Major SA hotel group continues to promote lion walks
Louzel Lombard Steyn
12 January 2018

Cape Town – Human-wildlife interactions with iconic big cats including lions, cheetahs and their cubs are being promoted via the Ranch Protea Hotel in Limpopo, owned by Marriott International, despite statements distancing themselves from such activities.

The hotel groups’ involvement in the wild animal interaction industry came to light in a recent newsletter from Thompson’s Holidays.

In the email, the four-star Limpopo Protea Hotel was promoted as an iconic South African destination where guests could ‘enjoy a thrilling walk with lions’.

In response to a query from the Blood Lions Campaign, Thompson’s apologised for the newsletter and removed the wildlife interaction punt from their website.

Following a query from the Blood Lions campaign, Thompson’s Africa – a branch of the Thompson’s Group owned by Cullinan Holdings – apologised on behalf of Thompson’s Holidays for the newsletter and removed the wildlife interaction punt from their website. According to Craig Drysdale, Thompsons Africa head of global sales, the group “does not support any wildlife interaction that we deem to be unethical in either its purpose or in any way results in cruelty as a side effect. We encourage our customers to consider this when requesting activities in our quotations.” 

Thompson’s Group in June 2016 signed Blood Lion’s global ‘Born to Live Wild’ pledge, agreeing to distance themselves from all wildlife interaction practices. Blood Lions accepted Thompson’s Group apology but say they have “had to remove the global travel agency’s logo from their ‘Born to Live Wild’ pledge” until the Protea Hotel stops supporting unethical wildlife interactions..

“There are no grey areas in this case,” Ian Michler, co-leader of the Blood Lions global campaign, says. “The hotel group and the tour operator need to come clean about their claims to offering responsible, ethical and authentic experiences. And until they can clearly show this, Blood Lions cannot have them as signatories to the Born to Live Wild pledge.”   

Apart from the Thompsons’ newsletter, there have also been other advertisements selling The Ranch’s ‘Walking with Lions experience’. One online advertisement boldly states that it’s ‘no doubt the most talked about activity on the property’.

Turning a Blind Eye?

According to Danny Bryer for the Protea Group, the property and “the conservancy on which The Ranch is situated, has never and will never breed lions for the hunting industry, nor do any of the on-site activities involve human interaction with lions such as walking with lions or the petting of cubs.”

However, The Ranch reception confirmed in December 2017 that, ‘walking with lions’ was recommended as a top activity at the hotel, along with the cheetah interaction.

Guests who visited The Ranch in December last year also confirm that big cat interactions are taking place on the conservancy and at the Protea Hotel.

According to an American tourist visiting the property, the ‘walking with lion’ and cheetah petting experiences were sold to them while staying at Protea Hotel The Ranch. The tourists group – including travellers from across the globe – engaged in walking with cheetah, walking with lions as well as cub petting on the conservancy.

According to the tourists, some of the cheetah at Protea Hotel were also used as ring-bearers at a wedding on the property.

Despite Bryer’s claim that no activities involving human interaction take place, a neighbouring lodge on The Ranch conservancy, WildThingz Lodge, also confirms that they offer lion walking, picnics with lions as well as cub petting.

When inquiring at WildThingz Lodge whether walks with lions were sold to Protea Hotel guests, the property also confirmed that this was common practice since they have “taken over the lion walks” activity from Protea Hotel.

After highlighting the discrepancies in Protea Hotel’s statement on wildlife interactions on the property and greater conservancy in December 2017, Bryer assured that the issue would be dealt with and that “promoting the ‘WildThingz lion walk’ is definitely not in accordance with Protea Hotels by Marriott’s principles”.

He stated also that “all staff [had been informed] to desist from suggesting any lion-related activities in the area, with immediate effect,” and added that the Protea Hotel group supported “sustainable tourism based on ethical principles”.  

In January 2018, however, staff at the Protea Hotel The Ranch reception still entice prospective guests by promoting ‘walking with lions’ as one of the top activities. In an email, Protea Hotel further states that bookings for the activity can be done at WildThingz Lodge, which they copy in on the reservation enquiry.   

The cost for the ‘walking with lions’ activity booked at the Protea property, according to the hotel reception, is R1000 per person, while booking directly at WildThingz Lodge costs R200 less, the lodge confirms.

Reoccurring issue

Lion cub petting and walking with big cats like cheetah and lion practices have been linked directly to the tainted canned lion hunting industry in South Africa, a fact both Protea Hotels by Marriott Hotels have been warned of over recent years.

In November 2015, Wildlands Conservation Trust CEO Andrew Venter visited The Ranch on an invitation and warned both Protea Hotels and Marriott International’s managers of the obvious “unethical operations ongoing on the property”. 

In a follow-up email about his experience and observations, Venter outlined some of the ‘very real risks’ at the facility saying The Ranch’s wildlife interaction programmes had a “clear commercial objective cloaked as an educational experience”.

He pointed out that the property was offering education experiences with animals that were being sold at a later stage. Venter also stated that it was clear that The Ranch was “actively breeding wildlife and was not aware of the growing controversy in this regard”.

Fast forward two years since the Wildlands’ warning and neither Protea nor Marriott have taken effective action against the human wildlife interactions. Instead, guests are still offered such activities, either directly or indirectly via The Ranch Resort.

Protea Hotels which  uses the South African national flower as it’s emblem, is advocating an inauthentic experience of South Africa’s wildlife. “The tragedy is that the indiscriminate breeding, keeping and exploitation of wildlife in South Africa undermines the education and conservation messages being put out by the recognized conservation community,” Michler says.

South African Tourism CEO Sisa Ntshona, agrees, saying “such practices go against SA Tourism’s position opposing any interaction with wild animals, as they have a “negative impact on South Africa’s brand image” globally. Ntshona says more “awareness of the devastating impact of canned lion hunting [and] animal petting will encourage the industry to stop promoting such practices.” 

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