Volunteering with the Lion King

By Aurelien Laferrere

The lion population decreased from 50 to 75% during the last 50 years. Aware of this situation, many associations and NGO have decided to act, setting up  lion conservation programs. Young volunteers from all around the world can help by giving some of their time for this noble project.


On the ground, they nurse orphan cubs, help scientists to study population evolution, and help the sanctuaries in their daily tasks. What a pleasure to help the king of animals, coming in the middle of the African bush for some weeks, feeding playful lion cubs, taking them for bush walks in order to re-introduce them to their natural environment ! 

The objective is to nurse orphan cubs, help them to grow strong, and then release them into nature in order to preserve the specie and let it keep its King of the animals status.

Something is seriously wrong, and it’s important to talk openly about it. Scientists and lion specialists have been trying to warn people for many years now. The first thing to know is that a tamed lion, accustomed to human contact, will never be able to go back to the wild, own a territory andbreed next generations. Some other big cats, like cheetahs can, however lions cannot.  This doesn’t mean that orphan baby lions shouldn’t be fed, of course, but we have to dig a little deeper and wonder what happens with those cute cubs once they grow old.

In South Africa, lion population in sanctuaries is estimated to number from 6000 to 8000 individuals. 10 years ago, they were a few hundred. So where do those thousands of lions come from ? And where do they go once they grow up ?

Where do they come from ?

Almost the entire population of lions showed to tourists and volunteers were born in captivity in breeding farms, with fluctuant hygiene and feeding conditions. Some of these lions will end their lives in a peaceful African reserve, the less lucky ones will end up in a substandard zoo. Some other will stay in private reserves where tourists can get a picture with them, a few centimeters only from the king of the jungle. Those tourists will have a nice picture to show to their friends.

But this only represents a few hundred individuals… For the overwhelming majority, the reality is much worst than that. 

For several years, many African sanctuaries go with the flow and offer to thousands of volunteers coming from all around the world to take care of those lion cubs, paying large amounts of money. Some host half a dozen of cubs, but some others more than a hundred, chain-fed by dozens of smiling volunteers, happy to get so close from this emblematic animal, cuddling them, playing with them. They really feel like they are useful. And they are indeed, but not to whom they think. 


So where do the lions go ?

You maybe heard about Cecil, this lion shot by this American hunter in a sanctuary in Zimbabwe. This gives a partial explanation. Many of those cubs, from their second year of life, become adults and don’t move our hearts anymore. They still can be useful though: for lion hunting, sold to Safari companies, or sometimes staying in the same “sanctuaries” where they grew up. Hunters from all around the world will come to South Africa and elsewhere, for 2 or 3 day trips, buy a lion, during so called hunting sessions, and pay for their victory against wildlife: prices varies from 5.000 to 100.000$ per animal.

Lets remember that they are tamed lions, locked up in wide pens that give the impression to be borderless. Those lions are sometimes starved for some days and released next to a lure to make things easier and faster. They are even sometimes under drugs to avoid any danger for the hunter. Lions nursed by volunteers, are used to human, who don’t escape. And the icing on the cake: they don’t have any scar from a wild life, making them the ideal trophy. To summarize, pretty decorative animals served on a silver plate to some beginner hunters who want a nice trophy in their living room.

And it doesn’t stop here.

Because those animals can be usefully dead for an other very precise market : The traditional Chinese medicine, which is not allowed to use dead tigers anymore. Some people generously buy lion bones for hypothetic health and virility potions. In this case, it doesn’t matter if the lion is in good health or has good living conditions. As a result, breeding farms, similar to the industrial chicken farms we know, are appearing.

In South Africa, 800 to 1000 lions a year are shot, and their bones sold. It means that this thousands of lion cubs, who grow up in captivity, are the starting point of a deadly market. If you consider the volunteers who can make sanctuaries earn up to $100.000 per month, lion bush walks where the average price is $60 an hour, bone and other animal organ selling, and taxidermists who send their trophy to the hunters - the whole tourist industry is often a scam. It seems as if the first principles of conservation and protection have long been forgotten.

Thanks to volunteering, helping for the lion conservation is still possible.If you really want to help lions by giving some of your time in volunteering, be cautious and ask the right questions. If you’re dream is to be in contact with them, feed young individuals, go for bush walks with them, be aware that they will never be able to go back to the wild, that in some few cases they will end up in a reserve or a zoo, and that most of them will be shot to end up on a wall in a living room.

Choose carefully, and don’t hesitate to contact us if you want to find a responsible and honest volunteering program. We work in collaboration with several ethical, scientific, and serious organisations to help preserve these beautiful animals. We are also in collaboration with Bruce Young and his team, who have been involved in this fight for over 15 years and have produced an amazing documentary on this topic : BLOOD LIONS

Saksara will be happy to arrange a screening of the “Blood Lion” movie in your school university, or anywhere you think this education tool can be used. Please contact Aurelien for more details: