One woman's mission to save a lion cub
This week, we learned that Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer is the man responsible for killing the Zimbabwean lion known as Cecil. The lion's death has sparked international outrage, but Cecil isn't the only lion to end up at the wrong end of a big game hunter's gun. And Walter Palmer isn't the only one dropping big bucks to go trophy hunting in the region.
It's like buying a pair of shoes, you just have to choose and pick the wild animal you want to kill...- Alexandra Lamontagne, animal-rights activist and documentary maker
In South Africa, the practice of "captive hunts" or "canned hunting" is big business. It's a service provided by many private game reserves and safari companies, in which tourists are guaranteed a kill. The lions on these canned hunts are often raised in captivity, and the hunts take place within an enclosed area.
Alexandra Lamontagne is a Canadian woman who has made it her mission to expose the canned hunts. She recounts her struggle to save the life of one cub destined for a canned hunt in her documentary "Saving Serabie." Day 6 spoke with her from Montreal.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Peter Armstrong: How hard is it to actually arrange to shoot a lion in South Africa today?
Alexandra Lamontagne: First of all, it's not hard at all. You have so many websites that you can go on and it's like buying a pair of shoes, you just have to choose and pick the wild animal you want to kill, and if you have the money for it you just go for it.
PA: It's almost like there's a menu of options that you just pick what you want to do.
AL: Exactly. You can pick a zebra, a rhino, a giraffe, a lion.
PA: So how does canned hunting differ from other forms of what they call 'trophy hunting'?
AL: It's called canned hunting because they grow them in an enclosure in a small environment, and they need to fight for their food and they have no space or shade. They're just waiting on death row.
PA: How much are people paying to take part in these hunts?
AL: For a lioness, it's like ten grand, and for a male lion it can be like fifty to sixty grand. But for a white lion it can go up to one hundred thousand dollars. Because it's rare to have a white lion.
PA: So I'm just trying to get a picture of these facilities. If I was driving by as a tourist, how would it appear to me? What do they look like?
AL: You won't see it. They don't advertise them. Like when I went to South Africa and I did my volunteering, just next to the place was a canned hunting facility. I would have never known.
PA: And so literally on one side you'd have like a refuge or a petting zoo, and on the other side of the property unbeknownst to the tourist is this area for hunting?
PA: I want to get to your story and how you travelled to South Africa to work as a volunteer with animals. Tell me first about the lions that you ended up working with.
AL: I signed up to volunteer with vervet monkeys in South Africa and I didn't know lions would be there. When I arrived, they put me in charge of five cubs. So I'm the type of person who asks many questions, but no one wanted to answer me. When I came back to Canada, someone sent me a private email and told me about canned hunting, and that's where the cubs were from, and that's where they were going back to.
PA: So what did you think was going to happen to them? That they'd go to a zoo or something?
AL: Yeah, four of them went to a zoo in Denmark. But my little one, Serabie, went back to the canned hunting farm to be killed two or three years after. So I decided that since I was a part of it without knowing, I was going to make a documentary to let the world know what canned hunting is.
PA: You say that you were a part of it, what do you mean by that? That you were sort of complicit in this somehow?
AL: Yes, I was helping the lions grow and keeping them healthy so they could go back to their canned hunting facilities. So even without knowing, I helped them.
PA: So you get this message saying 'Hey, by the way it turns out this cub is on its way to a canned hunting facility.' Walk us through what you actually did.
AL: First of all, I tried to find out where she was, which canned hunting facility she was in. As soon as I found out I wrote an email saying that I would like to have Serabie back and I'm going to pay for her. So at the beginning he essentially said 'Go screw yourself.' You're never going to see her, and you're not going to have her.
I said I'm going to do everything in my power to let people know about your website and I'm going to do everything to destroy you. So many people told me in Africa you never mess with those people because they're really dangerous and they're powerful. But I didn't know that and I thought in Canada I would be protected. But eventually he agreed because we went back and forth with hateful emails, and I decided to fly there and go get Serabie.
PA: And you raised the money. How much did you raise in the end?
AL: Ten thousand dollars.
PA: Did you just show up with a cheque?
AL: No, they asked me to have the money in hundred dollar U.S. bills.
PA: So you hand over the money. Did he then hand over the cub? Was it as simple as that?
AL: Not really because we arrived there and he said if I see a camera you're all going to get off my property and you're not going to have Serabie. So I said I'm not going to give you the money before you give me Serabie. We put Serabie to sleep and placed her in the back of the truck. As soon as she was in the truck, I handed him the money.
PA: And where is Serabie now?
AL: Now she's at Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary where no human is able to touch her.
PA: She's safe is the main thing.
AL: Yes, she's with three other lions. I receive a video of her every second day, and she's growing into such a beautiful lioness.
PA: And the other cubs you said are at a zoo?
AL: That's what they told me in the beginning. But after I called the Denmark zoo in Copenhagen, I figured out that the cubs never went there.
PA: Wait, they never went there in the end?
AL: No, they are in a canned hunting facility. Now they would be about two and a half years old, so as soon as they get the fur around their necks, they will be killed.
PA: Will you try to save them as well? Is it possible?
AL: No, I didn't raise that much money.
PA: There are some who argue that canned hunting might just cut into poaching and illegal hunting, and that there is a place for this in the interest of protecting animals. What do you say to that?
AL: This is a big joke because it's always the owner of the canned hunting place that will keep the money and they're just breeding animals to get killed, so they're not helping wildlife conservation at all. It's the opposite because some hunters that are not able to pay this big amount of money will just go into the wild and kill them anyways.
PA: In the case of the dentist from Minnesota - had he gone to a canned hunt facility instead of poaching the lion that was supposed to be protected, people would probably have never heard this story and we wouldn't be having these conversations about the international outrage over this. What do you think about that?
AL: At least people are going to be aware of the situation and they need to understand it's not just about lions, it's about leopards, rhinos, and giraffes.
PA: What is the broader answer here? How do we fix this?
AL: There are a few things we can do. We can educate people, especially future generations. We can have airlines ban people from bringing home items from a trophy hunt, like the skin of a lion or the head of a rhino. Also, the President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, makes so much money off this business, so the government needs to stop it.
PA: Thank you for your contribution to this.
AL: Thank you very much for having me.