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South Africa currently has more lions in captivity than in the wild, with anywhere between 8,000 and 10,000 predators (possibly more) being held in small enclosures on 350+ captive predator facilities across the country. These animals are exploited at every phase of their life cycle and despite the claims made by the captive predator breeding industry, it is commonly accepted by leading wildlife and conservation scientists globally that this industry does not support conservation of lions in the wild.

In most instances, these predator facilities are nothing more than commercial operations, breeding and exploiting animals for a range of activities from canned hunting and the bone trade to the extremely lucrative cub petting, ‘walking with lions’ and paid voluntourism activities.

Read more about this brutal industry using the tabs below.

  • South Africa’s Captive Predator Population

South Africa is one of the only African countries that allows the breeding and keeping of predators in captivity for commercial purposes, including lions, cheetahs, leopards, caracals, servals, as well as exotic species such as tigers, jaguars, pumas and even ligers (crossbreed between lion and tiger).

In July 2019, the Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) stated in response to Parliamentary questions that there are 366 captive facilities registered in South Africa in terms of the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act, 2004 (NEMBA): Threatened or Protected Species Regulations, 2007 (TOPS) holding a total of 7,979 lions in captivity.

Blood Lions believes that the captive predator population is highly underestimated, and the captive lion population may be as high as 10,000-12,000 lions with thousands of other big cats that are bred and kept in captivity in South Africa. A large proportion of the captive predator facilities are based in the Free State, Limpopo and North West provinces.

Captive breeding
  •  Wild Lion Population

In 2016, an IUCN assessment showed that lion populations across the African continent had declined by 43% over a 20-year period (or 3 lion generations). As few as 20,000 lions might now remain, occupying as little as 8% of their historic range. The reasons for this decline include habitat degradation and fragmentation, reductions in prey animals, human-lion conflict, and, importantly, trade in lion products (particularly bones).

South Africa is the only range state with a stable or even slightly growing lion population. Nevertheless, we have only around 3,000 lions left in the wild; approximately 2,400 wild lions in primarily Kruger National Park, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, and around 500 wild managed lions in smaller (private) reserves.

Lion conservation listings:
• IUCN Red List of Threatened Species listing: Vulnerable
• TOPS listing (NEMBA): Vulnerable
• CITES listing: Appendix II

  • Lack of Conservation Value of Captive Lions

Lion ecologists and conservationists around the world state there is no conservation value in the breeding of lions in captivity, as none of the animals kept in captivity can be used in wild relocation programmes. These captive lions are tame, genetically compromised and ill-equipped to survive in wild areas, not to mention that human-imprinted lions lose their fear of humans and can pose a risk to people. Apart from these facts, there is no need to reintroduce captive bred lions into the wild, as South Africa’s wild lion population is stable.

The High-Level Panel report is also very clear on this point, and states that “rewilding of captive lions is not feasible from conservation principles and captive breeding is currently not necessary for conservation purposes”. Furthermore, it states that the “captive lion industry threatens South Africa’s reputation as a leader in the conservation of wildlife”.

With this in mind, please ask yourself: if there is no conservation value in the captive breeding and keeping of predators, why is the captive population so substantial?

  • Life Cycle of Captive-bred Lions (and other predators)

These captive-bred animals are exploited at every phase of their life cycle and despite the claims made by many breeders, this industry has no conservation value.

In most instances, these predator facilities are nothing more than commercial operations breeding and exploiting animals for a range of activities, from canned hunting and the bone trade to the extremely lucrative cub petting, ‘walking with lions’ and volunteer activities. Some facilities may earn as much as US$100,000 per month from their volunteer programmes alone. This applies to cheetah, leopard and tiger as well.

  • Exploitative Interactive Activities with Captive Wild Animals

Cubs born in captivity in South Africa are often ripped away from their mothers within a few days of birth. The breeders do this to bring the mothers back into oestrus (become fertile) much quicker, leading to intense breeding cycles where they can give birth to up to four times more litters than a lioness in the wild. Many of the cubs are introduced into petting enclosures at 3-4 weeks of age, to provide paying tourists with selfie opportunities, while international paying volunteers hand-rear and bottle-feed the so-called “orphaned and abandoned” cubs.

As the animals grow, they are often sold to facilities to be used for other interactive tourist activities, such as ‘walking with lions’. Many may also be abused in the advertising and film industry.

