Skip to content

Debunking Industry Myths

The commercial captive lion industry commonly justifies their continued existence based on several myths regarding conservation, welfare, or under the guise of animal rescues or sanctuary. Below we debunk the top myths used by the commercial captive predator industry players and the reality behind each claim. 

First and foremost, the captive breeding of lions is for commercial purposes, such as the tourism industry, voluntourism, captive or “canned” hunting, the live trade, and the trade in their parts and derivatives.

Even though the global lion conservation status is assessed as Vulnerable“, South Africa’s wild lion population is classed as Least Concern”, mainly due to the growth of the lion populations in our fenced private reserves, also referred to as the lion metapopulation. 

Captive animals, including captive lions, are not considered in these conservation assessments, so whether we have 10 or 10,000 captive lions in South Africa, this will not change its conservation status. 

A recent study was carried out on the rewilding of captive lions, which is now used as the conservation argument for the captive breeding and keeping of lions.  However, even if we can rewild captive-bred lions, there is a serious lack of suitable and safe habitat for the rewilding and introduction of lions, which was acknowledged by this study as well. 

Genetic testing would need to be carried out to avoid compromised genes from entering the wild populations, as well as human-wildlife conflict from occurring, considering  many of these captive-bred lions are habituated to people. Furthermore, if in-situ lion restoration projects become necessary, we have a surplus of wild metapopulation lions in South Africa that are more suited to such conservation projects compared to captive lions.

Furthermore, many small fenced camps with predators do not contribute to true conservation. For example, fences stop many smaller wildlife species from moving around.

Canned hunting is not defined in South Africa’s biodiversity legislation, but the Threatened or Protected Species (TOPS) Regulations prohibits the hunting of a TOPS species in a controlled environment while under the influence of tranquiliser, narcotics or immobilising drugs or by luring the animal by means of bait, sound or smell.

However, canned hunting is a colloquial term to describe the hunting of a captive-bred and tame animal (mostly lions) that has been dependent on humans for food, water and shelter all its life. The hunting takes place in limited sized and fenced camps without a chance to escape and for hunters to pursue a guaranteed kill. Canned hunting is also referred to as captive trophy hunting.

This kind of trophy hunting is not considered to be “fair chase” by some of the hunting fraternity and therefore many South African and international trophy hunting associations have condemned canned hunting.

When releasing a captive-bred lion into a camp of 1,000 ha (minimum size for hunting camps set by several provinces) and shooting the lion after 4 days (minimum release time in the North West), this causes severe stress for the animal involved. In addition, the lion has always been dependent on people for its food and water and may even approach the hunter(s) believing it will be fed.

The South African Biodiversity Management Plan (BMP) for the African lion defines three categories of lion, namely: 

  • Wild lions: Lions that are fully part of the ecosystem processes and are largely unmanaged, like in Kruger and Kgalagadi National Parks. 
  • Managed wild lions: Lions that have been reintroduced into smaller fenced reserves and are managed to limit population growth and maintain genetic diversity. 
  • Captive lions: Lions bred exclusively for commercial gain. Managers actively manipulate all vital rates and demographics. 

The captive lion industry plays semantics by introducing terms like ranch lions and working lions, categories that are neither defined in our legislation nor in the BMP for lions. According to SAPA’s Norms & Standards for the hunting of captive lions ranch lions are lions that are bred for consumptive sustainable utilisation purposes and working lions are lions that have on-going human interaction before and beyond the age of 3 months, whether for display, contact or other types of interaction, and may not be hunted. Both are basically captive-bred lions.

According to these SAPA Norms & Standards, the minimum size to keep ranch lions for example is 400 m2 per animal, which is a lot less than the required minimum size per animal in most provinces. Working lion cubs may not be removed from their mother before 3 months, but they allow human interaction before the age of 3 months. How that works in reality is totally unclear, as one can obviously not interact with a cub that is in the same enclosure as its mother.

Who will monitor that working lions are not hunted or ranch lions not interacted with?

It is clear that these new categories of captive lions are pure semantics with more questions than answers.

As soon as a wild animal is taken into captivity and under control of humans, the owner has a duty of care for its nourishment, health and well-being. Such captive wild animals fall under the Animals Protection Act, 71 of 1962.

In 2023, the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) accepted the mandate that addresses the well-being of wild animals (both wild and captive), as a result of a High Court ruling. Under the National Environmental Management Act (NEMBA) animal well-being is defined as “the holistic circumstances and conditions of an animal, which are conducive to its physical, physiological and mental health and quality of life, including the ability to cope with its environment”.

This puts the responsibility and duty of care for captive wild animals squarely on the person(s) having the possession, charge, control or custody of the animals.

A malnourished, weak or old lion in the wild (like the Kruger National Park) is not a welfare issue, this is purely part of the cycle of life and ecological processes that occur in the wild.

