a "cheetah project" that cares for injured and orphaned cheetahs. Marneweck acknowledged that these preserves can promote conservation‚ but still operate first and foremost as a business.
"It’s important to note that co-ordinating reintroductions to the wild should be the first priority. These places seldom contact us to co-ordinate a release. They say these animals are going back into the wild‚ but we know that that rarely happens‚" Marneweck said.
Keeping animals past their release date lowers their chance of being successfully reintroduced into the wild‚ he added.
"Carnivores are supposed to hunt actively. That is compromised entirely in these preserves. The problem then becomes that they are very unlikely to be functional in the wild again. Combine that with regularly interacting with people and the likelihood of hurting a person becomes very high."
Legislation was passed in 2015 prohibiting groups from removing large carnivores‚ such as cheetahs‚ from the wild. Marneweck called this a positive first step.
"The degree of animal exploitation in SA is quite extensive‚ so the time line is quite broad in terms of outlawing these industries. We need to change our views so we value wild animals in the wild‚ without needing to pet them. We hope that future legislation will catch up and reflect that‚" Marneweck said.