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Blood Lions: The film that blows the brutal lid off the canned hunting industry

In South Africa there are some 10,000 lions and the numbers are increasing all the time. A conservation success some might aver. But the lie behind this statistic is revealed in the fact that South Africa is the only lion range state that has three separate classifications for these great cats: captive, managed and wild. And so we find that only 3,000 – less than a third – are truly wild and living in designated conservation areas.

The rest, 7,000 or so, live on private farms, mostly in small crowded camps where their social structure is destroyed, not to mention their genetic integrity. The only purpose, despite rather weak attempts to justify the activity as conservation-based or ‘scientific,’ is to breed them.

Young cubs are great drawcards for visitors especially if they can pet them. Slightly older, they provide a rush for visitors who pay to walk with them in the veld. And finally as they grow into the magnificence of adulthood,

with flowing manes and faces unblemished, they become handsome targets for trophy hunters. Hundreds more are slaughtered and shipped to the East for the burgeoning lion bone trade.

This, in essence, is the captive lion breeding industry and its inseparable consequence: canned lion hunting. It is a cynical and highly profitable niche industry in South Africa and enjoys a powerful lobby in high places. It is also supported by a seemingly insatiable demand for these guaranteed hunts, particularly from Europe and North America.

Captive breeding conditions

Wildlife campaigner Ian Michler has been exposing the brutality of the industry and calling for its demise for more than 15 years. Blood Lions follows his story, but also draws on the observations of some of Africa’s most respected ecotourism and conservation personalities.

I asked him what first triggered his response to canned hunting and what keeps him lobbying for it to be shut down.

“During the 1990s, I lived in the Okavango Delta and my research there into trophy hunting took me to the canned hunting farms of South Africa. For anyone who has an ecological understanding of the natural world, to witness territorial and apex predators being kept under intensive agricultural conditions is horrifying. And then to find out that they are being bred to be killed by hunters in confined areas defies all sense of integrity.

“I got to see and understand very quickly that there is no basis or justification for this type of behaviour, other than human greed and complete ignorance, that is. And there is also a degree of deception by many of the operators involved so it became obvious why I should stay involved.”

Progress – a long and bumpy road

It has been a long and often bumpy road that Michler and his colleagues have followed, a road that never seems to end. “Do you think that there has been progress towards shutting the industry down?” I ask him.

“There has most certainly been progress,” he responds forcefully. “For example, the recent undertaking by several global airlines never to carry lion trophies or lion parts out of the country, and the Australian government’s decision to ban imports of trophies and body parts demonstrate the growing opposition.

“The release of Blood Lions is another example,” says Michler. “Pippa Hankinson, the inspirational director of Regulus Vision, has been the force behind the film. And this, together with dedicated assistance from a core team of filmmakers and campaigners including Wildlands Conservation Trust, has given us a real opportunity to raise greater awareness at various levels across the world.

“We know there is no conservation value to the breeding practices and it’s an extremely poor, even irresponsible, way to try to educate people about lions and their ecology. There are very few true sanctuaries, and they only exist because of the breeding.

“In addition, my experience is that the vast majority of the world finds breeding lions to be killed by thrill seekers in canned hunts completely inappropriate behaviour. Under these circumstances, there is no logical reason as to why we cannot make further progress with the decision-makers here in South Africa.”

Professional hunters frequently talk about the huge financial contribution they make to the national tourism coffers, but when you compare the actual figures against the total revenue from tourism, trophy hunting is a very small portion. And then canned hunting is again a very small fraction of total hunting revenues.

“This seems to make a lie of the breeders and canned hunting lobby’s claim?” I ask Michler.

He agrees. “When one contextualises the amount generated by the predator breeders and canned hunters, the financial contribution is miniscule. The canned lion hunting contribution is a tiny fraction of 1% of the almost R100-billion South African tourism generates.

“In addition, visitor numbers also tell the story: of the over nine million international foreign arrivals that come into South Africa annually, a mere 9 000 or so are trophy hunters and of these, about only 1 000 or so will be to kill ions in canned hunts.”

Damaging Brand South Africa

“While on the subject of tourism,” I remark, “in the film you have quite a long discussion with the South Africa minister of tourism, Derek Hanekom. He seems distinctly uneasy with canned hunting and sees it as potentially damaging to Brand South Africa. In fact he seemed to suggest that it had already damaged our international reputation as a nation with a proud conservation history. Would you go so far as to call him an ally in your quest?”

“Yes,” Michler responds confidently. “We, the filmmakers and the campaign team that is, view the government in general as an ally as they would not want to damage South Africa’s global reputation on any level. The good thing is that Minister Hanekom and many others understand that by allowing these practices, Brand South Africa is being increasingly damaged around the world.

“My sense is that once the decision-makers understand the full picture and grasp the degree of growing opposition, this will be reflected in the way they respond going forward.”

It’s all about the trophy

At a point in the film Michler says, “You can’t look at predator breeding and canned hunting without addressing the greater trophy hunting issue. At the end of the day people who want to hunt a lion are driven by the same thing: the trophy.” I ask him to elaborate.