Most of these activities are offered under the guise of conservation with emotional stories that the cubs were abandoned, orphaned, or the mother didn’t have enough milk. Visitors and volunteers are also told that these lions are destined to be returned to the wild as part of various conservation programmes.

Thousands of unsuspecting tourists and volunteers visiting South Africa are unaware that their money contributes to the fraudulent and exploitative use of these animals.

  • Red Flags For Lions

If you want to visit a place that keeps wild animals in captivity, there are some Red Flags that you need to look for before deciding if you want to visit that place or not:

Red Flag 1 –   If you are allowed to touch, hold or feed any predators or cubs.
Red Flag 2 –   If the place always has cubs for people to play with.
Red Flag 3 –   If there are always cubs, but hardly any adult predators living there.
Red Flag 4 –   If you know that they are breeding their captive predators (making babies).
Red Flag 5 –   If you know that they are buying or selling their predators to other places and people.

A True Sanctuary does not breed (have baby animals), trade (buy or sell) or allow any humans to touch, hold or feed their animals and they offer animals a home for their entire life.

If any of these Red Flags are raised for you, we recommend not visiting that facility because it is not a True Sanctuary. We recommend rather visiting lions in the wild in a game reserve

Red Flag
  • Safety

This lucrative chain of exploitative tourism activities also poses significant risks to workers and visitors’ safety, through these physical interactions with habituated lions and other big cats.

These kinds of interactions have resulted in at least 35 reported incidents affecting no less than 40 victims since 2006, including 12 deaths. Blood Lions believes that many more unreported incidents have occurred over time.

  • Risk of Zoonotic Diseases

Captive wildlife populations are at risk of disease, especially when these animals are kept in small and overcrowded enclosures. This increases the risk of zoonosis, where an infection or disease is transmissible from animals to humans, like the SARS-CoV-2 virus that created the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2021, Blood Lions released a peer-reviewed study with World Animal Protection highlighting key issues regarding zoonotic diseases and their links to the captive lion breeding industry in South Africa.

Did you know that there are 63 pathogens known to affect lions, of which 23 can potentially be harmful to humans.

Zoonotic diseases
  • Wildlife Trade

The incessant (and legal) commoditisation of captive bred lions and other predators doesn’t end with tourism activities, as South Africa’s commercial captive predator breeding industry also feeds the wider (international) wildlife trade. South Africa alone exports nearly 2,000 lions per year as live exports, hunting trophies or skeletons.

Between 2008–2017, South Africa exported 1,895 live lions under CITES (legally) destined for zoos and breeders overseas with 95% of the exported live lions originating from the captive-bred population. Top importing countries include China, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, Pakistan and Vietnam.

Wildlife trade
  • Canned Hunting

Once the lions become too old and boisterous to be in contact with humans and they have become redundant in the tourism industry, the animals are often sold to holding facilities where they may be used as breeding stock, or to simply await their fate. Once old enough, many enter the canned hunting industry, where these captive-bred and tame lions are shot and killed in confined enclosures by trophy hunters. Canned hunting also covers terms such as captive hunting, high-fence hunting and ranch hunting. Ethical hunting organizations around the world have condemned such practices of canned or captive hunting.

Canned Hunting statistics:
• 2008–2017: South Africa exported 8,855 lion hunting trophies under CITES
• 80% (possibly more) of the exported trophies were from captive-bred lions
• USA is the top importing country, followed by Spain, Russia, China and Canada.

There is a lack of scientific data to support the claim that hunting captive-bred lions takes the pressure off the wild lion population. Wild lion numbers across Africa continue to decline and wherever it remains possible to hunt wild lions, the demand for permits remains high.

  • Lion Bone Trade

The lion bone trade is a relatively new revenue stream for the lion breeders and farmers, where a demand was created for lion bones to supplement the tiger bone trade for Traditional Medicine in Southeast Asia. Even though the lion bone trade is perceived to be a “by-product” of the trophy hunting industry, 90% of all exported skeletons include the skulls, indicating that many facilities exist purely to supply the bone trade.

Between 2008–2017, South Africa exported 6,634 lion skeletons under CITES (legally) weighing a total of about 70 tonnes. The top 3 importing countries are Lao People’s Democratic Republic (48%), Vietnam (44%) and Thailand (5%).

