CACH withdraws from Network Ten’s, I’m a Celebrity

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“I’m a Celebrity” blatantly ignores conservation advice

Network Ten’s Australian TV show “I’m a celebrity get me out of here” engaged in irresponsible scenes exploiting wildlife including a 5 week old white lion cub and three very young leopard cubs.

Dean Geyer, one of the celebrities, nominated CACH (Campaign Against Canned Hunting) as his charity of choice; one would assume the producers would have engaged in research which would have alerted them to the link between the cub petting industry and canned hunting. Regardless, they went ahead with petting lions and leopards 5 weeks old and less.

When we initially contacted the producers after seeing a 5 week old white lion cub used in one of the challenges, it seemed they had been duped (just like thousands of tourists every year). They were told that the lion cub had been abandoned by its’ mother, that the other two cubs had died, one drowned, and that the cubs were part of a breeding program. We asked which lion ecologist was monitoring this program – no response. We soon discovered that the animal sourcing contractor was given one day to locate a cub even after he said he needed more time.

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On watching the footage we were very concerned to see a cub being exploited in a celebrity challenge with Jo Beth Taylor, using her feet to guess what animal it was. A 5 week old lion cub! It took more than a week for Network Ten to answer our enquiry, and then we were directed to Ben Ulm, ITV Studios in South Africa. We notified them about CACH wishing to withdraw as the use of cubs was absolutely unacceptable, he was worried about Dr Chris Brown’s reputation and insisted that a vet handling a cub is very different to the general public, a redundant argument as there was no veterinary reason for this cub to be handled. In terms of responsible broadcasting, what message does this send to the viewers other than “come to South Africa and play with cubs”?  We were also told we had no right to project our ethical tourism values onto them and that our position is merely philosophical.

It’s very disappointing that Network Ten didn’t do their research but what’s more appalling is that they ignored expert conservation advice. They were well informed and yet chose to then let Shane Warne and Val Lehman engage YET again with three very young leopard cubs, handling, petting and cuddling them in a defiant show of indulgence and support of the petting/canned hunting industry.

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When conservation groups work tirelessly to protect Africa’s wildlife, which includes pointing out that commercial captive breeding and predator interactions make no contribution whatsoever, we find the approach of Ben Ulm, ITV Studios and Network Ten irresponsible and reckless. Ulm was well informed after several calls explaining the link between cub petting, canned hunting and the lion bone trade industries when we discussed CACH’s withdrawal.

Africa’s lions require urgent attention. It’s estimated as few as 20,000 are left in the wild. However, it needs to be understood that breeding lions in captivity and exposing them to commercial exploitation has nothing to do with solving their plight. And the continuous support of the breeding facilities by tourists and television stations simply feeds the cycle of brutality and misinformation.

Australian volunteers and tourists are duped into this conservation CON only to discover that they have unwittingly been part of a process that results in ‘human imprinting’ of lions (and other cats). These animals are mostly not orphans and can never be returned to the wild. When too old to be handled, they are returned to the farmers as breeding stock or are sold online to trophy hunters. Many others are killed for the Asian lion bone trade.

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YES, that cute cub has been bred for the bullet.

The question to ask “where do all these cubs come from and where do they end up”?

It’s also disappointing to see Dr Chris Brown voice his concerns about canned hunting, telling us that the cub he was handling shouldn’t be “petted” while he does precisely that: what these celebrities and Network Ten are endorsing is irresponsible and is directly fuelling the trade of exploitation of endangered animals.

Kirsty Wilson, Sydney Publicity Manager for Network Ten said the lion cub that appeared on the program came from Letaba River Lodge Eco Park. What a misnomer to be calling themselves an Eco Park; what is ecologically sound about breeding predators to be habituated and exploited first for human contact and then for a hunting bullet? Dr Chris Brown stated that the cub was part of a breeding program as white lions are rare – what he doesn’t mention is that this cub will never live a free life in the wild, thanks to his handling of it, and that it therefore cannot contribute to stabilising populations in white lions’ endemic homeland of Timbavati, several hundred kilometres from its breeding facility.  White lions are highly prized by hunters, private collectors, zoos and circuses around the world because of this rarity he speaks of. Where does Dr Brown think these animals destined to be trophies on someone’s wall come from? By handling cubs, this programme and Dr Brown, Shane Warne, Jo Beth Taylor, Val Lehman are endorsing the cycle of exploitation these animals face.

