The mighty lion is emblematic with the arid wilderness of the African plains. But unbeknownst to many, there is another habitat in which even more roam.
All across South Africa, thousands of lions are bred in farms for the sole purpose of being killed – for entertainment. Body parts such as bones, claws, and teeth are then often shipped off to parts of the world where there is a high demand for such things.
“Canned hunting” is where captive-bred predators (mainly lions) are released into enclosures to be shot by fee-paying “trophy hunters”. The former Deputy Chairman of Britain’s Conservative Party, Lord Ashcroft, travelled to South Africa to investigate this industry, which he defined as “horrific and abusive”. He has urged the South African Government to outlaw the practice, and called on the UK Government to introduce new import laws on these “prized” carcasses to discourage it.
Lord Ashcroft disclosed that wealthy clients are sent pictures of captive lions to purchase, with a cost of up to £42,300 per lion. In a further bid to maximise profits, lions are sometimes crossbred with other big cats to create a desirable hybrid offspring, which can produce a catalogue of genetic defects.
Mark Jones is Veterinarian and also the Head of Policy at the Born Free Foundation – one of the world’s leading wildlife charities. For decades, the organisation has fought against the exploitation of wild animals in captivity and campaigned to keep them in the wild. He said:
“The predator breeding industry in South Africa has grown exponentially over the last two decades, and currently houses upwards of 8-12,000 animals (mainly, but not exclusively lions) across 260 or more facilities. While the South African authorities themselves admit it has “limited conservation value”, the industry’s growth has been promoted at both provincial and national level by various Government actors over recent years.”
The ground-breaking documentary, “Blood Lions” estimated that as many as 1,000 captive-bred lions lose their lives in ‘canned hunts’ each year. And it is believed that in South Africa, there is four times the amount of lions in captivity compared to those that are free in the wild.
A year ago, Born Free released the “Cash Before Conservation” report, which exposed the development and practices of the predator breeding industry in South Africa. In August 2018, Jones presented its findings to the South African Parliamentary Portfolio Environment Committee, but it was to no avail.
“South African law, at both provincial and federal levels, has failed to prevent the growth of the industry, which claims that the breeding of lions and other predators for commercial purposes is in line with South Africa’s Constitution and “sustainable use” approach to wildlife management,” Jones explained.
“The industry consists of many well-connected individuals and still has supporters at a very high level within South Africa who see this exploitation as being entirely consistent with South Africa’s constitution. In the Parliamentary response to the colloquium’s report late last year, the clear messages about the need to close down the industry were watered down, and the DEA visited a number of captive breeding facilities and issued them with licences, effectively legitimising them. Just recently the South African Government has launched a public consultation on lion bone export quotas from captive-bred lions, so it seems that, as of now, there is little appetite within the Government to shut the industry down.”
Within a few days of their births, cubs also are taken from their mother so that she could be ready for more breeding. Unwitting tourists pay to play with the babies or take photos with them, incorrectly believing that the animals are genuine orphans and that, one day, they will be integrated back into the wild. Volunteers are often equally as misguided. And as the cubs get older, they will be used for other tourist activities such as ‘walking with lions’. Yet, the harrowing fate that awaits these ill-fated creatures is to one day be shot.
“Closure of the industry would require a long-term approach with significant funding,” Jones added. “The vast majority of lions in breeding facilities are unsuitable for release into the wild for behavioural, genetic and other reasons, and because of a lack of suitable release sites within South Africa. There is clearly nowhere with near enough space, and never will be, in sanctuaries to ensure lifetime care can be provided for the large numbers of animals held in captive breeding centres, and many of the existing breeding centres are not able to adequately meet the needs of the animals they house.”
At present, Born Free is trying to persuade the UK Government to set an example by banning the import of the remnants of these lions.
Yet, the final responsibility rests on the conscientiousness of the South African government to tackle this threat to the survival of the king of the beasts. WWF reported that African lion numbers have plummeted by over 40% in the last three generations and with such dwindling figures, these majestic cats have now been classified as a “vulnerable” species.