Government officials in South Africa have announced plans to reconsider the breeding of lions in captivity for trophy hunting and tourist encounters. The decision followed recommendations from a lengthy review, conducted by a government appointed panel.
In October 2019, South Africa’s Environment Minister Barbara Creecy formed a panel to review policies relating to the management, breeding, hunting and trade of South Africa’s elephants, lions, leopards and rhinos. A 600-page report was the end product. Submitted in December 2020, the review detailed recommendations to bring a humane end to captive breeding of lions.
With the announcement, permits to breed, keep, hunt or interact with captive lions will cease to be issued. Current breeding permits are in the process of being revoked.
There are an estimated 300 lion-breeding facilities in South Africa, which collectively hold around 10,000 or more captive-bred lions. They are exploited at each stage of their lives: Often taken from their mothers prematurely to encourage rapid breeding cycles, cubs are intensively bred for photo opportunities with paying tourists; adult lions, too old for tourist interactions, are often sold on to hunting facilities. Here they are shot by trophy hunters, often in fenced-in areas where they are unable to escape. Their heads and skins are usually taken as trophies, while their bones and other body parts are sold to Asian markets.
Dr Mark Jones, Head of Policy at Born Free said: ‘For many years we have called for an end to South Africa’s cruel and cynical predator breeding industry, which breeds thousands of lions and other predators for the sole purpose of generating profits through bogus tourist activities, canned hunting, and the export of lion bones and other products.’
The foundation’s award-winning animation The Bitter Bond helped to bring the issue to the attention of over 11 million viewers worldwide. The animation garnered a quarter of a million signatures for an online petition calling on the South African authorities to bring an end to the industry.
While the debate around the conservation benefit of authentic hunting programmes continues, canned hunting has been condemned as a profit-orientated, unethical venture for private animal owners.
There are also links between canned hunting, captive breeding and the illegal wildlife trade. Until 2018, when the nation’s National Council of Societies for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals filed suit to stop the practice, South Africa set an annual quota for the number of lion skeletons that could be exported legally. Many argue that in supplying lion bones to Asian countries, South Africa has fuelled demand and allowed the market to expand. Herein lies the link between the practice of canned hunting and the broader illegal wildlife trade: legal exports of wildlife products can become embroiled in underground trade of illegal goods, which interfaces with organised criminal networks.
A 2019 report from wildlife trade monitoring organisation Traffic published anecdotal evidence that demand for lion bones in South-East Asia is rising due to a growing scarcity of tiger bones. Tiger bones have become rarer and harder to obtain as wild tiger populations have declined to fewer than 3,200 individuals. Because tiger and lion bones are difficult to tell apart, rising demand could lead to more poaching of both species. Plus, in July 2020, Geographical reported on the rising incidences of jaguar body part seizures, a species that is now becoming ensnared in the same markets as lion and tiger body parts.
The canned hunting practice has long been criticised for being incompatible with the nation’s conservation goals. There are around 2,000 wild lions in South Africa and an estimated 20,000 continent-wide. Their numbers have fallen by about half during the past quarter century as habitats have become fragmented. ‘The Panel identified that the captive lion breeding industry poses risks to the sustainability of wild lion conservation resulting from the negative impact on ecotourism, which funds lion conservation and conservation more broadly, the negative impact on the authentic wild hunting industry, and the risk that trade in lion parts poses to stimulating poaching and illegal trade,’ said South Africa’s Environment Minister, Barbara Creecy.
Will Travers OBE, co-founder and Executive President at Born Free, said: ‘South Africa may now be standing on the verge of a new, more wildlife friendly future.’