Conservationist Richard Peirce elaborates on his new book — the first to examine the widely condemned captive lion breeding industry in South Africa

CUDDLE Me, Kill Me started off as the fourth book in a Struik Nature (Penguin Random House) published series telling the true stories of animals. It did not finish as it began. Instead, it started me on a journey of discovery that would last two years.

Obi and Oliver are lions born into the captive predator breeding sector. They were rescued by two of their carers, who now run a big cat sanctuary in the Western Cape called Panthera Africa.

In 2016, I watched the documentary film Blood Lions, which prompted my wife to remind me of a promise I had made to her to write a book investigating canned hunting. Three things came together: Blood Lions ignited my interest, Obi and Oliver gave me a story to tell, and I always try to keep promises to my wife.

The canned hunting issue had been on my radar for many years, but until I saw Blood Lions I had not been aware of the many other uses to which captive-bred lions are put. Cub petting, paying voluntourism, films and adverts, walking with lions, the lion bone trade, teeth and claws for jewellery, and even the sale of lion meat are all moneymaking opportunities that have made lion farming a highly profitable business.

It saddens me to have written the two words “lion” and “farming” together, but my early research showed this word-coupling to be wholly appropriate – the king of the animal world is being factory-farmed like domestic livestock.

Part one of the book tells the story of the two rescued lions. Part two is called “Journey of Discovery”, and describes my research, driving thousands of kilometres, visiting several facilities involved in lion breeding and related activities, and conducting interviews across the sector.

Lion farming ends with a bullet, and this aspect is covered in part three, where I explore canned hunting and take readers on a lion hunt. “Past, Present and Future” is the final section, which examines the place of lions in history, the present plight of wild lions and the future for the species.

The attraction of being close up to an apex predator is undeniable. It is why cage diving with great white sharks is so popular, and it is also the reason why walking with lions, and cuddling cubs are now firmly established ecotourism opportunities in South Africa.

There is, of course, a huge difference the sharks are wild, whereas the lions are captive-bred. Captive-bred big cats are highly dangerous, as has been shown many times when handlers get mauled or killed. But once the public, however mistakenly, start to regard them as large, half-tame pussycats, their allure will diminish.

“Hunters” from the US made up by far the largest part of those taking part in canned hunts. Restrictions on importing trophies into the US have dramatically reduced the number of canned “hunters” coming to South Africa. However, “hunting” is now only one of the reasons for breeding lions, and the steady increase in value of lion carcasses alone will be reason enough for the breeding sector to continue, and probably continue to grow.

Without effective action at the consumer end in China and the Far East to stop the increase in demand, lion breeding will expand to keep pace with market forces. The captive-bred and wild lion populations are separate, and utilisation of captive-bred animals is not yet widely seen as impacting negatively on wild populations.

This is why the South African government has been able to get a dispensation from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species Cites to export 800 lion skeletons a year from its captive breeders.

In the immediate future I can see no reason why this 800 skeleton figure will be reduced, or abandoned. Many believe it will increase. On top of this, there will be smuggled skeletons, plus bones and skeletons finding their way to the Far East from other African countries.

So what is the bone trade, and why are lion bones in such increasing demand? The answer is that it is a confidence trick. Lion bones and whole skeletons are almost impossible to tell apart from tiger bones and skeletons, and so are being passed off as tiger and used to produce tiger wine, tiger cake and other products.

The huge financial scale of this business is illustrated by the following example from Cuddle Me, Kill Me, which is already out of date, as the figures are too low: “A 15-18kg lion or tiger skeleton is initially sold for $1500 (R18 350) – $1800. At an average of $1650, the 800 carcasses in the 2017 South Africa quota are collectively worth $1 320 000 before processing.

“When boiled, a skeleton delivers about 60 portions bars of tiger or lion ‘cake’. Of course, there are middlemen between the first seller and the final consumer the processor, wholesaler and retailer all have profit margins and, in many cases, smugglers and others will have taken their cuts, too.

“Each bar sells for $1000, so each skeleton is worth $60000 by the time it has been processed and sold to the end consumer as ‘tiger’ cake. By now, the 800 skeletons will collectively be worth a mind-blowing $48 000 000!”

When researching the book, I came across estimates of the size of the captive-bred lion population, which varied from 4 000 to 18 000 animals. To put a perspective on this, I would offer another example from the book: “In an interview with the South African Predator Association reported later in this book, I was told there were at least 200 predator breeders in South Africa, and there may be as many as 240.”

One could extrapolate that: if 200 breeders each had 20 lionesses with each producing six cubs annually, there is an annual production rate of a staggering 24 000 cubs. This is a huge figure and cannot be accurate because not all facilities will house 20 lionesses, and not all facilities will be breeding at full rates all the time.

If even a quarter of this maximum number is born, it still indicates a staggering 6 000 cubs being bred in captivity in South Africa each year. Without controls, the populations can only increase, which means that the problem of eventually doing something about it will get more and more difficult. If the commercial usage of captive-bred lions was stopped, what do you do with thousands of dangerous animals that cannot be released into the wild?

In Cuddle Me, Kill Me, I tried to be fair and examine all the issues arising from captive breeding in as neutral a way as possible, so that readers could make their own minds up. I failed, and must own up to bias, because early on in our journey of discovery, the awfulness of the whole captive predator breeding sector became apparent, and our open minds slammed tight shut.