Safari Operators: Lion Attack Took Place In an Open-Air Zoo, Not a Game Reserve
Photo by David Cogswell
An attack by a lion that killed an American tourist in a widely reported incident at Lion Park in South Africa in recent days took place in a sort of open-air zoo, an artificial environment that has little resemblance to what safari takers experience at game lodges in the African wilderness, according to safari providers contacted by TravelPulse.
“Lion Park, where this tragic attack occurred, is not actually a game reserve but is more of a drive-through zoo,” said Kathleen Doheny, vice president of marketing for Kensington Tours. “The lions have been taken out of their natural habitat and away from their pride. This can contribute to an unnatural environment where these majestic animals may become less predictable. In this situation established safety rules should be strictly enforced.
"For our clients however, Kensington Tours recommends alternative and more authentic safari experiences offered in national parks and reserves. And we always recommend game driving with experienced rangers trained to read and react to a lion’s subtle cues.”
An American woman identified as Katherine Chappell was killed when she was bitten by a lion that jumped through the open window of the vehicle she was riding in through the park.
The tour guide who was with her in the car was also reportedly injured as he tried to ward off the attack. Visitors to the park are warned through instructions and signs throughout the park to keep their windows closed as they drive among the animals. But in this case, reportedly, both the passenger and the guide had their windows down.
Lion Park is a wildlife conservation enclosure in South Africa's Gauteng province near Lanseria Airport between the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria. The website of South African Tourism describes Lion Park as a “hybrid between a zoo and a game reserve.”
The kind of safari experience offered by safari operators in wilderness areas such as Kruger National Park in South Africa or many of the private game reserves in the African wilderness is fundamentally different from that which takes place in an environment such as Lion Park. And, perhaps counterintuitively, visitors in the wilds are actually much safer.
“There is no comparison between being out on safari with a professional safari guide in a private game reserve and visiting this ‘lion park,’” said Karin Jones, managing director of Anastasia’s Africa. “The density of predators in these lion parks is between 10 and 100 times the natural density of predators found in the wild. People visit these places, take photographs, and then claim they’ve seen wild animals in Africa.
“The park places signs telling visitors to keep their windows closed. This woman was photographing the lion through her opened window when she was attacked, and with a tour guide, not a professional safari guide.
“Last year '60 Minutes' did an exposé on this lion park. Shadowing one of the human keepers, the investigation revealed not only the inhumane nature of the park from the animal’s point of view, but that the park was breeding lions for ‘canned hunting.’ People are petting the lion cubs that may then later be sold. We have never and will never include a place like this for a trip we design for our clients — ever!”
If the guide and the tourist had followed the instructions and kept their windows up, the attack could not have happened.
“It did appear the visitors were in error as it was reported they had their window down against park rules,” said Dan Austin, president of Austin Adventures. “This was buried in the news. We all agree that rules when followed can all but eliminate senseless tragedies like this, which is no different than a recent goring of a visitor by a bison in Yellowstone. The visitor was in error, not the bison, and about 3.2 million manage to see the bison each year without getting gored.”
“As we have seen from the news videos, plenty of signs warn visitors to keep car windows up at all times,” said Anne Bellamy, president of Great Safaris. “For some unfathomable reason, her window was down, and with such sad results. Reports say that the driver — the ‘tour operator’ also had his window down. That would label him very inexperienced or exceptionally careless.
“These kind of open-air parks are not prime destinations for our clients. It would be pretty unusual for an international tourist coming to Africa to spend time in a safari park or zoo. Typically these parks are for local families on a daytrip adventure outside the big city.
When safari takers observe animals in the wilds, they are in open vehicles, and yet such attacks are virtually unheard of.
“Over 90 percent of our clients are traveling to Africa to experience animals in the wild and they go into game parks such as those private reserves bordering Kruger Park,” said Bellamy, “Ironically, while in the private game reserves, the drives are undertaken in open safari vehicles. No windows, no roofs. However, the vehicles are driven by highly trained safari guides whom are accompanied by very experienced trackers. These folks understand animal behavior intimately and know exactly when to approach an animal — or when not to approach. Also, significantly, the animals have been habituated to the safari vehicles and do not see them as a threat nor food source.
“As for that lion in the park — who knows what instigated the attack? It could have been a sick or injured lion. The flash on her camera may have startled the lion. Or perhaps the tourist was behaving in some sort of threatening manner — intentionally or not.
“There’s a big difference between the experience our travelers receive at private game reserves and what this traveler encountered,” said Ryan Droegemueller, product manager for Asia, East and South Africa for the Globus family of brands. “The largest single difference is this: The Globus family provides travelers with professional rangers on all safari drives. These rangers understand the habitat, animal behaviors and most important, they enforce strict rules focused on the safety of travelers.”
“These lions are clearly bred in captivity” said Laudie Hanou, vice president of SITA World Tours. “It’s more like an open zoo. Visitors drive through and have been mandated to have their windows up. This type of experience is more of an ‘attraction’ than a true Africa Safari.
“As a safari expert, with over 40 years of experience, SITA provides its guests with visits to Africa's fabled game reserves like Kruger National Park in South Africa, Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya and the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area in Tanzania.
“SITA's guests on safari are placed with reputable and private game reserves that provide a deluxe experience in accommodations and thrilling and truly wild game viewing. Guests take safaris with both a driver/guide as well as tracker, providing a unique, exciting and safe experience.
“We really cannot take what happened in this park and compare it to what a true safari and safari outfitter provides. However, as with all game viewing, it is important to obey rules and heed to what is being asked of you as, after all, these animals' origin is from the wild.
“What we saw on the news is nothing like what a true safari is. These lions are fed by hand and unfortunately controlled by man — and this is not the first time this has happened. Very unfortunate — these kind of places need to be eliminated,” Hanou concluded.
“The park’s own website says in large letters on the front of it: ‘Super Close-Up Animal Views Guaranteed,’” said Chris McIntyre, managing director of Expert Africa.
“So this zoo-like experience at this Lion Park really is very, very different from the much more natural areas that most UK tour operators would send their travelers to. Their animals are wild and sightings are never guaranteed.
“The other big difference is for the animals, which here are kept in small enclosures and have a far from natural existence. Thus, the behavior that they exhibit is far from normal.
“Expert Africa doesn’t send any visitors to any operation in Africa which allows people to pet or stroke lions, including this Lion Park. We refuse to do this on ethical grounds because once a baby lion cub is used to people, it loses its fear of them. When that lion grows up, it will have no fear of people, and that’s the kind of animal which will go on to attack people when opportunities arise.
“In the larger, much wilder reserves that most travelers visit in Africa, the vehicles are often completely open — not just their windows. Yet I’m not aware of any lion attacks, and such vehicles have everyone’s confidence through East and Southern Africa. There are certainly no signs telling visitors to keep their windows closed. Given that Lion Park feels the need to have rules like this — which are so very different from the safari experience in the rest of the subcontinent — it says a lot about the behavior that they expect from the lions that they keep.
"So this happened because of the way that these particular lions were, sadly, brought up, and kept,” McIntyre lamented.
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