PRESS RELEASE: Release of the MTT report that supports the closure of the commercial captive lion industry

Ministerial report supports the ultimate closure of the captive lion industry in South Africa

After extensive stakeholder engagement, a panel of experts developed a set of voluntary exit options from the captive lion industry, while acknowledging that voluntary exit should only be the first step in the longer-term government objectives of ultimately closing the commercial captive lion industry in South Africa.

Today, the Ministerial Task Team (MTT) final report was made public by Minister Creecy of the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) after the MTT recommendations were approved by Cabinet at the end of March 2024. Subsequent to the Cabinet approved High-Level Panel recommendations in 2021 to close the commercial captive lion breeding industry, the Minister appointed a panel of experts in December 2022 to propose voluntary exit options for South Africa’s captive lion industry with win-win solutions.

A national audit of the captive lion industry undertaken by the MTT showed that South Africa has an estimated 7,838 lions in 342 facilities, plus at least 2,315 other captive carnivores with 626 tigers and numerous cheetahs, caracals and servals (although this is based on incomplete data). This industry has been allowed to grow to this extent since the early 1990’s with a patchwork of national and provincial legislation and regulations.

A number of potential voluntary exit options were developed for lion owners to opt out from the commercial captive lion industry, using SWOT analysis to assess their feasibility and looking at for example practicability and closure time frame. This process led to eight viable ways to exit the industry on a voluntary basis (see text box below) while for example rejecting the rewilding of captive and captive-bred lions as an exit option based on its plethora of weaknesses and threats. The report states that “there is no conservation requirement to rewild captive and/or captive-bred lions because there is a surplus of metapopulation lions in South Africa”.

The unintended consequences resulting from the voluntary exit options have also been identified. One particularly worrying outcome is the indisputable potential shift of commercial trade towards other indigenous and non-indigenous predators, like tigers, cheetahs and leopards, a trend that Blood Lions and World Animal Protection already identified in their research on the industry. The large number of other carnivores currently held in the commercial captive predator industry (see above data) shows that this unintended consequence is indeed already a reality.

The MTT report outlines how these voluntary exit options can be used as building blocks to create a variety of exit strategies to suit a wide range of individual circumstances. The entire process was underpinned by socio-economic impacts, particularly on vulnerable workers, while prioritising the well-being of the captive lions involved in the voluntary exit.

The report estimates the number of employees in the captive lion industry nationally to be between 1,568 and 2,069 people. However, only two provinces were able to provide employment data (North West and Limpopo), hence this is most likely an overestimate, as these two provinces together with the Free State are the main provinces involved in the captive lion industry.

Two mandatory prerequisites preceding any voluntary exit option, or combination of, are a quality-of-life assessment to identify any compromised lions and the subsequent humane euthanasia of such animals, as well as the sterilisation of all lions to halt the growth of the captive lion population. Furthermore, contractual arrangements need to be put in place to prevent the purchasing of new lions and re-entry into the industry.

It is encouraging to see that even the less attractive options, such as trade out, come with strict conditions like a phase-out period of preferably no longer than two years, and activities such as cub petting and international trade in live lions are prohibited. Animal welfare needs to be guaranteed during the phase-out period by implementing the robust protocols and the best practice guidelines for the keeping of African lions in controlled environments developed by the panel. The MTT recognises animal sentience and has used Mellor’s Five Domains Model for animal welfare as a guiding principle to develop euthanasia, transport, carcass disposal and population control protocols.

The regulatory provincial audit confirmed many of the High-Level Panel’s findings, such as the concurrent provincial and national legislation that leads to a complex regulatory landscape contributing to inconsistencies and challenges in managing the captive lion industry. Enforcement and compliance remain a challenge with non-compliance issues primarily revolving around expired permits or failure to adhere to permit conditions. Inconsistencies in TOPS permit issuance, inadequate record-keeping, and concerns related to animal welfare and carcass disposal were some of the other common findings, whereas enforcement actions are still grievously lacking.

The fiscal imbalance in the industry is an interesting new perspective. The MTT estimates that compliance inspection cost to be around ZAR 7,000 per facility, excluding travel and other indirect expenses related to inspections. When comparing the revenue generated from permit issuance to the actual expenses incurred for compliance services, it shows a huge shortfall. The MTT argues that the insufficient permit costs shift expenses associated with monitoring and compliance of the industry to the already constrained conservation budgets in the provincial departments.

