Adam Cruise says that of six nations, SA ranks highest in terms of most lion trophies exported.

Given that in Africa wild lions are in catastrophic decline, the latest International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) figures suggest that fewer than 20,000 remain. It may come as a shock to discover that as many as 10,000 of the continent’s iconic big cats were legally hunted and exported as trophies in the ten years ending in 2013.

The vast majority of these lions were bred in captivity for the purpose of hunting. The mostly American and European sports hunters took the lions to their home countries as trophies – mounted heads or skins for their collections.

The tally for hunted lions is likely even higher than 10,000, says Dereck Joubert, wildlife filmmaker and National Geographic explorer-in-residence, because not all hunters take trophies. Some hunt just for the sport.

Six African countries where lions still range freely – South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Namibia and Tanzania – were analysed using the official CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) trade database, which lists animal and plant products exported and imported internationally.

Kenya and Botswana are two lion-range countries notably omitted from this list. Both countries have outlawed trophy hunting in an effort to boost lion populations, although Botswana only recently adopted this measure.

Even though the IUCN red list of threatened species lists lions as vulnerable (facing a high risk of extinction in the wild), African range lions in all six countries are listed by CITES under Appendix II, which means lion products may be exported under a permit system. Permits are granted “if the relevant authorities are satisfied that certain conditions are met, above all that trade will not be detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild.”


Of the six nations, South Africa ranks highest in terms of most trophies exported. The country has registered a staggering average of 748 lion trophies exported per year.

Tanzania is next with an annual average of almost 150 lion trophies, followed by Zimbabwe and Zambia (each between 60 and 70 a year), Mozambique (22) and Namibia (less than 20 a year). Botswana, before banning trophy hunting in January 2014, tabled an average of 10 trophies each year.

The figures are not 100 percent accurate as there are a number of discrepancies that creep into the database, such as countries reporting the number of permits issued but not the actual permits used. However, the figures give a general idea of just how impactful trophy hunting is on lions.

Country         Exported Trophies    Estimated Wild        Estimated Captive

2003-2013              Lion Population[1]    Lion Population

South Africa     7,487                       2,100                       Approx. 7,000

Tanzania         1,408                       15,600                      –

Zimbabwe       688                          850                          –

Zambia           635                          1,150                       –

Mozambique   219                           2,700                      –

Namibia         185                           600                         –

[1] Based on latest figures from

 South Africa tops the list, but most of the lions hunted for trophies (two thirds of the country’s total lion population) are what the government terms ‘captive bred’ or ‘ranch’ lions. According to a spokesperson for the South African Department of Environment, less than 10 wild lions are hunted in South Africa a year.

Currently in South Africa there are almost 200 breeding facilities where lions are raised exclusively for trophy hunting. The big cats are kept in small enclosures and are habituated to humans, making them easy targets for hunters. The practice has come under fire recently with the release of the film Blood Lions. As Ian Michler, the documentary’s main narrator, says “it’s about breeding wildlife as intensively as they can, as quickly as they can, to make as much money as they can.”


Zimbabwe’s situation is worse because trophy hunting involves vulnerable wild lion populations.Researchers, co-ordinated by a team at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment and partially funded by National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative (BCI), revealed in 2012 that wild lion populations in that country “are in trouble”.

Almost 700 lion trophies were legally exported during the decade under review, but the current population, according to the 2012 survey, stood at only 850. This suggests that, at the current rate and if lion numbers don’t increase, which is unlikely, in another decade trophy hunters alone will have wiped out nearly all remaining lions in Zimbabwe.

In Zambia an average of 65 trophies are exported each year. According to another 2012 research paper, most parks are registering free-falling numbers of lions. A park like the 3,866-square-kilometre Liuwa Plains National Park has just three individuals.

The collapse of their lion population prompted Zambian authorities to ban trophy hunting of big cats in 2013. Zambian tourism and arts minister, Jean Kapata, cited big cat numbers “too low to have a sustainable hunting industry.” However, the country lifted the ban earlier this year. According to a recent CNN report, it was “because the government needed the money to fund conservation”.

