Canned lion hunting industry under fire again

A new international outcry at the treatment of Africa’s lions is about to hit just weeks after the furor over the killing of Cecil by Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer.

A movie will air this month that claims to blow the lid off big game hunting in South Africa, saying that 99 percent of
the lions bagged in the country are hand-reared and specially bred for the bullet.

The movie, Blood Lions, has already been shown in South Africa, and is expected to bring new outrage down on the heads of wealthy Americans who travel to the Dark Continent with one thing in mind –bringing back a lion’s head so they can mount it on their wall and boast how they killed it in the wild.

“There are roughly 1 000 lions killed by hunters in South Africa every year,” Blood Lions executive director Andrew Venter told Daily Mail Online in an exclusive interview. “Of those, around 10 are genuinely wild.”The movie, to be broadcast on US television channel PBS next month, follows American hunter Rick Swazey to Benkoe, a hunting lodge near Vryburg in South Africa’s North West Province.

There he is guaranteed that for a payment of $5 400 he will get to shoot a lioness he has picked out of an online
catalog of potential targets. “We were offered 14 lions with the images and prices attached,” said documentary
maker Ian Michler.

Moviemakers claim that the lioness was raised by hand in the booming so-called ‘canned hunting’ trade, although the lodge’s owner strenuously denied that to Daily Mail Online. “Benkoe Safaris do not engage in any canned lion hunting activities,” owner Ben Duminy said. “Our clients do not shoot tame lions in small enclosures as the Blood Lions video tries to portray.

”We are proud to be accredited by the South African Predators Association as a world class lion hunting destination, which means our clients hunt wild and dangerous lions on a fair chase and walk-and-stalk basis. On several occasions a hunt ended with near catastrophic results for the hunter as a result of the viciousness and aggression of the quarry,” Duminy added.

Yet he said he would not try to sue the
moviemakers. “Legal action is not an appropriate strategy to combat the lies and
propaganda of the animal rights lobby,” said Duminy. He said hunters in South Africa have their own program “aimed at putting the true facts about the captive breeding industry across to people and institutions that really matter.”

Venter and Michler believe their movie can have the same effect on the canned lion trade in South Africa that the 2013 documentary Blackfish had on SeaWorld and other marine parks in the United States. That movie exposed the way that orcas were kept in captivity. Since it came out SeaWorld shares have dropped by about half, CEO Jim Atchison was forced out and attendance has fallen off dramatically.

”Our world is changing and whether it is orcas in ponds or lions in cages, these are exploitative activities that progressive societies no longer sanction,” said Michler.

Venter, Michler and Swazey are all convinced that Benkoe’s hunts are fake. “The fact the lion hunting is inside an
electrified fenced enclosure speaks volumes,” said Swazey, an aircraft dispatcher who lived in Hawaii at the time the movie was made. But the hunting industry in South Africa is trying to promote the term ‘captive hunting’ to get away from the negative connotations of ‘canned hunting’.

”Before coming to South Africa, I found that there is a ‘Put and Take Law’ in the province where Mr. Duminy has his
hunting camp,” added Swazey. “This law requires that the animal to be hunted must be released into the hunting enclosure for a minimum of four days before being shot.” That requirement is to give time to allow any drugs that may have been used to calm the beast to transport it to the hunting ground to wear off. ”I challenge anyone to tell me how a four-day release constitutes a wild lion hunt,” said Swazey.

”My questions to Mr. Duminy are: ‘What exactly is the difference between captive and canned hunting? Why is there a need to blur the line between the two? Why is captive hunting acceptable and canned hunting not?’ The end result is the same: a lion is raised in captivity for only one purpose – to be shot.”

African lion hunting has been under intense scrutiny since American dentist Walter Palmer shot and killed Cecil the black-maned lion with a high-power crossbow in Zimbabwe last month. Cecil was not part of a canned hunt – which are virtually unknown outside South Africa. Instead Cecil was allegedly lured from safety of the Hwange National Park by two guides trailing meat behind a vehicle. Palmer only injured the animal which suffered in intense agony for 40 hours before being tracked and finished off.

The hunting team then hacked off Cecil’s head so Palmer could take it back to his home. But Zimbabwean authorities
confiscated it, leaving Palmer with nothing to show for the $55 000 he spent for the kill.

Swazey’s fee was less than one-tenth of the size paid by Palmer because lionesses are not considered such good trophies as they don’t have the iconic full mane that male lions have. One of the advantages hunters find in shooting hand-reared animals rather than genuinely wild ones is that they are unlikely to have been scratched up in fights that occur naturally in the wild, and therefore the head they get to show off will be in better condition, explained Venter.

Michler estimates there are around 200 facilities in South Africa breeding predators, mainly lions. He says there are
between 6 000 and 8 000 animals currently in these facilities. As well as providing relatively tame animals as shooting targets, these places also make money from tourists who are allowed to pet the cubs and walk with the carnivores and they also provide for a growing Far Eastern market in lion bones, which supposedly have medicinal
properties, and have largely taken the place of tiger bones in China, due to restrictions on importing tiger parts.

”Nearly all justify what they do by claiming conservation, educational or lion awareness arguments,” said Michler,
a former Cape Town stockbroker who has worked in conservation for the past 25 years. “And then, of course, they point to the economic contributions such as job creation.” But, he said, his documentary exposes those arguments. ‘The film clearly shows how lions, an apex predator that in the natural world requires ample space, are being subjected to intensive agricultural breeding practices in confined areas.

”It also shows how the breeders and farmers mix species such as lions and tiger and you also get to see and understand the considerable welfare concerns.” He said Swazey came on board after watching a promo clip the movie makers had circulated. “Rick is a genuine American hunter,” he said. “The practices of canned hunting offended every hunting sensibility he knew and so he volunteered to be part of the project.”

Michler estimates that around 1 000 hunters travel every year to South Africa to bag lions. Of those, roughly half are American.

Swazey remains a committed deer and white-winged dove hunter in the United States. “The hunting I do is to put food on the table,” he said. But he agreed to take part in the movie because he found himself repulsed by the idea of killing a captive animal solely for its trophy value. “What bothers me most about ‘hunting’ a canned animal is that the animals are in an enclosure, often baited to present a shot to the shooter and sometimes shot from a vehicle.”

Making it worse, he said, the lions are used to ‘the sight, sound and scent’ of humans.

“When a vehicle approaches a lion that was bottle-fed and raised in captivity, that sound usually means it is mealtime.”

Swazey and his team had never intended to kill the lioness and were still working out a way to make their exit while leaving the animal alive when Duminy discovered they were making a movie. Although many hunters take teams along to film their exploits, both sides agree that Swazey’s ruse was discovered because his crew appeared too professional.

Instead of capturing a lion killed on camera, the filmmakers caught Duminy threatening to kill Swazey after he is uncovered. Swazey insists the game lodge owner meant what he said, and he believed his life was in genuine danger. “How would you feel if someone twice your size threatened to kill you?” he asked. ”I trusted Mr. Duminy about as far as I could throw him. I think he had every intention of causing us serious harm if we had not left when we did.”

As for the fate of the animal that Swazey was supposed to kill, it is still unclear. “After we left the farm, we tried to arrange for the lioness to be moved to a sanctuary,” said Michler. “But negotiations between Benkoe and ourselves broke down. We got a partial refund and have no idea what happened to the lioness.”