The national audit also identified lion bone stockpile estimates of 2,888 whole carcasses, 275 skeletons (no skull), 636 skulls, 765 kg of bones and 292 whole skins. One of the recommendations outlined in the report deals with this large quantity of lion bones and parts and suggests that the government buys up all stockpiles for mass-incineration. The panel states they have raised funding and support for this initiative, as there is no government financial support available. This would not only prevent the illegal export of lion bones but would also send a strong and positive message to the world about South Africa’s commitment to ending the captive lion industry.

Dr Neil D’Cruze, Head of Wildlife Research at World Animal Protection said: “World Animal Protection has been calling for a mandatory end to lion farming due to the cruelty and criminality involved and, in this regard the report makes some great strides forward. In particular, this recommendation for  the mass-incineration of lion bone stockpiles is of great relief given concerns that a reintroduction of lion bone exports would risk stimulating demand among Asian consumers and act as a cover for illegally sourced lion parts. However, the opportunity for lion farmers to legally provide canned hunts and trade lion bones domestically during the phase out window underscores the need for urgent action. 

The MTT’s report was released days after the publication of the Policy Position on the Conservation and Sustainable use of Elephant, Lion, Leopard and Rhinoceros, which shows the continued government’s commitment to the ultimate closure of the commercial captive lion industry. 

Dr Louise de Waal, Director at Blood Lions said: The release of the MTT report and the publication of the Policy Position Paper are important steps towards the closure of the captive lion industry. However, both documents urgently need to be implemented with actual timelines for a staged approach to put an end to these unethical and cruel practices. With the upcoming elections, we are hugely concerned that a change in Minister will impede these processes, so we need to continue to put pressure on the DFFE to follow through on their promise to stop the domestication and exploitation of our iconic species.

Voluntary Exit Options:

The following voluntary exit options were identified by the MTT that can be used as building blocks to create a variety of voluntary exit strategies to suit a wide range of circumstances:

Mandatory Prerequisites:

A.     Humane euthanasia of compromised lions

B.     Population control preferably by surgical sterilisation


Most Viable Voluntary Exit Options Involving Live Captive and/or Captive-bred Lions in Order of Priority:

1)     Humane euthanasia of all lions and permanent exit from the industry

2)     Phase out through trade opportunities for a period of 24 months

3)     Surrender of lions to lion safe havens


Less Viable Voluntary Exit Options Involving Live Captive and/or Captive-bred Lions:

4)     Surrender of lions to authorities

5)     Repurposing of an existing facility to a lion safe haven

6)     Repurposing of an existing facility for biodiversity conservation and sustainable use


Viable Voluntary Exit Options Involving Lion Bone Stockpiles:

7)     Lion bone stockpiles surrendered to authorities

8)     Lion bone stockpiles for trade out (domestic) for a period of 24 months

Please note:

  • For all exit options, no tactile animal interaction is allowed, including but not limited to cub petting, walking with lions and using lions as photo props.

  • Trade in exit option 2 can include captive hunting and the domestic trade in live lions and/or lion skeletons, parts and derivatives. The international trade in lion skeletons and live lions is excluded from this voluntary exit option. Furthermore, animal welfare and well-being need to be guaranteed during the phase-out period.

  • Exit option 6, even though this is the only voluntary exit option with biodiversity conservation benefits, this option comes among others at substantial costs involved with dismantling existing infrastructure, creating an adequate predator perimeter fence, the need for land acquisition and ecosystem restoration, the lack of suitable habitat and the time to achieve the objective is long-term.

  • Exit option 8, trade in lion skeletons, parts and derivatives can only include legal local trade, as there is currently no CITES export quota for the international trade in such products.

Notes to Editors

Link to the MTT report: 

History of the commercial captive lion industry in South Africa

  • The commercial captive lion industry in South Africa started in the 1990s and has been allowed to grow unimpeded.

  • In 2015, the award-winning Blood Lions Documentary premiered that blows the lid off misleading claims made by the predator breeding and canned hunting industries in South Africa.

  • Lions and many other indigenous and exotic large felids are bred in captivity for commercial purposes, such as cub petting, walking with lions, voluntourism, “canned” or captive hunting and for their bones, parts and derivatives for the domestic and international traditional medicinal use, predominantly for their bones in Chinese Traditional Medicine until 2019.

  • In August 2018, the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee for Environmental Affairs convened a Colloquium on “Captive lion breeding for hunting in South Africa; harming or promoting the conservation image of the country”. The recommendations of the Colloquium were adopted by the national assembly on December 6, 2018, including that “the Department of Environmental Affairs should as a matter of urgency initiate a policy and legislative review of captive breeding of lions for hunting and lion bone trade with a view to putting an end to this practice”.