The Australian government took global leadership by banning the importation of lion trophies and body parts (months before the death of Cecil) as a direct response to the cruel and barbaric industry of canned hunting, a global first. Conservationists, lion ecologists and predator scientists have been desperately campaigning the South African Government to regulate the enormous number of captive lions and the increasing business of captive breeding which is now spreading to other countries. Is it too much to expect that at the very least, Australian networks and ‘celebrities’ follow the Australian government’s responsible lead?

And for anyone who’s in doubt, watch the feature documentary Blood Lions. It is an explosive film that lifts the lid off the predator breeding industry and their murky array of exploitative commercial activities focussed on wild animals. What happens when it’s discovered that the cub you have raised as a volunteer or petted as a visitor or ‘celebrity’ ends up as a trophy or it’s bones sold to Asia for the lion bone trade?

To put a stop to these horrific practises, when travelling in South Africa or any place that has captive wild animals, please think before engaging. Resist the urge to handle, cuddle, bottle feed, play, walk or volunteer at places claiming to be doing conservation work if they have animals in cages. Much needed conservation dollars are being channelled by these unscrupulous operators – all part of the conservation con.

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CACH’s official withdrawal

Please be advised that CACH (Campaign Against Canned Hunting) hereby withdraws from any involvement with the production of Network Ten’s reality TV program “I’m a Celebrity, get me out of here”. In particular, we wish to remove ourselves from your list of potential recipients of prize money. We were very happy to hear that Dean Geyer selected CACH has his charity of choice but we cannot endorse a program that sends out a wrong message to the public – that cub petting is OK.

Our concerns were raised after watching Episode 10, where Jo Beth was participating in the “foot fetish” challenge which involved using a 5 week old white lion cub. Dr Chris Brown shared that the cub was abandoned by it’s mother and that the other cubs had died and it was part of a breeding program due to white lions being critically endangered. He mentioned that it wasn’t part of the canned hunting industry.

It would seem that Network Ten has been duped by the same story told to thousands of gullible tourists and volunteers. Lion farmers/captive lion breeders are astute to hide the ultimate fate of their alternative livestock – canned hunting. This is because cub petting/lion walks etc are such a profitable spin-off from the main purpose:- that of rearing lions to huntable size.

Kirsty Wilson, Sydney Publicity Manager, Network Ten properly advised us that the cub came from Letaba River Lodge Eco Park, SPCA assessed.

Letaba is a commercial breeding operation whose breeding activities have no conservation value.  None of their lions will ever be released back to the wild as part of a natural functioning ecosystem.

The reference to ‘SPCA assessed’ is typical of lion farmers’ public relations.  The NSPCA has no authority to assess for ethics or for involvement in canned hunting.  All the NSPCA can do is to inspect the facility to check that basic animal welfare is being observed; that the water in the camps is clean, permit conditions are being complied with, and such.

Dr Brown and/or the producers need to do their homework before endorsing activities that send such an irresponsible message. White lions are highly prized by hunters, private collectors, zoos and circuses around the world because of this rarity he speaks about. Where does he think these animals come from or end up? By handling cubs, this program and Dr Brown are endorsing the cycle of exploitation these animals face, and undermining our work.

CACH has been internationally recognised for its work in educating the tourism industry not to support any facility that offers cub petting, because of the link between cub petting and canned hunting. You can surely imagine how your program is subversive of the campaign to ban canned lion hunting.

Australia banned the importation of lion trophies and body parts (months before the death of Cecil) as a direct response to the cruel and barbaric industry of canned hunting, a global first.  Is it too much to expect that at the very least, our networks and ‘celebrities’ follow our government’s responsible lead?

Yours faithfully

Chris Mercer and Linda Park, Directors

Campaign Against Canned Hunting, South Africa