Why South Africa Is Ending Captive Lion Keeping And Hunting

Lions at Cheetah Plains

Aardvark Safaris

The flyer in my hotel bedroom in the Eastern Cape offered the chance to cuddle a lion cub at a nearby wildlife rescue centre. As a tourist, I had no idea as to whether it was a well-run sanctuary or not. That was before I learned about captive lion breeding.

Last week, South Africa’s government announced it would stop issuing permits to breed, keep, or interact with captive lions and would revoke current breeding permits, as well as an immediate ban on the export of lion bones and parts.

Environment minister Barbara Creecy said her ministry will adopt all the recommendations of the high-level 2020 report into conservation policies and legislation. Once these recommendations become law, an end to so-called canned hunting is expected.

This is when a lion reared in captivity is released into a small area to be hunted and shot. Sometimes the lion is chosen from a picture on the internet, and critics say lions are frequently drugged.

“South Africa has taken a different path from other Southern African countries when it comes to wildlife, which has led to an extraordinary industry where captive lions are bred and the cubs taken away from their mothers while still young,” explains Charlie Mayhew, Chief Executive of Tusk, the African conservation charity. 

“This has stimulated so-called tourism with visitors being encouraged to have their picture taken bottle feeding and petting the cubs. It’s a con and an illusion.”

Born Free: this lion cub remains free, but there could be as many as five times as many lion cubs … [+] born into captivity presently in South Africa

Carnivore Sightings Paul Tickner

“Petting lion cubs and walking with teenage lions has a much more sinister side than many tourists realize,” observes Alice Gully, co-owner of Aardvark Safaris. “These cubs are born into captivity and almost always taken from their mothers. As they grow older, they become less predictable and have been known to turn on a keeper or visitor. Once they are too big, they may be sent away for canned hunting.’

As Dr Amy Dickman, conservationist and fellow at Pembroke College Oxford points out, there is nothing positive that can come out of petting or walking with lions. “Lions are not domestic animals – they are not pets.”  

Losing The African Lion

Africa’s lion population is shrinking fast, with only 22509 wild lions left. Nowhere is this more painfully obvious than in South Africa, where only only 2070 wild lions remained in 2019.*

This doesn’t mean lions need to be bred in captivity, other than to protect rare and endangered subspecies. “In almost all suitable conservation areas there is no shortage of lions,” observes Connie Blythe, from African Travel Resource. “A more common problem is that there are too many lions, and males are forced out of the reserves in search of new territory.”

The 2015 documentary Blood Lions blew the lid on claims by the predator breeding and canned hunting businesses that it contributed to animal welfare or the preservation of the lion species in South Africa. Director Ian Michler estimated that there may be as many as 12,000 lions in captivity in South Africa, although some experts put the figure considerably lower.

Forget Born Free, the story of Elsa the lion cub raised by Joy and George Adamson and released back into the wild. There is no rosy old age for most of South Africa’s captive lions, apart from those in well-run zoos and bona fide animal sanctuaries.

“It’s inconceivable that a captive-bred lion can survive in the wild. They have no hunting skills, and they have no fear of humans,” says Mayhew. 

“These animals are so habituated to humans that releasing them – even if suitable areas could be found, which is unlikely – would risk attacks on people and their livestock, with a major negative impact,” agrees Dickman.

The Bottom Line

“There has been a consistent clamour to ban captive breeding of lions for canned hunting for many years but until now, the lobby from the industry has been so strong that it fell on deaf ears,” says Mayhew. 

The difference is a relatively new government and a tough and determined minister for the environment. A member of the African National Congress party, Creecy is a former anti-apartheid campaigner who is committed to bringing South Africa’s ecological and conservation policies up to scratch with the rest of Southern Africa.

Barbara Creecy, South Africa’s environment, forestry and fisheries minister, gestures as she speaks … [+] during a swearing-in ceremony in Pretoria, South Africa, on Thursday, May 30, 2019. Now that South Africa’s cabinet has been announced, the rand may join its emerging-market peers in being whipsawed by a trade war that has subdued markets worldwide. Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg

© 2019 Bloomberg Finance LP

She has made it clear that the adoption of the panel’s recommendations is not an attack on legitimate hunting; global conservation authority IUCN recognizes that well managed trophy hunting can contribute to conservation and local livelihoods. 

In recent years, South Africa has worked hard to establish itself as a destination for discerning travellers. Captive breeding is a threat to this; one estimate suggests the practice could cost South Africa  ZAR 45 billion (£2.27 billion) over the next ten years in brand damage.

The decision to end captive lion hunting has been welcomed by the ecotourism industry in South Africa – more on this in my next post.

Keeping a distance: Lion Sands, Ivory Lodge

Aardvark Safaris

However, the government will have a delicate balancing act in implementing the legislation.

While welcoming the decision to end the petting of lions and captive-bred lion hunting, Dickman warns there could be some unintended consequences, such as potentially serious implications from the decision to ban South Africa’s legalized trade in lion bones and parts while significant demand still exists.

She says, “There is a big risk if you cut off the only legal supply route, the demand will instead be met in an illegal and unregulated way from wild lions. This is a real concern for lion conservationists.”

The devil will be in the detail. The fate of the majority of South Africa’s captive lions, almost certainly a humane death by euthanasia, is a reminder of the shadow cast by the captive lion breeding industry.

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