Things look only marginally better in Mozambique and Namibia. Namibia exports less than 20 lion trophies per year. But that country’s lion population is considerably smaller at just 600 individuals. It indicates hunting still has a detrimental impact on the population as a third of the current total number during the decade was exported as trophies.

In Mozambique, lion numbers in the Niassa Reserve, the country’s largest game park, may be increasing. This is according to Colleen Begg of the Niassa Carnivore Project, an NGO working to conserve large carnivore populations there. She said in an email to the Associated Press in July that it was because of the heavy poaching of elephants, which has provided “the carnivores with a bounty of carcasses to eat as well as vulnerable elephant calves to hunt.”


However, farther south lions are disappearing rapidly. A study of lions in the northwest Tete Province of Mozambique in 2013 suggests 185 lions in the region, down from the 2009 survey of 295 lions. The Gorongosa National Park that once had over 200 lions now has less than 30 individuals. In recognition of the country’s fast declining numbers due to trophy hunting, CITES has enforced an export quota on lions since 2012.

Tanzania has the largest wild lion population of all African nations. Still, almost 1,500 lion trophies have been exported in the decade following 2003 with overall numbers declining alarmingly. In the Katavi National Park, for example, 1,118 of the big cats were counted in 1993. By 2014 there was not a single lion remaining.

Lion expert, Professor Craig Packer of the University of Minnesota, found the results of their research in 2009 that the trophy hunting rate of big cats throughout Tanzania “had consistently been too high”. Packer predicted that the future population of lions in Tanzania would be seriously decimated unless fewer big cats were killed by trophy hunters each year.

Another problem with trophy hunting, as Jeffrey Flocken, North America Regional Director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), says, is that “hunters are not like natural predators. They target the largest specimens, with the biggest tusks, manes, antlers, or horns.”

According to Andrew Loveridge of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCru) at Oxford University, a scientific group specialising in wild carnivores, sport hunters go almost exclusively for adult lion males. This has caused a decline in numbers of adult males in the total lion population.

Loveridge says that “hunting predators on the boundaries of national parks causes significant disturbance and knock-on effects” such as infanticide when new males entered the prides.

According to the 2015 IUCN Red List analysis on lions, which Packer co-authored, there is concern that current management regimes in terms of trophy hunting have contributed to an astonishing decline of 42 percent of the continent’s total population.

The CITES listing of lion is currently undergoing a periodic review. The IUCN survey for 2015 has recommended a change in categorisation for African lions from vulnerable to endangered. If that happens CITES may be prompted to list lions under Appendix I, but as is the case with the other species on the same listing, it does not guarantee the days of hunting lions for trophies will soon be over.

Blood Lions: 6 Harsh truths about canned lion hunting

Cape Town – Blood Lions has been shining a much-needed spotlight on the canned lion hunting industry in South Africa.The release of Ian Michler’s film at the Durban Film festival in July, blows the lid off all the conservation claims made by the predator breeding and canned hunting industries in South Africa.

The release of the film also coincided with the news that one of Zimbabwe’s most famous lions, Cecil, was shot in a supposed legal hunt on a private reserve just outside of Hwange National Park – globally fueling debate around the practice.

For 15 years Michler has researched and campaigned against the canned lion hunting industry in South Africa and after watching the Cape Town screening of the documentary, here are 6 harsh truths that hit home and make Blood Lions an essential film for all South Africans to see.

1. Canned lion hunting is ‘damaging brand South Africa’

South Africa is one of the few countries in the world that breeds lions for the purposes of hunting, another being Texas in the US. Michler says the issue of canned breeding cannot be addressed without looking at the trophy hunting industry in its entirety, since it “ultimately all ends with bagging this trophy animal”.

“There is no justification for breeding lions, it is merely an exploitative commercial activity that is damaging brand South Africa and our reputation as a conservation country with a proud history, as well as our reputation as an eco-tourism destination,” said Michler.

Michler said government needs to ask itself if it is prepared to allow this and then put the necessary legislation in place in order stop it since there is absolutely no conservation value as the film Blood Lions reveals – deconstructing the “fraudulent message of the industry”

South African Minister of Tourism Derek Hanekom also says in an interview in the film,  “My feeling is I’m not proud of it. The industry has certainly damaged Brand South Africa.”