  • CITES Lion Bone Export Quota

The CITES lion bone export quota was agreed at CITES CoP17 in 2016 through an annotation to Appendix II. It was agreed that although a zero quota remains for wild lions, “an annual export quotas for trade in bones, bone pieces, bone products, claws, skeletons, skulls and teeth for commercial purposes, derived from captive breeding operations in South Africa, will be established and communicated annually to the CITES Secretariat”.

In 2017, the first quota of 800 captive bred lion carcasses was set by the then Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), which was increased to 1,500 carcasses in 2018, but subsequently reduced again to 800. The setting of these lion bone quotas by DFFE lacks any sound scientific basis and is driven solely by the economic principle of supply and demand, i.e. South African lion breeders can produce more lion skeletons than the set quota and have even built up stockpiles.

In August 2019, in the High Court case NSPCA vs DEA and SAPA, Judge Kollapen ruled that the setting of the lion bone quota in 2017 & 2018 was “unlawful and constitutionally invalid”. He stated that “….it is inconceivable that the State Respondents could have ignored welfare considerations of lions in captivity in setting the annual export quota”.

Since then, although no legal export of lion bones has been allowed to take place from South Africa, there is evidence to suggest that the illegal trade in lion bones, bone products and body parts has continued.

Export quota
  • Traditional Medicine

Tiger bones, alongside other body parts, have been used in the production of Traditional Chinese Medicines (TCM), tiger bone wine and tonics for many years, to treat a variety of ailments including arthritis, rheumatism, back problems, general weakness, and headaches. There is however no credible scientific evidence for the efficacy of the vast majority of these remedies.

Increasingly, other body parts, such as claws and teeth made into jewellery and skins sold as rugs and wall hangings, are now also in demand as luxury items.

The legal trade in lion bones legitimises the product among consumers and stimulates the demand for lion bones, mostly as a substitute for tiger bones, and compromises enforcement efforts of the illegal wildlife trade. This in turn puts pressure on wild lion populations.

In addition, the vast majority of exported lion skeletons (98%) from South Africa are destined for Laos and Vietnam, which are known hubs for illegal wildlife trafficking, such as South African rhino horn products.

Traditional medicine
  • Welfare Concerns

The intensive captive breeding and keeping of lions and other big cats creates serious welfare concerns, particularly with the increasing profit-driven commodification of lion products. Often basic needs, such as water, food, shelter and medical care are lacking, and inbreeding is common creating offspring with compromised health and genetics.

Welfare concerns are also associated with tourism facilities, varying from removing cubs within days of birth, handling cubs up to 8-10 hours per day, and sedating subadults on walks, to training wildlife like circus animals, and keeping them in substandard enclosures.

Lion slaughterhouses have also been established to facilitate the mass slaughter of lions to supply skeletons for international bone trade with no regulations in place, creating a range of welfare concerns.

DFFE has repeatedly stated that it does not have a mandate to look after the welfare of wild animals in captivity, as they believe this duty falls under the ambit of the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform, and Rural Development (DALRRD). In turn, DALRRD ‘passes the buck’ to the provincial authorities, who pass the responsibility to the NSPCA.

The NSPCA has the sole mandate for animal welfare in South Africa, including the welfare and well-being of captive-bred wild animals, however they receive no financial support from the national government.

  • Global Trends of Responsible Tourism

Global trends of responsible tourism are showing that tourists and the wider industry are progressively moving away from exploitative wildlife interactions. In 2019, the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association (SATSA) published Southern African industry guidelines and a tool on captive animal interactions, showing the world that South Africa can lead the way on animal welfare and ethical wildlife tourism. For more information see our #ThinkBeforeYouGo campaign.

There are only a handful of authentic and true wildlife sanctuaries in South Africa which do not breed or trade their animals, nor do they allow any human interactions with the animals in their care. Genuine sanctuaries build their facilities for the benefit of the animals, not to maximise commercial exploitation.

To date, more than 200 tourism operators from around the world have signed the Blood Lions Born to Live Wild pledge, representing nearly 2,000 member organisations. By signing the pledge, they commit to not knowingly support any operator that contributes to the cycle of captive breeding, canned hunting and commercial exploitation of wild animal species.

Many professional hunting associations have also distanced themselves from canned hunting, including the US-based Safari Club International and Dallas Safari Club, as well as Custodians of Professional Hunting & Conservation in South Africa. In addition, since 2015, 40+ major international airlines have refused the cargo of lion trophies, and countries like Australia, France, Netherlands and USA have implemented bans on the import of lion trophies.