SAVING SIRGA: Press Statement

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Why make a series about a man and a hand-reared lioness?

Tauana Films has been producing wildlife and conservation films in Africa for almost 40 years. As producers we have spent many years following and filming the behaviour of lions in the wild. 

Our body of work as film makers reflects our lifelong mission to create awareness of the challenges facing lions and efforts to promote the conservation of lions in Africa.

Why embark on a film project about a man with a hand-reared lion when we have never worked with or had any interest in working with tame or hand-reared lions before?

Simply put, we did it because Sirga’s story speaks to the heart, and because her story illustrates and embodies all the challenges faced by lions in the Kalahari today.

Sirga should never have been born. Her parents were wild Kalahari lions that dared to cross the fences separating the Central Kalahari Game Reserve from the cattle farms. Under normal circumstances they would have been shot or poisoned by farmers and their story would have died with them.  Instead, they were captured as rogues by Willie De Graaff, a cattle farmer.

Sirga, a direct victim of the conflict between farmers and predators, was born in captivity with two other siblings. Because they were in an enclosure Sirga’s mother could not move away from the pride after the birth and Sirga’s siblings were killed by the lions in the enclosure. Val Gruener who manages the care of the captive rogue lions on Grasslands saw that the one remaining cub was on the point of death, rescued her and raised her by hand.

When we heard that Val Gruener had rescued a lion cub from a lion enclosure at Grasslands we were sceptical of his motives. We feared that he wanted to start a petting zoo where lion cubs are bred and bottle-fed by tourists. We contacted him and warned him that if that was his intention we would report him to the Botswana government and have him stopped.

Val invited us to come and see what he was doing and judge for ourselves. Still we stayed away, because we had no interest in hand-reared lions, and because at that time one volunteer per week was allowed to accompany Val on his walks with Sirga. We could see no good coming of it and we told him so.

Then, at sixteen months Sirga brought down a hartebeest on a walk, and accepted Val at the kill without attacking him. That sparked our interest, because lions are notoriously aggressive around food.

We decided to pay a visit to Val and Modisa his small volunteer camp at Grasslands. What we found put our concerns to rest. Val Gruener might not be a scientist, but he has taken responsibility for and is committed to doing the best he can for the captive lions under his care. He has also committed himself to creating the best and freest life possible for the lioness he felt compelled to rescue.

Val felt that Sirga’s behaviour on her first kill had given him an opportunity. As a hand-reared lioness in Botswana she could never be released back into the wild, but Grasslands’ ten thousand hectares teems with large herds of game from springbok, wildebeest and hartebeest to eland and zebra. With Willie De Graaff’s permission he could go out on the farm with Sirga to give her time and opportunity to hone her instincts as a hunter. If she could learn to hunt Val would commit himself to finding a way to create a suitably fenced reserve for her where she can hunt and live in relative freedom for the rest of her life.

The first thing that struck us was the obvious and unforced level of trust and friendship between the young man and the 16 month old lioness. In the three years we subsequently spent working on the series Sirga was never kept on a leash, tethered or miss-treated in any way. She was never forced to perform or to do tricks. There was no sign of ‘lion handling’ or enforcing a ‘handler’s will’ on an animal. For her own safety (because she would be shot if she crossed the fence into a neighbouring cattle farm) Sirga was housed in an enclosure, but Val took her out on three to six hour walks almost every day. No one was allowed to walk with them except our cameraman who has more than thirty years’ experience in observing and filming lions in the wild. Sirga was obviously still a captive, but she was alive, well looked after and her behaviour around Val indicated that she looked forward to and was genuinely happy with any time spent with him.

Does Sirga have any conservation value?

Hand-reared lions are normally considered to have no conservation value and the hand-rearing of any wild predator is discouraged at all times.

But we should not let ourselves to be blinded to individual stories.

Sirga is an exception, because her story is a direct and integral part of the human/predator conflict story playing out all over Africa. As a result her life matters just as much as the lives of any of the wild lions that are losing habitat, or are in danger of being hunted or poisoned in Africa.