In a commercial captive facility there is no real interest to make sure breeding is conducted in a way that avoids inbreeding. Interviews with workers have revealed that related animals are allowed to breed, for example father and daughter or brother and sister. There are many examples of signs of inbreeding from commercial breeding facilities, such as flipper-like feet, tiny set back eyes, small ears, and even cubs born with missing limbs.

A recent study compared captive and wild lion genotypes (their genetic makeup) showing that the genetic composition of captive lions is currently comparable to existing wild lions in South Africa with no major signs of inbreeding. However, the sample size was limited and not randomly selected, with 781 captive lion genotypes from 33 facilities. This represents less than 10% of the total captive lion population and facilities currently operating in South Africa. Furthermore, there is no indication of the type of facilities involved. 

A lot more research needs to be done before we can confidently consider using captive-bred lions for in-situ conservation projects. It is also necessary to emphasise that South Africa has a surplus of wild lions in the metapopulation, making captive-bred lions superfluous for conservation.

The captive breeding of big cats, including tigers, is often subject to in-breeding and hybridisation (purposefully cross-breeding two different species to create offspring with characteristics of both), which further damages the genetic diversity and health of these big cats. Some farmers have even been known to breed ligers and tigons – lion/tiger hybrids, a species that would never occur naturally in the wild due to lions and tigers occupying vastly different geographic regions and a lack of compatibility between the two species’ behaviours and social structures.

Welfare organisations do agree that humane euthanasia may be necessary for many lions within the commercial captive industry, especially for those suffering from malnutrition, deformities, injuries, or serious illness. However, it is important to note that the life cycle of captive lions in commercial facilities often involves cruel practices and substandard living conditions until their slaughter or hunt. 

It is disingenuous when roleplayers within the commercial predator industry accuse welfare organisations of mass euthanasia given the nature of this exploitative industry, where thousands of lions are kept in substandard conditions to be killed in inhumane manners.

On average 400 lions are literally bred for the bullet to be killed in captive trophy hunts every year in South Africa, and hundreds of lions are slaughtered for their parts and derivatives. 

According to a report by the NSPCA in 2021 and a subsequent article by Yale360, an inspector witnessed lions being slaughtered at a large Free State farm using .22 ammunition through the eye or ears to prevent any damage to the skull. Such a shot may not kill a lion immediately and they were processed for body parts whilst unconscious. Before being shot, the lions were kept in their transport crates without any provisions, in some case for several days. 

Severe welfare concerns have been raised regarding farms breeding lions for the skeleton trade. Since these lions are not used for tourist entertainment or captive trophy hunts, their physical condition is often neglected to minimise costs and maximise profits. Judge Kollapen made it very clear in his lion bone judgement in 2019 that if as a country we wanted to set a lion bone quota, animal welfare should be taken into consideration when breeding and keeping these lions.

Other examples of cruelty and neglect include the following. It is necessary to note that these are the cruelty cases the NSPCA have been made aware of and those which have made it into the media. Other incidents of cruelty and neglect are likely to remain unknown or are in the process of being brought to court by the NSPCA. 

Some facilities engage in lion breeding solely to supply the canned or captive hunting industry. Here their physical appearance is important and welfare standards appear to be acceptable. However, video footage of captive hunts portray cruel scenarios in which lions attempt to escape or attack and require multiple bullets before dying. The following footage demonstrates the cruel killing methods during these captive hunts (warning: graphic footage and strong language).

In South Africa, a facility may call themselves a sanctuary without having to actually comply with internationally accepted sanctuary standards. 

In essence, a zoo, petting facility, or even a breeding facility could add ‘sanctuary’ to their name, giving the perception that their animals are rescued from abusive and cruel situations and giving them a second chance. However, in many situations these animals are kept in substandard conditions, used for unethical tourism activities or traded for whatever purpose. In reality these animals were purchased or bred at the facility and are simply part of the captive life cycle. 

According to NEMBA, a sanctuary is considered a facility that provides permanent care to threatened or protected species that could not sustain themselves in the wild. However this definition is far too broad and does not encompass the basics we expect sanctuaries to adhere to, such as no breeding, no animal trade, no animal interactions and a forever home for the animals in their care. In addition, it fails to cover higher standards of care, including living conditions, veterinary care, and other examples that improve an animal’s quality of life. This loophole allows commercial facilities operating for profit to call themselves sanctuaries even though their animals were purchased and are used for entertainment purposes. 

Such sanctuaries, unfortunately, more often than not, operate for commercial gain under the guise of rescuing and providing a forever home to the animals in their care. The reality is that in South Africa we only have a handful of genuine sanctuaries, where the animals are not bought and sold; tourists are not given priority in viewing the animals; and no activities are conducted that negatively impact the well-being of the animals. 

Furthermore, serious welfare concerns have been raised by researchers at tourist and/or volunteering facilities. Despite appearances that animal welfare is high, experts have demonstrated from visitor YouTube videos that many of the animals were displaying stress-related behaviours. Welfare concerns have been confirmed by a scientific review.