  • In August 2019, a High Court judge ruled that the setting of the bone quota in 2017 and 2018 of 800 per year was “unlawful and constitutionally invalid” and that consideration should have been given to welfare issues relating to lions in captivity when determining such quota. Since this ruling, the DFFE has deferred the setting of a CITES lion bone export quota.

  • In 2019, the Minister of DFFE appointed a High-Level Panel (HLP) of experts to review policies, legislation, and practices on matters of elephant, lion, leopard and rhinoceros management, breeding, hunting, trade and handling. The majority recommendations in terms of captive lions included that South Africa would not breed lions in captivity, keep lions in captivity, or use captive lions or their derivatives commercially. 

  • These recommendations were adopted by Cabinet and on May 2, 2021, Minister Creecy announced that the Department will be adopting the majority recommendations on these issues.

For further information contact:

Blood Lions

Dr Louise de Waal (Director)


Cell: +27 76 148 1533

World Animal Protection

Dr Neil D’Cruze (Head of Wildlife Research)


Cell: +44 7814 411407

Sanctuary vs Captive Facility: Key differences you need to know

What comes to mind when we use the term ‘captive facility’? What about the word ‘sanctuary’? It’s likely that two vastly different images of the animals in these places appeared in your mind when you read those words. 


A captive facility immediately brings to mind animals in cages and small enclosures, substandard care, and a general sense of lacking well-being. A sanctuary elicits thoughts of care, compassion, a love for the animals. 


But, does calling a captive facility a sanctuary make it more ethical? 

It’s not surprising that it has become confusing for tourists and visitors to understand the difference between a sanctuary and commercial captive facility, or when facility owners themselves blur the distinction between what is ethical and unethical. 


In South Africa, a facility may call themselves a sanctuary without having to actually comply with international sanctuary standards. In essence, a zoo, petting facility, or even a breeding facility, might choose to add ‘sanctuary’ to their name, dubiously making the public believe they are operating as a rescue or place of refuge for abandoned, abused, or neglected animals. 


According to NEMBA, a sanctuary is considered a facility that provides permanent care to threatened or protected species, like for example lions, that could not sustain themselves in the wild. However this definition is far too broad and does not encompass a no breeding, no interaction or no trade policies, 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 they are breeding, are still buying and selling animals and the animals are used for entertainment purposes. 


The truth, unfortunately, is that more often than not, these facilities are operating for commercial gain under the guise of rescuing and homing the animals in their care. The reality is that in South Africa we only have a handful of genuine sanctuaries who operate purely for the care of their animals. In these sanctuaries, the animals are not bought and sold; there is no breeding; no interaction; the animals have options to hide from tourist views; and no activities are conducted that negatively impact the well-being of the animals. 

To make this distinction clearer, we need to first look at the non-negotiable criteria to which genuine sanctuaries should adhere:


  • A genuine sanctuary does not breed with any wildlife: Breeding predators, such as lions, tigers, and other big cats, has long been established by experts as a practice that does not contribute to conservation in the wild. These animals could never be successfully released into functioning ecosystems and would therefore simply be added to the captive life cycle. There are only a few examples of breeding wild animals for genuine, wild conservation purposes.

  • A genuine sanctuary does not trade in animals: the buying and selling of wild animals between facilities is not allowed as a sanctuary. Unfortunately, many captive facilities claim to have ‘rescued’ their animals, making it vital that visitors question the authenticity of these claims: Where were the animals rescued from? Under what circumstances? Was money exchanged for the animals? Were they bred initially for commercial purposes? Will they have a forever home?

  • A genuine sanctuary does never allow human-animal interactions: it has been established by welfare experts that human-animal interactions with wild animals is harmful to their well-being. The stress caused by a stream of paying visitors to touch, feed, and cuddle is unnatural and damaging to the animal’s welfare. In addition, once they are too big and dangerous to play with, they are often sold to another facility to become part of the life cycle of a captive lion.

  • A genuine sanctuary provides a lifelong home for animals: the animals in a sanctuary are often rehomed from abusive and neglectful conditions and given a second chance. They are placed in the biggest possible enclosures that mimic natural conditions, including lots of trees or shrubs, natural hiding spots, water, varied and quality food, etc. Wooden platforms and concrete places to sleep are not natural or adequate by any means. Captive facilities create conditions that to make the viewing of the animals as easy as possible. In many cases, the animals rarely have a chance to retreat, adding further stress to their living conditions. Many captive facilities rely on cheap sources of protein, such as chicken carcasses or donated older meat, to keep costs to a minimum.

