An open response to Volunteers in Africa Beware

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A number of allegations have recently been made on the Facebook profile of Volunteers in Africa Beware (referred to hereinafter as VIAB). Per their description, they are “A page dedicated to helping the future volunteers avoid the trap of breeding lion farms masquerading as conservation facilities.

In lieu of the potential damage to a facility we have worked tirelessly to establish over decades, and in respect of our dedicated and loyal friends who have supported us, we have prepared an open response where we communicate the story behind the facts VIAB have in their possession.

1. Selling 2 cheetahs to Letsatsi

We have been accused of selling two cheetahs to an organization by the name of Letsatsi in 2009. The data VIAB has in its possession is from a register, or Stud Book, in which all wild and captive born cheetahs sold for release or translocation are recorded.

‘Studbooks are the most important tool in scientifically managing populations of wild animals. They contain all relevant data on the captive population of a certain species. The pedigree and demographic history as well as the maintenance of a particular species is maintained and registered’ (Cheetah Conservation Fund, CCF).

The CCF is an organisation which compiles and manages this Studbook, and to whom we have always submitted our data openly and transparently. Click here to access all records.

One of the core objectives of HESC is to release cheetah to the wild. HESC was accredited by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) as a captive breeding institution of the species Acinonyx jubatus (cheetah) in 2006, making it the second of the only two organisations in South Africa to be recognised in this way. One can safely assume that this is not something awarded lightly. Click here to read more about how CITES works.

Two cheetahs were sold to Mr. van der Westhuizen on the 28th September 2009. The cheetahs were Sarel and Vrede, and both were born at HESC. The studbook entries are included below, along with the bloodlines of both animals.

Mr. van der Westhuizen was later exposed for canned lion hunting on his property, Letsatsi. This was after the cheetahs were sold to him, and there was absolutely no reason to question his credentials at the time of the agreement. We do not deal with people or organisations involved in the abhorrent practise of canned lion hunting, or similar forms of abuse of wildlife for financial gain, and should we have known of this practice at that time, we would not have engaged with him. Cheetah conservation has always been HESC’s core purpose.

Our current policy on the sale of cheetahs locally and internationally includes scrutiny of the following matters:

  • Who is the owner of the property: Safari park, zoological collection, private ownership, or governmental?
  • Does the buyer have sufficient funds to sustainably take care of the purchased animal(s)?
  • The size of the individual camps/ holding facilities, and variation in ambient temperature (and protection against cold should this be other than that of the country of origin)
  • What do they plan to do with the cheetahs: breeding, tourism, etc.?
  • Who is responsible for their health and welfare, and do they have access to the services of a veterinarian?
  • Which other animals are kept at the facility where the cheetahs will be accommodated?
  • What is the applicant’s position regarding hunting?
  • Is there any restriction to access to view the animals by their former owner?

We are pleased to inform our friends that both of the cheetahs in question are, in fact, still very much alive and well at Letsatsi.

2. The capture of two wild cheetahs.

Two wild cheetahs were captured on 20th October 2013 and 22nd October 2013 respectively. They were found running next to a highway (R40) and parallel to a railway line. HESC was approached by the local state veterinarian to assist, in lieu of the potential danger to the cheetahs, as well as to motorists. Mrs. Roode herself drove out to the area and risked her own life to stop a truck that almost ran into one of the cats (as well as an oncoming train). She waited with the cat before Dr. Peter Rogers arrived. Dr. Rogers is a veterinarian who has been involved in the care of countless animals at The HESC over the years – most recently successfully having rehabilitated two poached adult rhino cows over the period of a year. His reputation and standing in the veterinary community is beyond reproach. His certificate of confirmation of his affiliation with the HESC is attached.

Listen to his first hand account of the events of 20 October 2013 here:

The first cheetah, a female sub-adult, was darted by Dr. Rogers and taken to HESC. The second cheetah had disappeared, but was spotted two days later. Dr. Kuhler arrived on the scene in Dr. Rogers’ absence, and darted the animal – also a sub-adult female. She too was taken to HESC.

The provincial conservation authorities were informed of this case, which was further legalised by the provincial permit which HESC has been granted for situations such as these. All necessary permits were therefore in place.

After being quarantined in a holding facility at HESC, the first cheetah was released on Makutsi Game Reserve on 18 September 2014, and the second was released on Ukulima Game Farm on 18 October 2014. What appears to be a long time in captivity at HESC is due to the time taken to identify acceptable localities for the animals’ release, and the time it takes to obtain translocation permits from the different authorities issuing them.

Microchips are inserted into each and every cat as soon as they arrive at HESC and both these females released have a microchip number that can be tracked to the studbook when necessary.