2. Approximately 1 000 lions are being shot in canned hunts yearly in SA

In less than 15 years the number of lions in captivity has increased from less than 200 to an estimated 8 000.

Statistics reveal that around 1 000 lions are shot while in captivity in South Africa each year. Hunters pay half the price to shoot a lion that has been bred for canned hunts.  Michler says the hunts cost about $5 400 (about R70 902 At R13.13/$) to kill a lioness to $48 000 (about R600k) for a black maned lion – with a US hunter going undercover in the film to detail the process from the start of booking and selecting ‘his lion’ online to the on-site induction ahead of the kill.

3. Botswana is doing a much better job of managing its wildlife resources

Botswana’s government has put a total ban in place on trophy hunting. Its Environment Minister, Tshekedi Khama is also interviewed in the film and says the country sees more long-term value in its photographic safaris.

“We don’t get second chances,” says Khama.

Travel and tourism contributes an estimated 9% to South Africa’s struggling economy. Revenue generated from the canned hunting industry is estimated to be in excess of $200m (about R2.6bn) yet it is said to make up less 0.1 percent of SA’s overall tourism income. When compared to the canned hunting industry, photographic safaris are more sustainable and have more long-term value for conservation and the South African tourism industry as a whole.

4. Volunteers come to SA with good intentions but are getting pulled into the canned hunting industry cycle unknowingly

Michler states that unethical lion breeders are confusing the message and are in fact high jacking potential conservation funding. He says organisations such as Panthera, Endangered Wildlife Trust, Wilderness Foundation, Wildlands Conservation Trust are at the heart of conservation in South Africa and not a single one of them work with these breeding or petting facilities.

It is important for volunteers and those seeking to have an enriching, eco-tourism experience to ask those uncomfortable questions if they have any doubts about the conservation practices at the establishment they’re visiting.

“Ask to speak to their resident lion ecologist, ask which conservation programmes they’re working with,” suggests Michler, “You’ll very soon discover they don’t have one.”

5. South Africa’s canned hunting industry has resulted in a legacy that distinguishes between a domestic and wild lion 

When you have an understanding of what an apex predator is about and to see them reduced to these commodities in enclosed areas is shocking says Michler, as is the ” fraudulent message being used to justify the trophy hunting industry”.

“Lions are in trouble across Africa as the numbers indicate but the conservation community is not involved in breeding lions up on farms. They are involved in securing habitat, involved in stopping the fragmentation of habitat and in stopping the human animal conflicts that result in lions being poisoned or shot in wild areas,” said Michler.

As a result canned hunting has created a number of spin-off revenue streams such as Lion cub petting and walking with lions activities that in no way benefit the conservation of lions.

6. If Hunting is made illegal,  many lions in captivity would need to be euthanased

In 2005 there were an estimated 3 000 lions in captivity. Currently there are about 8 000 lions in breeding facilities across South Africa.

Michler says if the growth rate continues there will be about 15 000 by 2020. In his opinion it is essential to stop the problem in its tracks, before looking at what will be done with them if the practice is banned.

He admits a ban could result in a wholesale of the existing lions for discounted hunts during any window period provided to hunting organisations by the government, should such a ruling take place.

“The reality is that genuine sanctuaries have limited space and budget, meaning in some instances, especially the lions that have been genetically contaminated would need to be euthanased,” said Michler.

There will be two more screenings of Blood Lions at the Labia theatre on the 28th August and 1st September, as well as a screening in Plettenberg Bay on the 28th August, A second-round screening in Durban is also being planned with dates still to be confirmed. Screenings are also planned for Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth. Keep an eye on the Blood Lions website and Facebook page for more details.

“Powerful footage and a compelling narrative from a number of world-renowned conservationists and welfare experts will leave viewers in little doubt as to what is taking place on many private farms across South Africa. Other than greed and ego, there are no reasons to be breeding lions in captivity to be killed in captivity. We believe the film can be a global tool for meaningful change,” said Michler.