So, if a facility calls themselves a sanctuary, what warning signs should we look out for?


  • Physical / hands-on interactions: hand feeding, petting, and walking are activities sanctuaries would never engage in. Even if only the owner or caretaker interacts with the animals, this is still a sign that people’s interest is prioritised over the animal’s well-being.

  • Enclosure size and quality: each province has set guidelines regarding the minimum enclosure size for lions and other big cats. This does not mean to say provincial guidelines have the animals’ welfare at heart, but small enclosures that do not allow for freedom of movement are a serious red flag. The cleanliness is also important – are there bones, feathers, and old pieces of meat and faeces lying around? Are the enclosures or cages bare, lacking in trees, climbing opportunities, and natural hiding spots? What is the substrate the animals live on?

  • Feeding quality: what does the animals’ diet consist of and how often are they fed? Is feeding part of the tourist experience? Do the animals look obese or extremely thin? Is their diet largely unvaried and consists solely of donated dead chickens, this is a major health concern.  

  • Behaviour: snarling, pacing and other repetitive stereotypic behaviours, such as mouthing or chewing at fences/bars, self-mutilation (plucking, biting, etc), swimming in circles, excessive sleeping, and swaying are signs of severe distress. 

  • Health: do the animals have scars and/or injuries, such as cuts and bite wounds, which can be from fighting? Are they surrounded by flies? Do they appear to have missing fur and black patches on their bodies, which could be mange?

Why is this so problematic?

The sad reality is that genuine sanctuaries exist due to the abusive and exploitative conditions in the commercial captive predator industry, including circuses and zoos globally. While genuine sanctuaries do great welfare work for the animals in their care, their existence should not be necessary if wild animals were not kept in captive conditions in the first place and particularly in neglectful and abusive situations. 

 In addition to the welfare concerns of wild animals in captivity, another reason these blurred lines are so problematic is that it misdirects necessary funds and attention from genuine conservation initiatives. 

When well-meaning members of the public donate resources, time, and funds, or just pay entry fees, to commercial captive facilities portraying themselves as sanctuaries, genuine conservation efforts lose out. In the absence of a commercial captive predator industry, more funding can be made available for genuine wildlife conservation on the ground. 

It falls upon us to critically and consciously wade through the muddy waters created by captive predator owners and influencers who misdirect our attention through the use of misleading language to pull at the heartstrings of those who unknowingly support illegitimate sanctuaries and conservation efforts.

Do as I say… but not as I do?

There is a worrying trend amongst digital influencers and captive predator owners portraying their close interactions with these animals as “special bonds” and using this bond to justify posting images and videos of their hands-on and unnatural play-time with their animals. At the same time, they tout anti-interaction and anti-captivity messages on those same social media platforms, creating a situation where their actions and messaging are in complete contradiction.


Social media influencers who own captive predators, it would appear, have become entrenched in a charismatic game of convincing followers that they are the privileged few who can interact with “wild animals”, and that what they do is ethical or for conservation purposes, like “saving the species”. Unfortunately, none of these claims are true. Such influencers not only have a duty of care for the animals they keep under their control, but also a social responsibility to use their influence and platforms wisely, which appears to be sorely lacking. 


What is animal sentience?

Animal sentience is the ability of animals to feel and experience very similar emotions to humans, such as joy, pleasure, pain and fear. The global scientific community agrees on the notion that an animal has the capacity to feel both positive and negative emotions. Where there is no consensus related to the debate around which animal groups are considered sentient and which are not. For example, do we believe insects are sentient? Scientists generally do agree that all vertebrates belong to the group of sentient beings.


This ought to make us stop for a minute and give special consideration to the thousands of predators bred and kept in captivity for commercial gain in South Africa.


This is vitally important as it affects the way we view animals as sentient beings, in so far as changing the moral status of animals, and how we can provide for and should ensure their welfare and well-being.


How does this impact animal welfare?

Predators like lions, cheetahs and tigers are apex predators in the wild and their needs in captivity are extremely difficult to meet. Hunting is simply not an option in captivity despite it being an integral part of their natural behaviour. For social predators, like lions, hunting forms an important aspect of their inherently social natures.


In 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 definition is in line with the internationally recognised Mellor’s Five Domains Model for animal welfare assessment, which identifies four functional domains (nutrition, physical environment, health, and behavioural interactions) and a fifth domain of the animal’s mental state.

  1. When we accept the responsibility for a wild animal and keep this animal in captivity, we need to promote and care for both their physical and mental well-being, and ensure that they can display as many of their natural behaviours as possible.
  2. They need to be provided with a diet that meets the needs of the species, for example, how often they are fed, the kind of quality and quantity of the meat they are fed, and how this is presented to stimulate them mentally. Clean fresh water needs to be available at all times.
  3. There is no one size fits all approach for their physical environment or enclosures. Not only is size important, but also the diversity and complexity of the enclosure. For example, lions need different viewpoints, hiding places and vertical spaces such as lookouts, while tigers need water for swimming and bathing. Wild animals also need places to shelter from the elements, whether this is the heat, cold or rain. In addition, the enclosures need to be safe for the animal caretakers.
  4. While in captivity, the owner is also responsible for their health, which needs to be monitored regularly and when necessary a wildlife veterinarian must provide treatment for these captive big cats. Many health issues can be avoided by maintaining hygienic conditions, such as regularly removing any old meat or bones, as well as faeces.

It is clear from the above that it is difficult in a captive environment to meet all of the animal’s needs and natural behaviours and thus it requires careful consideration in terms of providing enrichment. Enrichment can come in many different ways, like a cardboard box filled with straw and faeces from other animals, sensory stimuli like scent trails, or presenting food differently by, for example, hanging meat from a branch. The best kind of enrichment, however, is for social animals to live in small groups of their own kind.

Is play-time with humans enrichment?

This is the point where social media influencers with captive big cats often argue that their interactions with their wild animals is a form of enrichment. However, research has shown that higher cortisol levels were experienced in captive populations of animals, suggesting the animals are experiencing higher-than-normal levels of stress in captivity. Researchers also caution that demonstrations of physical interactions can have negative, unintended consequences that go beyond an individual’s actions alone. Those working with captive predators have a duty of care for their wildlife and are social responsible for the far-reaching consequences of irresponsible and even unethical actions through their social media platforms.


The unintended consequences of such “profound experiences” with captive wildlife can lead to people following influencers wanting to interact with captive wild animals themselves and to become part of the vicious cycle of the captive predator industry. Furthermore, such portrayals run a serious risk of legitimising the exploitation of wild animals for entertainment purposes.


In South Africa alone, we have anywhere between 8,000-12,000 lions and other big carnivores in captivity, many of which are used at some point of their life cycle purely for our entertainment. Interactive activities, such as cub petting and walking with lions, creates an exploitative environment in which animals are coerced into constant human contact and even cruel training methods. Many of these animals are also kept in substandard conditions, leading to animal cruelty and neglect. 


With the global demand for exotic pets mushrooming and the commercial captive lion industry still growing in South Africa, it’s more critical than ever that we all reflect on the consequences of our actions, and challenge people who are involved in unethical activities. 


The truth is that the best viewing platforms, ponds, and hanging toys cannot and do not fulfil the needs of these complex, sentient beings. Neither can the “special bond” with a human replace the complex social structure with their own kind.


Owners of captive predators, including those who showcase their animals on social media, have a social responsibility to carefully consider how their own conduct impacts not only on the well-being of the animals in their care, but also on the subsequent actions of their followers. 

“There’s a certain tragic isolation in believing that humans stand apart in every way from the creatures that surround them, that the rest of creation was shaped exclusively for our use.” (Bekoff, 2005)

Finding common ground between NGOs and traditional health practitioners in South Africa

By Taylor Tench (EIA Senior Wildlife Policy Analyst)

Ceres Kam (EIA Wildlife Campaigner)

Louise de Waal (Blood Lions Campaign Manager)

Stephanie Klarmann (Blood Lions Campaign Coordinator)

“We are the guardians of the environment. Talk to us and involve us if you want to save the wildlife.”

This is the message repeated loud and clear by a leading group of South African traditional health practitioners, or THPs.

Over the course of three days, Blood Lions and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) engaged in passionate, honest, expansive and, above all, deeply enlightening discussions with 20 senior and new THPs from across five of South Africa’s nine provinces.

Our goals were to start a dialogue with THPs to better understand their practices, learn about their aspirations for, and the challenges facing, traditional medicine in South Africa and explain what we strive to achieve as conservation NGOs to see if and how the conservation and traditional African medicine communities could work together to protect our shared environment.

For thousands of years, traditional medicine has been a cultural, health and spiritual cornerstone for communities across the African continent. THPs come from a wide variety of backgrounds, but all have received “the calling” from their ancestors. THPs utilise plant and animal materials combined with ancestral knowledge systems to address both physical ailments and the spiritual needs of their patients.

Because THPs rely on materials from the natural world, there is an obvious overlap between the goals of the conservation and traditional African medicine sectors when it comes to protecting ecosystems that support healthy populations of animal and plant species.

The THP sector is complex, mostly unregulated and remains poorly understood. It is often subject to misinformed assumptions by outsiders, in particular those associated with the Global North. At times, this has included wildlife conservation organisations concerned about the potential negative impacts of using threatened species in traditional treatments.

Among the many important issues discussed, several key points and themes emerged.

The THPs at November’s roundtable were acutely aware of the major threats to wildlife in South Africa, including the poaching and trafficking of wildlife by organised crime groups. An important concern raised was the difficulty in accessing certain ingredients (known as muthi) in a legal and sustainable way, which in turn is closely linked to issues of equity and ethics when it comes to the use of South Africa’s wildlife. This is especially true when it comes to use by relatively wealthy South Africans and foreign nationals for activities such as game ranching, private reserve ownership, trophy hunting, etcetera, compared to use by and available to indigenous communities.

THPs stressed that while wildlife products are used in traditional African medicine, threatened and/or protected species do not typically constitute a significant proportion of muthi used in common remedies and, when used, are often in very small amounts. They also highlighted that certain wildlife parts – such as bones – can be passed down from one practitioner to another over generations, thereby avoiding the need for new offtake of wildlife. The THPs clearly expressed their view that narratives describing “traditional healers” driving species to extinction are unfounded, unfair and harmful.

Nevertheless, the opaque nature of muthi markets and suppliers – which have emerged in no small part due to restrictions on access and severely reduced agency for THPs when it comes to sustainably and legally acquiring ingredients – is a key challenge for the traditional African medicine and conservation sectors in South Africa.

Many issues raised during the roundtable were complicated, interlinked and dealt with larger political and societal issues in South Africa as a country still grappling with the challenge of creating a fair, transparent, equitable and well-functioning post-apartheid society.

Successful wildlife conservation depends on thriving communities and as such we cannot ignore challenges such as governance, dissonance between traditional and legislative/administrative structures and representation. THPs have often been left out of decision-making processes or, if included, consultation has been treated merely as a box-ticking exercise.

Perhaps the most important point to come from the meeting is that the THPs desire and are ready to take ownership of environmental issues connected to traditional African medicine. Whether that be local grassroots initiatives such as river clean-ups or addressing more challenging issues such as inscrutable muthi supply chains, the THPs who attended the roundtable are eager to do what it takes to more widely establish themselves as respected environmental stewards.

We were inspired by the forthright and productive discussions led by the THPs who attended the roundtable. It is clear that we have a shared interest in protecting the environment for present and future generations and we look forward to continuing to cultivate these relationships.

Our organisations are entering the new year excited about the prospects for future collaboration with THPs to safeguard South Africa’s natural and cultural heritage.

PRESS RELEASE: South Africa’s cruel lion farming industry is fuelling the illegal international trade in big cat bones


South Africa’s cruel lion farming industry is fuelling the illegal international trade in big cat bones


A new report by World Animal Protection details the horror of South Africa’s inhumane lion farming industry and its ties to international crime syndicates.

AUGUST 10, 2023 – World Animal Protection is today calling on the South African Government to stand by its commitment to shut down the country’s cruel commercial captive lion breeding industry for good.

The international NGO has received evidence from anonymous sources on unregulated “off grid” lion farms who described unimaginable animal suffering. They also detailed how the facilities are using South Africa’s legal lion breeding and ‘canned’ hunting industry to cover their involvement in the illegal international export of lion bones for use in traditional Asian medicine. 

Their gathered evidence includes: 

  • Lions kept in decrepit, filthy and barren enclosures littered with old food carcasses and piles of faeces

  • Lions and tigers slaughtered and processed on-site, with up to four animals processed by each labourer per day at both facilities during busy periods

  • Lions severely neglected and starved to save farm owners money – resulting in instances of lion cannibalism, including how desperately hungry lions attacked and ate another adult lion at a facility

  • Inhumane and unhygienic slaughter processes, with lions’ entrails spilled over the floor, and skin peeled back from their paws and skulls

  • Low paid farm staff working in unsafe conditions without protective gear and at high risk of suffering an accident or being infected with zoonotic diseases.