Both females are still alive and well at the above-mentioned properties where they were released.

To substantiate the outline of events above, we have attached a statement submitted to Environmental Affairs in August 2014 about the particulars surrounding the capture of these two animals.

It is not the first, nor the last time that a wild cheetah will be captured. Sadly they are often under threat of being shot by farmers who are protecting their livestock. In cases such as these, it is a better solution to move the cats to another natural facility where there is no threat to their survival.

3. Criticism of The Roode Family, specifically Johan Roode prior to his death in August 2002

A number of negative remarks have been made about the late Johan Roode, and his involvement in the hunting industry before his death. It is unfortunate that no mention is made of the legacy he left behind in respect of the transformation of what used to be farm land into what has become one of South Africa’s most successful natural reserves where wild animals now roam free, and where an ecosystem has been allowed to naturally stabilize. The Kapama Reserve is what it is due to his investment and dedicated contribution.

Johan Roode was involved in hunting. That was a long time ago. He is no longer here. Criticise him if you must, but what sense does it make to implicate every blood relative in the time that has since passed? Absolutely no link to hunting can now be established, because there simply is none. Johan’s wife, Lente, and her children took over the reins, and have done an admirable job in moving forward. In fact, if the truth is to be known, hunting was one of the few areas in which Lente and Johan did not see eye to eye. It was always her dream to be involved with the cheetah, and in its long-term conservation.

A number of disparaging remarks were also made about the Roode family’s wealth. We are of the view that this is of no consequence in this duscussion. Suffice it to say that Lente Roode has never drawn a salary from HESC, and has often contributed personally, from her own pension fund, to sustain it.

4. Affiliation with Camp Jabulani, elephant safari operation

Regarding the accusation of HESC being involved in the Camp Jabulani elephant safari operation, this is absolutely true. But again, there is much more to this case. We invite any interested party to read the full story here.

The simple facts are,

  • HESC was left custodian of a herd of elephants. Most had been trained on a farm in Zimbabwe, which was in the process of being expropriated and the elephants were tagged for their meat. HESC arranged for them to be transported out in a quick rescue operation. One was saved as a tiny baby when he was abandoned by his herd, and was rehabilitated over a year with 24/7 human care. None of these elephants could be released to the wild (a number of attempts to release Jabulani – the young orphan – failed). A solution to sustain the animals had to be found. This solution came in the form of creating a camp to generate enough income to support them, without compromising on their physical and emotional wellbeing.
  • It costs approximately R35,000.00 per month to care for an elephant. There are currently 15 elephants at Camp Jabulani. This is a significant fixed cost, regardless of camp occupancies.
  • 6 of the 15 elephants are involved in walking safaris, which are restricted to 1 hour in the morning and 1 hour in the afternoon. The rest of the day is spent foraging in the wild or swimming in the waterhole (under the close eye of the elephant handlers), while nights are spent in an enclosure – stocked every single day with fresh water, and lucerne (and occasionally fresh oranges too). Anyone who has visited Camp Jabulani will have witnessed how these animals voluntarily and freely move to their nocturnal environment.
  • Camp Jabulani prescribes to a particular model of elephant care. You can read more about this here. We would like to point out that VIAB has never been to Camp Jabulani, and is therefore not in a position to make any comment about the wellbeing of these animals, nor on how they are trained. Veterinary specialists and conservation authorities would be better equipped to make such an assessment. Many already have.

We realise and respect that a lot of people will never agree on the practice of elephant safaris. But our original intention was always to protect and sustain this family of animals, and this we have done. We are certainly open to any person or body which has a better solution to generate sufficient funding on any ongoing basis which will guarantee that these elephants will be suitably cared for, day in and day out.

In closing, we remain committed to our core objectives, and hope that the content of this communication has provided sufficient explanation to our very valued supporters around the world, giving context to the facts published by VIAB. There are often deeper circumstances surrounding facts, which at face value appear very simple. There is a danger in making assumptions, which could have a devastating effect on businesses which are honestly contributing to the greater good of the world at large. We remain of the view that such dangerous allegations should first be presented directly to the organization in question. Only once that organization has failed to provide an adequate response should such matters be taken to the social space. There is true value in the words, ‘innocent until proven guilty’.

There is a great amount of good that can come of social media. But a huge responsibility lies in the hands of those administering to large communities on highly emotive issues.

We would have liked to have had the opportunity to meet the person/s behind VIAB and to have had an open discussion regarding the accusations made. We believe that a lot of energy, time and distress could have been prevented in the process.

We are ultimately all on the same side, are we not?

The Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre