By Dr Louise de Waal
A captive bred lion used as an exhibit in a cultural event was killed on the return journey in Fort Portal (Uganda) after his cage was damaged in a road incident.
The transport truck swerved off the road and the abrupt manoeuvre damaged some of the animal crates, during which Letaba the lion managed to escape, according to a Uganda Wildlife Conservation Education Centre (UWEC) statement from the government owned zoo in Entebbe.
The lion was hunted down all night by a team consisting of UWA rangers, Uganda police, community members and the army. After a failed attempt to dart the lion and “since he had become highly agitated, dangerous and threatening human life, a painful decision was made after consultations to put him out of action at 9 am”, states James Musinguzi (Executive Director – UWEC).
Letaba, an ambassador species at UWEC, started his life in one of South Africa’s many captive breeding facilities and was donated to UWEC in 2015 by the Lion Park at the age of six. “Letaba was acquired for two main reasons – for breeding, and he succeeded siring two lionesses and one lion, and for conservation education”, says Musinguzi.
The Lion Park is one of the many captive breeding facilities in South Africa, an industry that is directly linked with canned hunting and the lion bone trade. However, Mike Fynn (Chief Operating Officer – Rhino & Lion Nature Reserve in South Africa), who was instrumental in the transaction at the time, believes that “this was one of the more positive outcomes of a captive lion making a difference, as he became a true ambassador of the species in Uganda.”
There is however a global growing trend questioning the role of ambassador species. A movement advocating to end the use of captive wildlife in tourism interaction and as photo props, often under the guise of education, as many believe that these practices are no longer acceptable and even redundant.
The UWEC feels their conservation education outreach programmes are justifiable, as they “focus on endangered and threatened species and degraded ecosystem management, addressing emerging issues like human-wildlife conflict and coexistence between wildlife and communities, illegal wildlife trade and poaching”, says Musinguzi.
For this particular event on the 12th September 2019, the 24th Empango coronation celebrations of the King of the Toro Kingdom, Letaba’s presence was requested by the King, as lion poaching in Queen Elizabeth National Park is rife.
We need to ask the question whether or not it is essential to take wildlife, such as lions, leopards, ostriches and monkeys, on such outreach trips? Is this the only way to reconnect people with nature and realise the necessary conservation educational outcomes? Or are there better alternatives available to achieve the same goals?
Edith Kabesiime (Wildlife Campaign Manager Africa – World Animal Protection) says “zoos do not need captive wildlife to educate people about the threats to their survival in the wild. The existence of natural wildlife protected areas provide ample and often better opportunities to achieve these educational goals and are widely available in Uganda.”
Linda Park (Director – Voice4Lions) adds “charismatic animals, such as lions and cheetahs, are often hauled around to various functions, taken to schools and exhibitions as “educational material”. However, we have the technical capability now to have virtual reality shows and, if that is not possible, a quality documentary of the kind made by Dereck & Beverly Joubert would be eminently more suitable.”
UWEC feels however that their conservation messages reach sufficient numbers of community members and learners to justify transporting animals on a weekly basis in the local area and monthly further afield.
Does the end justify the means, especially considering that many of these animals, including lion, leopard, ostrich, birds and monkeys, are ferried across the country on a regular basis?
Kabesiime believes the transportation of captive wildlife for 100s km to stage public shows and exhibits in the name of conservation education is totally needless and poses serious welfare concerns. “Poor animal handling, the long journeys that these animals have to endure in often substandard cages transported on inappropriate trucks and the limited staff capacity cause animal suffering. At exhibition sites, the animals are kept for days in tiny cages with limited shelter from the relentless sun with minimal food and water.”
“During such animal shows, the crowds can be too big for the staff to handle and in which case one wonders if any learning happens”, Kabesiime adds.
This incident that led to the death of the much beloved Letaba was obviously tragic, “although, the risk of animals escaping on such outreach trips due to accidents or unsafe containment is always high”, says Park. In the meantime, UWEC has suspended the use of wildlife on outreach trips until a proper investigation has been concluded and, if necessary, further mitigating measures have been introduced.
“Despite UWEC being regarded as one of the best zoos in Africa, they have failed to comply with some of the basic industry best practices”, states Kabesiime. “Zoos should not allow animals under their care to be used as photo props, be ridden or handled by visitors for profit.”
Fynn stresses that “UWEC are the most wonderful collection of dedicated staff, going beyond the ends of the earth to educate the Ugandan people about conservation and wildlife.” The manner in which this conservation education is conducted by UWEC however seems to be in need of an overhaul to meet current norms and standards.