South Africa has taken the first steps towards ending a multi-million-dollar industry that conservationists say is ‘barbaric’ and ‘exploitive’.
More than 12,000 lions and other big cats are thought to be kept in captivity in South Africa, which had become an epicentre for so-called ‘canned hunting’, where wealthy, mostly-Western hunters pay thousands of dollars for the chance to shoot captive lions, leopards and cheetah for ‘sport’.
‘It is one of the worst animal-welfare abuses of modern times,’ said Neil Greenwood, regional director of International Fund for Animal Welfare Southern Africa (IFAW).
‘It’s taken more than 20 years of campaigning, and the cruel deaths of thousands of lions purely due to commercial greed for the South African government to finally call it a day.’
Tourist encounters with captive-bred lions – and the grisly trade in the bones and body parts of animals killed in canned hunts – will also be banned because of growing public opposition and possible links between the legal and illegal trade in lion bones, and the diseases that animals can pass to humans.
The decision was reached after a review panel warned the industry jeopardised the conservation of wild lions and harmed tourism.
It also decided to halt further trade in rhino horns and ivory.
‘This is a significant shift in thinking,’ said Ian Michler, South African conservationist and director of the Blood Lions charity, who has been campaigning to shut down canned hunting for the past 25 years.
‘Despite the many setbacks along the way, I never doubted that eventually the world would see the industry for what it is: nothing more than the brutal exploitation of lions and predators for commercial gain.
‘They have tried to justify what they do by undermining the legitimate conservation and education messages.’
The new policy, which will prohibit the breeding and hunting of captive lions and make it illegal for anyone except licensed zoos and sanctuaries to own lions, was largely brought about after a decades-long campaign.
In May, the government took the first steps towards ending the trade, by immediately stopping all new permits and revoking current permits.
Though the policy is yet to be made into law, with campaigners and legislators trying to decide what to do with the thousands of big cats currently being held in captivity, it will effectively end the legal trade of lion bones and body parts across the globe. South Africa is the only country in the world intensively farming lions and legally selling and exporting big-cat bones, claws, teeth and body parts.
The grisly items usually wind up in China or Southeast Asia, where they are marketed as tiger parts for so-called Chinese ‘medicine’, aphrodisiacs, trinkets and ‘tiger wine’ – a noxious drink made from various animal parts.
According to the Humane Society International, an animal-rescue charity that works around the globe, there are currently over 400 breeding farms in South Africa, with as many as 12,000 farmed lions kept in shockingly inhumane conditions. By contrast there are barely 3,000 wild lions in the country, while fewer than 20,000 remain across the continent.
Environment Minister Barbara Creecy announced her department will adopt many of the recommendations of a year-long, 600-page report relating to the breeding, hunting and trade of lions, leopards, elephants and rhinos.
She noted that there was ‘a predominant view that the captive-lion breeding industry was doing damage to South Africa’s conservation and tourism reputation.’
Conservationists welcomed the end of the factory farming of big cats and canned hunting, where lions are raised in captivity to be shot by paying hunters.
The Born Free wildlife foundation called it ‘a truly toxic activity’.
Lion farming has repeatedly been condemned for its inhumane treatment of animals kept in filthy and overcrowded facilities, which create the perfect storm for dangerous pathogens to spread among the cats, and for disease to spill over to humans.
South Africa’s farmed big cats are ruthlessly exploited at every stage of their short, brutal lives.
Tourists often unwittingly support this process by paying to pet, pose with, or bottle-feed the cubs and walk alongside adolescent lions, unaware that these animals have been removed at birth from their mothers, who are made to breed three or four times more than they would naturally in the wild.
The cubs are also often beaten and drugged to ensure docility around humans.
The lions that don’t die of malnutrition or disease before they reach adulthood are sent to their deaths in canned hunts, in which the tame animals are drugged and corralled into confined spaces, where hunters can easily shoot them, without having to stalk them across the savanna. It often takes several shots, as the animal is riddled with bullets by inexperienced hunters, enduring a prolonged, painful death.
American and European travellers pay up to $60,000 to kill a lion.
While hunters can keep the heads and skins of the big cats they have killed, the rest of the corpse is sold for tens of thousands of dollars to China and Southeast Asia, for use in traditional ‘medicine’ and ingredients in foods and wine.
As South Africa is the only country to allow the sale of lion bones, a large number of breeding facilities specialise in supplying this voracious market.
South Africa is home to nearly 300 species of wild mammals, including the iconic Big Five – lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros and Cape buffalo – so prized by the lucrative safari industry. But the global outrage over its canned hunting has done serious damage to South Africa’s tourism brand.
In 1997 The Cook Report, a British TV investigative documentary series, exposed the big-cat breeding industry in South Africa and introduced the phrase ‘canned lion hunting’.
Since then its secretive, sinister canned hunting business has been dogged by scandal.
The surge of negative publicity and uncover films has made the country a pariah in conservation circles and has had a similar effect as apartheid, putting off many discerning travellers and animal-lovers from visiting.
‘I think repairing South Africa’s global conservation and tourism reputation was a part of it,’ said Michler, whose harrowing, multi-award-winning film, Blood Lions, exposed the insidious world of South African canned hunts.
‘The industry is brutal and utterly exploitative and has no conservation or scientific value at all. At this level, policy decisions that become legislation have to be based on science and expert opinion. And so Blood Lions fought the campaign in this way and it has proved to be the correct approach.’
Deeply concerned about the horrors of lion-farming, British politician and entrepreneur Lord Michael Ashcroft financed an undercover investigation and recruited a team, who worked undercover for over two years to infiltrate the lion farms. He also wrote a book, Unfair Game.
He chillingly described how his undercover operatives discovered 54 lions shot for their bones in a single day on one of the farms.
‘Alongside the canned hunting,’ he revealed, ‘these farms where also running petting farms with the cubs and conning the public that these cubs were orphans whose mothers abandoned them. Yet they were torn away hours after birth.’
For many years, wildlife experts warned against the dangers of allowing this industry to continue. ‘Experts have told me of their belief that a major public-health incident will occur in Asia and Africa as a result of the lion-bone trade,’ said Ashcroft.
‘After the coronavirus pandemic, for how long can South Africa afford to ignore these serious public health warnings?’
Covid-19 has certainly played a role in shaping the new measures in that it highlighted the threats posed by zoonotic diseases – many scientists believe the virus crossed from animals to humans at a market selling endangered wildlife.
By 2019, the new environment minister, Barbara Creecy, appointed a high-level panel to advise her on the next steps for this industry, which recommended banning the breeding and keeping of captive lions for economic gain, including hunting and cub petting.
Under the new recommendations, the sale of lion bones is set to end and all existing stockpiles will be destroyed.
Creecy is committed to bring South Africa’s conservation policies in line with the rest of southern Africa. But in the same breath, she made it clear the hunting of wild lions will continue.
‘Preventing the hunting of captive lions is in the interests of the “authentic” wild hunting industry,’ she said, somewhat cryptically. She went on to add that hunting wild lions and other Big-Five animals ‘will boost our international reputation and the jobs that this creates’.
The decision to allow big-game hunting in the wild was met with disappointment by many conservationists, who said the ministry had a chance to do something truly progressive by following the example set by Kenya in 1977, which outlawed hunting in favour of photographic safaris, making it the top tourist destination in Africa.
They pointed out that lions are classed as ‘vulnerable’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list and, like other endangered wildlife that can also be legally hunted in South Africa such as rhino and elephant, are in catastrophic decline across the continent.
‘I’m certainly not a supporter of hunting as a conservation option,’ said Michler, who is aghast at the idea of killing animals for ‘conservation’.
‘Whether we like it or not, trophy hunting is entrenched through the IUCN and other institutions, including the global conservation agency World Wildlife Fund, as an accepted component to wildlife management.’
Wildlife experts warn it will be incredibly difficult for authorities to shut down the lion-farming industry and, as Michler points out, ‘will require a phasing out period and could take three or four years’.
This raises concerns about the fate of the 12,000 lions and other predators held at these commercial breeding-and-killing farms. ‘This is a real challenge, and one that has no easy solutions,’ said Dr Neil D’Cruze, head of wildlife research at World Animal Protection.
‘As yet, the fate of these lions is unknown and, sadly, none of them can be released back into the wild. Many of the lions born into these facilities will be inbred and may be generally in poor health.'
‘Sadly, euthanasia may well be the best, albeit last resort outcome for them.’
He said that ‘a full and transparent audit’ of all existing lion farms and health conditions of the lions ‘will be crucial to inform ethical and humane decision-making in the best interest of the animals themselves’, adding: ‘If carried out quickly, such an audit would also help to prevent any undesired outcomes, such as continued slaughter of lions for their bones or their prolonged suffering in cruel captive conditions.’
Big cats are an integral part of African culture and the biggest draw to the continent.
Many animal experts and advocates think that ethical, sustainable wildlife tourism is an alternative for these captive-bred lions, rehousing them in natural prides in conservancies or credible sanctuaries around the country and elsewhere on the continent, where tourists and school groups can observe them living a semi-wild existence.
D’Cruze, like many other animal advocates, thinks wildlife-friendly tourism is the way forward.
‘There are likely to be opportunities for at least some of the lion farms in South Africa to transition into becoming true sanctuaries.’
He cited the example of Thailand, which was previously associated with large-scale elephant abuse but has since embraced a more-ethical approach, and explained how former elephant-riding venues have moved to an observation-only model to great success.
‘The main priority right now is preventing the existing farmed lions from having new cubs. While these big cats can’t be returned to the wild, our hope is that they are the last generation born into these horrific conditions in captivity.’