World Animal Protection’s Global Head of Wildlife Research, Dr. Neil D’Cruze, said: “Even as experienced researchers, we were deeply disturbed by the cruel practices taking place. It is sickening to see these majestic mammals reduced to mere commodities kept in merciless conditions.”

Although the commercial captive breeding and canned hunting of lions remains legal, though poorly regulated in South Africa, the export of lion skeletons – including claws and teeth – was declared unconstitutional by the South African High Court in 2019. 

In 2021, the South African Government announced its intention to immediately halt the “domestication and exploitation of lions, and to ultimately close all captive lion facilities in South Africa”.

But in late 2022, the government backtracked on its commitment and instructed a Ministerial Task Team to “develop and implement a voluntary exit strategy and pathways for captive lion facilities”. 

Lack of enforcement of regulations and clarity on the future of the industry, has left a legal grey area, enabling some farms to operate what on the surface appear to be legitimate captive lion breeding and ‘canned’ trophy hunting businesses – but which in reality supply the illegal international big cat bone trade facilitated by organised crime gangs.  

While the skins, paws and skulls are handed over to the canned hunters as prized trophies, the skeletons are left to dry in the sun, packaged and sold to “Asian buyers who regularly visit” the off-grid breeding farms. 

Dr. Neil D’Cruze continued: “This new intelligence gathered by brave sources confirms what was previously suspected – these well-established legal operations are plugged secretly into unethical practices and an illicit international trade network.” 

According to sources – whose identities World Animal Protection and local partner NGO Blood Lions are protecting – staff and their families are routinely threatened with violence to maintain their silence about the cruelty and illegal bone trade. 

It is estimated that between 8,000-12,000 lions and other big cats, including tigers, are bred and kept in captivity in more than 350 facilities across the country.

Dr Neil D’Cruze added: “A voluntary phase out of the industry alone won’t be enough to halt the commercial exploitation of captive lions in South Africa. We now know some off grid lion farms go to great lengths to avoid detection.

“Facilities use various tactics like security cameras, patrols and messaging apps to avoid detection during inspections to conceal illegal activities.”

Dr. Louise de Waal, Director, and Campaign Manager of Blood Lions, said: “We urge the South African government to make good on their 2021 decision and bring a mandatory time-bound end to the commercial captive lion industry, which will make detecting and preventing the illegal trade easier at the same time. Only then our reputation as a leader in conservation be restored, and the welfare of the country’s captive lions and other big cats ensured.” 

World Animal Protection and Blood Lions have handed their findings to the South African Government.

South African citizens are encouraged to add their voice and call on the South Africa Government to phase out the captive lion breeding industry by registering their support at  and using the #PrideNotCruelty on social media.  We also advise tourists and visitors to avoid venues and attractions that cruelly exploit lions and other big cats for entertainment, such as cub petting and walking with lions.


Notes to Editors:

For more information, photos, and videos or to arrange an interview please contact Dr. Louise De Waal   (Executive Director, Blood Lions), Dr Neil D’Cruze (International Wildlife, World Animal Protection)

  • You can read the full Putting a stop to cruelty: why South Africa´s commercial captive lion industry should be shut down for good report here. 

  • World Animal Protection have shared this evidence with the government of South Africa, calling on them to protect people and their wildlife heritage by shutting down this industry. 

  • Any reference to the location of these facilities has not been shared to safeguard the identity of the brave informants who helped expose the ongoing cruelty and illegal activities.

  • The term “canned trophy hunting” refers to the hunting of captive-bred wild animals in small, fenced enclosures with no chance of escape

Looking back as we think about the future: Global progress made since the launch of Blood Lions in 2015

It has been almost eight years since the launch of the Blood Lions film which exposed the harsh realities behind the captive lion breeding industry and its unregulated proliferation in South Africa. With the public launch of the film in June 2023, now we are no longer restricted by distribution agreements, we reflect on the journey thus far to take stock of the overall progress that has been achieved collectively. Along the way, we have seen big positive strides and steps backwards, but overall the progress has been substantial. At times we would all like to see things move along quicker, as the wheels of government legislation are slow to turn; however, we also have much progress to celebrate and draw on for continued motivation to fight for the end of this horrendous industry. 

