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 what is ethical only applies to a privileged few. 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 is to which animal groups are considered sentient, for example, do we believe insects are sentient? Scientists generally do agree that all vertebrates belong in 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, changes the moral status of animals, and how we provide for and 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 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 quality and quantity of the meat, but also 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 space as lookouts, while tigers need water for swimming and bathing. Wild animals also need a place to shelter from the elements, whether this is the heat, cold or rain. And 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, like regularly removing any old meat or bones, and any 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 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 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. 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 and social responsibility towards their wildlife and the far-reaching consequences of their 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 becoming 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, as well as challenging people 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 that 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

NEWS: 

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

IMAGES AVAILABLE HERE 

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 https://www.pridenotcruelty.co.za/  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.

ENDS

Notes to Editors:

For more information, photos, and videos or to arrange an interview please contact Dr. Louise De Waal management@bloodlions.org   (Executive Director, Blood Lions), Dr Neil D’Cruze NeilDCruze@worldanimalprotection.org (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.

Grisly report on captive lions shocks Parliament

This is an excerpt from an article written by Don Pinnock and published online by Daily Maverick on 25 January, 2023

Parliamentarians were horrified by the cruelty NSPCA inspectors have to witness on lion breeding farms. Warning: this report contains graphic images

It was a briefing to Parliament’s Environment Portfolio Committee on captive lions. But, as NSPCA senior inspector Douglas Wolhuter began explaining the images he was putting on the screen, it became a horror show.

The levels of cruelty his team have been required to witness were sickening.

“The weight of evidence against the captive lion industry,” he said, “calls for its closure. It is irresponsible, inhumane and an unsustainable practice. It’s heartbreaking what our inspectors have to deal with.”

That evidence, he proceeded to show. Skeletal lions, small pens full of rotting bones, water troughs green with algae, cowering and disfigured cubs, disfigured limbs, fragile bones from a diet of nothing but birds from chicken farms, carcasses of lions killed by having their heads bashed in… images very hard to watch.

Tigers in South Africa: a farming industry exists – often for their body parts

This is an excerpt from an article written and published online by The Conversation on 20 January, 2023

A tiger escaped from a residence and roamed the countryside outside Johannesburg, South Africa, for four days this month. It attacked a man and killed several animals, and was eventually shot by the authorities. Tigers aren’t native to South Africa and are considered an alien species. Its escape highlights the country’s controversial commercial captive breeding industry and the key role South Africa plays in the international big cat trade. Tigers are being intensively farmed for tourism, hunting, and commercial trade in live individuals and in their body parts.

Moina Spooner, assistant editor at The Conversation Africa, asked Neil D’Cruze and Angie Elwin to share their insights into the industry.

What are your main concerns about South Africa’s captive predator industry?

The recent tiger escape in Johannesburg demonstrates the safety risk that this industry poses to wildlife farm workers, visitors and the public. Attacks by big cats in South Africa have resulted in multiple life-changing human injuries and deaths in recent years.

Although individual tigers can be tamed to varying degrees, this should not be confused with domestication. They are wild animals. They have biological and behavioural needs that can only be fully met in the wild.

Another concern we have is for animal welfare. Big cat breeding facilities in South Africa have been consistently criticised for their substandard conditions.