Filming Val and Sirga’s story.

When we first met Sirga, a remarkable young lioness, our immediate thoughts were that here was a unique opportunity. It was an opportunity for a lion researcher to gather first-hand data on the physiological and developmental challenges faced by a young hand-reared lioness. Here was also an opportunity to compare the development of a hand-reared lioness with the development of a young lioness growing up and learning to hunt as part of a lion pride in the wild. There were intriguing questions: Can a hand-reared lioness who has never been part of a hunting lion pride become a successful hunter? Can she survive in the wild? How would she react if she encountered wild animals? How would she react towards Val on a kill once there was blood?

No researcher came forward, so we went ahead and filmed the process.

For us as film makers it was a unique opportunity to record all the above on film and to tell Sirga’s story and the story of the challenges faced by lions in the Kalahari Desert today. 

We believe the story will inspire and educate both local and international audiences. We believe that both George Adamson and Dr George Schaller would have been fascinated by the behaviour and new perspectives modern-day filming equipment allowed us to record.

For the record: There are no lion cubs to pet and bottle-feed at Grasslands, where Val Gruener cares for captive rogue lions. Sirga is the only hand-reared lion there. She is not part of the small Modisa volunteer programme, but the volunteers remain emotionally invested in Val and Sirga’s story.

Already the Modisa volunteer programme has made hundreds of thousands of young people in Africa and across the world aware of the problems faced by lions in the Kalahari.

Not only does Val and Sirga’s story give meaning to the lives the captives at Grasslands, but for the first time ever it also creates awareness of the thousands of wild Kalahari lions that have been killed, poisoned or captured over the past century.  

We see no reason at why Val Gruener cannot fund his wildlife awareness project by inviting paying volunteers to Modisa.  Voluntourism has become a global phenomenon. Even scientists now encourage volunteers to join them in the field to gain hands-on experience before deciding if research is what they wish to do.

Hundreds of thousands of Modisa followers show that there is a great need in a younger technologically savvy, but emotionally starved generation to be inspired, to connect with nature and predators, and to make a meaningful contribution.

Places like Modisa offer affordable ways for them to spend more time in a natural environment in Africa where they have the chance to interact with like-minded people, learn more about the natural world, and gain hands-on experience about the challenges facing wildlife in Africa.

Val Gruener clearly connects with a new generation that knows everything about social networking and little about physical connectedness. Sirga’s story allows this new generation, both locally and internationally, to connect with and relate to an important conservation story and to care enough to become involved in protecting what is left of Africa’s great wildlife heritage.

Film makers, conservationists and researchers today agree that 90% of the lions in Africa were lost over the past forty years. Fewer than 20,000 wild lions now remain.

It happened on our watch.

Val Gruener and committed and dedicated young people like him can hardly do worse.

 

13 thoughts on “SAVING SIRGA: Press Statement

  1. Thank you for documenting Sirga and Val’s story. Do you accept small donation? I’m a single mom who was enamored by this story. I’m not part of a big organization. I just want to do my part to help out.

    • Hi Journelle, thank you so much for getting in touch. Great to know that you enjoyed the series! If you would like to donate any amount to our new Sirga film, please have a look at our donation page on the Tauana Films website. This film will help create more awareness of Val and Sirga’s story worldwide. They need the exposure to make Sirga’s future secure.

        • Hi Sharon, As film producers we do not have anything to do with Sirga’s day to day care, but according to Val she is well. We think she’s just a bit frustrated.

        • Hi Sharon, Thank you so much for your message. As filmmakers we don’t have to do with Sirga’s day to day care, but we’re sure that Val and the Modisa team are taking really good care of her!
          With best wishes.

  2. I watched the documentary series and thoroughly enjoyed it. Very heartwarming to see a young person, such as Val, put so much time and effort into trying to give a dangerous wild animal the very best chance of a natural life.
    But my burning question is, what happened to Sirga & Val? Was she released into her own private reserve?
    Are you making a follow up series?