The Blood Lions film has served as an important catalyst for change in the captive lion industry. The dark reality of captive breeding, interactive tourism, hunting, and the lion bone trade has been viewed by hundreds of thousands of people across the world, from school students through to government officials. The film has been selected for screenings at numerous film festivals, including the Durban International Film Festival, Lens Politika in Helsinki, and Joshua International in California. In addition to this, curated screenings have been presented across the world to various tourism and travel organisations and national governments. Outside of the South African departments of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, countries such as Botswana, Finland, Australia, Sweden, and EU parliaments have all participated in screenings of the film to spark important and necessary discussions about how international policy makers may demonstrate their disapproval of the industry.

The online campaign that followed the launch of the film has grown from strength to strength with thousands of supporters across various social media platforms. August 2016 saw the launch of Youth For Lions, an exciting sub-campaign especially aimed at educating and involving young people to empower their voices on issues of welfare and conservation.
The Blood Lions team has also strengthened its lobbying efforts to include scientific peer-reviewed research. This has become an invaluable aspect of our work to verify how the industry operates and to refute the unsubstantiated claims made by its proponents. Five scientific papers have now been published by members of the Blood Lions team in collaboration with researchers from the World Animal Protection, covering topics such as zoonosis, traditional medicine, welfare, and the lack of regulation seen on a provincial and national level. 

Prior to the premier of Blood Lions in 2015, the captive lion industry, although still largely unknown by the public, was growing substantially. The Cook Report – Making a Killing – was released in 1997 and served as a vital exposé of the breeding and canned hunting of lions in South Africa. Despite early warnings, the industry was allowed to expand. In 2005, an offshoot of the industry was discovered and an investigation confirmed that lion bones were  used as a substitute in tiger bone wine. Not long after in 2008, the first CITES lion bone export permits were issued with 60 skeletons legally exported from South Africa’s Free State province. Thereafter, controversy grew surrounding the hunting of captive-bred lions and the issue began to gain significant momentum. The 2015 premier of the Blood Lions film and the subsequent global awareness campaign have been instrumental in bringing the captive lion industry back into the public and government spaces for scrutiny and awareness on an even greater scale. 

We also applaud the many tourism organisations, airlines, and governments that have taken a stand against the commercial exploitation of lions and other predators in captivity by refusing to carry and/or import hunting trophies or withdrawing support of exploitative interactive activities like cub petting and walking with lions. Below we look at the overall and collective progress that has been achieved since the film’s launch. We want to thank every individual and organisation who have tirelessly lobbied in public and government spaces to raise awareness and affect policy change

We look forward to all that 2023 holds as we await the outcomes of the Ministerial Task Team working to devise effective solutions to phase out the industry, by starting with voluntary exit strategies. 

The Blood Lions team remains strong in their determination to raise awareness and lobby for policy change in the commercial captive predator industry. Through all the setbacks and progress, we will continue to expose the realities of this industry to promote the genuine conservation of one of Africa’s most iconic species. We await further open engagement with South Africa’s government to find a way forward that fulfills the High-Level Panel goal that “South Africa does not captive breed lions, keep lions in captivity, or use captive lions or their derivatives commercially”. 

Read more about the progress made so far…..

The Captive Predator Industry in South Africa: What our Research Revealed #1

In 2021 we undertook an immense research project to better understand the extent of the captive predator industry in South Africa. Through our research, we hoped to gather information to gain insight into the unregulated nature of predator breeding, keeping and trade across the country. We wanted to get a better understanding of the extent and nature of the industry which meant we needed to get a sense of the sheer numbers of big cats in facilities and the types of activities that involved these predators, such as captive hunts, euthanasia, breeding, transport, and trade. It was also necessary to understand how officials carry out their responsibilities, like inspecting these facilities. With this information we could comprehend more fully the efficiency and compliance of provincial regulations and officials with regard to the captive breeding, keeping, and trade of big cats in South Africa.

Promotion of Access to Information Act

In order to obtain this information through legal channels, we made use of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA), which was created to ensure that South Africans have the constitutional right to access information to promote democratic participation and transparency for public and private bodies.

Our research demonstrates serious concerns regarding the provincial departments’ capacity, poor record keeping, and even having PAIA requests for information ignored or refused. Although an important part of democracy is transparency, our researchers often struggled to obtain the correct contact details for information officers and to maintain contact to receive the requested information. Existing PAIA manuals were often outdated and some information officers displayed non-compliance by ignoring our requests or not responding within the timeframes outlined in the PAIA manuals.

The number of PAIA requests (n = 72) and responses received. Days lapsed means the time between the initial enquiry and date of closure.