    • Thank you so much for your note. Yes, Sirga is safe and sound in her new home! Have a look at our Saving Sirga Facebook page for more info and photo’s!

  3. i love the show saving sirga and so glad a film company has done it. all you ever see anymore is crime, cop, talent shows which are so boring. i love wildlife, especially when man and beast are best friends. there is nothing better in life. animals are so very intelligent and give me peace from all the human stupidity and igorance in the world. thank you for creating such a show. please dont let it end

    • Apologies for the looong delay in answering! Thank you so much for taking the time to comment on the series. It is greatly appreciated! We agree entirely that shows like these should be able to be shown on normal TV channels and not just on the limited wildlife channels. We believe that animals are much more intelligent and aware than we give them credit for and that we should try to learn as much as possible about them before they all disappear. Sometimes we think animals are smarter than humans, because they don’t destroy their habitats like we do!

  4. Hello – wild cats, specifically lions, are of great interest to me. I watch videos and documentaries of people like Val Gruener and Kevin Richardson and am amazed at their incredible bonds with the giant cat. While my chosen profession is not of wildlife nature, I still feel drawn to working with lions in some capacity. I’m not sure if this is the right platform to express this interest, or even what questions to ask to achieve what I ultimately desire. Nonetheless, I’d like to do what Val and Kevin have done and create such unfathomable connections with wild cats. What are some recommendations you may have to point me in a direction that can allow me to do what Val and Kevin do? Any and all suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

    • Hi Christopher, In our experience most of the people like Val and Kevin who end up with a deep connection with wild cats, simply fell into it, because they were put into a position where they had to make a choice; leave the cat to die or go to a place where it will be hunted, or send it to a zoo, or save it and be responsible for its life and well-being for as long as it lives. It’s a life-changing decision, because this job cannot be done part time. It needs total commitment and dedication. On top of that finding a place where large cats can live freely and have enough prey to hunt in our modern world is an excruciatingly difficult and expensive undertaking, because cats like Sirga can live up to 20plus years and can cost millions of dollars to care for over that time. Difficult therefore for us to recommend anything to you. We actually introduced Val to a farmer who needed someone to care for the rogue lions and other predators on his game ranch. That is where Val ‘fell’ into his friendship with Sirga. He found her dying in an enclosure, he made the choice to save her, and that’s how their story started. The best would probably be for you to start by volunteering at a zoo or something like that to see if you have an affinity with wild animals. We know this sounds weird, but sometimes the choice about whether we work with wild animals or not is not ours to make, because animals have likes and dislikes just like people. So it would be best to first find out if animals actually like you before changing your life. Hope this helps? You’re welcome to follow our Saving Sirga journey into the heart of a lion page on Facebook to hear and see more.
      Best wishes, Jurgen, Tarina and Michael

  5. It’s incredible what you all are doing, Val included. The optimism that is shown by people like Val and locals like Willie is what keeps my hope alive for the future of many majestic beasts. Please keep up the good work for all our sakes. Also, please let me know if there is a way to contribute financially to the cause. Physically I would be worse than useless due to my own body limitations, but I would love to offer monetary assistance.

    • Hi Jacob, thank you very much for taking the time to reach out and for your kind words. We think that we have to hang on to hope and optimism and fight like mad at the same time to keep wilderness and biodiversity alive for those who come after us. Who knows, perhaps they’ll be wiser than we’ve been. We are very fortunate that nature is patient and resilient. We just have to give it a chance and it will recover on its own.
      We are planning a 90 minute feature documentary about Val and Sirga next in which we shall try to interpret their relationship against the modern scientific vision which concludes that many non-human animals are sentient often conscious beings capable of feeling, communication, choice and many other qualities humans have not given them credit for. We’ll need help realizing that project and we’ll be offering various monetary options by which people can help us realize it on our Saving Sirga Journey into the heart of a lion facebook page soon if you’d be interested. In our experience people with bodily limitations often have other super powers because they tend to think more than others. With best wishes. Jurgen, Tarina and Michael

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