“Having researched and written about the trophy hunting industry for almost two decades now, I have come to understand that ultimately, for the vast majority of trophy hunters, it is actually only about the thrill of the kill and then the prize of the trophy. No matter what type of hunt it is, the trophy is non-negotiable. So almost all lion hunters come to Africa in search of that prize; the argument between them simply becomes one about the conditions under which they bagged theirs.

“There is an additional link. The unfortunate part for the wider trophy hunting industry around the world is that they are now stained by canned hunting operations. They could have closed them down ages ago if they had chosen to do so. But they didn’t. Some issued statements against the practice but most of them merely backed away and stayed on the sidelines.

“This has significantly contributed towards the flourishing of the industry. And we now see the likes of PHASA [Professional Hunters Association of South Africa] getting in on the act by trying to justify lion killing through the nuances of word play. It is foolish to attempt a distinction between ‘canned’ and ‘captive’ hunting when it is clear that whatever word one uses, predators are being bred in captivity to be killed in captivity.

“However, one of the positive developments is that we are now starting to see professional hunters making strong stands on ethical grounds against the practices. This may well cause splits within the hunting bodies.

“There are distinctions between sustainable hunting, fair-chase hunting and canned or captive hunting, and given that hunting remains a part of our conservation thinking in South Africa, the film recognises this and is targeted at the breeding and canned or captive hunting sector.”

Botswana’s stand – a great example

I remark that it is interesting to see a country like Botswana taking a stand against trophy hunting and seeing it as an inappropriate practice in this day and age. But they are the only ones really. Even Kenya, which has long prohibited hunting of wildlife, seems to have a powerful groundswell of support for its reintroduction.

“Could this happen?” I ask.

“I think the Botswanan government has shown immense vision,” Michler responds. “And their decision was based on science and conservation as well as the comparable community and economic benefits measured over decades. However, there are vested interests that will play an obstructionist role as they seek to ensure the transition to a non-hunting regime is made as difficult as possible. As is the case when any significant legislative change is introduced, there will be difficult periods for all parties.

“And no, I don’t see hunting being reintroduced in Kenya anytime soon. The link between declining wildlife populations and a ban on trophy hunting in that country has no scientific basis – it is a self-serving argument perpetuated by the hunting lobby. There are a host of socio-economic factors, all compounded by a lack of planning as well as a succession of corrupt governments, that have contributed to Kenya’s woes. And let’s not forget, for many of Kenya’s population groups, hunting wild animals is not part of their cultural heritage.”

Getting into the head of a hunter

One of the more intriguing scenes of the film takes place at an international hunting trade fair in the US. Aside from the mind-boggling amount and variety of weaponry and hunting gear on display, there is also clearly no shortage of hunters happy to speak about their “sport”, often implying that without them all of conservation would simply collapse.

Time and again you hear the claim that hunting purpose-bred lions takes the pressure off wild lion populations and therefore they (the hunters) are supporting conservation. “If lions were not bred for hunting,” it was claimed, “they simply would not be born at all so at least we are giving them a purpose in life.” One female hunter (and there are a surprising number in a supposedly male-dominated industry) said, “I am a wildlife lover, therefore I am a hunter,” while another fellow remarked on “the opportunity to harvest some of God’s creatures”. And most of them say it is not about the killing – and yet that is the desired and inevitable end result.

For a non-hunter it is hard to get inside the head of a hunter, particularly a trophy hunter, and to get any clear idea of why their “sport” is so important to them. Michler has spent so much time meeting and talking to hunters from all over the world, so I ask if he can help to understand the hunter’s psyche.

“I guess this is the very nub of why the debate becomes so heated,” he says. “Firstly, the hunting debate deep down is not about economics and communities and conservation – it is actually about philosophy and a world view not dissimilar to the way debates on the death penalty, same-sex marriage, abortion or racism rage around the world.

“The comments you mention above are views being expressed about the way these people see and understand their world. The science and economics, which is available in support of all views, then becomes part of the bias. The film then also asks viewers whether the only purpose lions have is to be born for hunters to kill, whether their interpretation of hunting is Biblical, and whether only hunters are able to be lovers of wildlife.”

Exposing the bad – a risky business?

One of the central arcs of the film follows a genuine hunter on a trophy hunt on a farm specialising in canned hunting. These are extremely tense scenes, shot through with menace. Michler has been in many of these highly charged situations and I ask to what extent is it all bluster and bullying, or whether he has feared for his safety at times.

“There is certainly a theme of brutality that runs through these practices,” he says. “Bullying or not, the moment can be very disturbing, but I would like to think that when push comes to shove one’s personal safety is not at risk.”

At the end of the film I am left with a sense that Blood Lions really does allow the voice of the lion to be heard. Certainly this film does nothing to glorify the hunter and I have no doubt that there will be angry responses to its release. I ask Michler where will it be shown and what he hopes will come out of it?

“The film will be shown globally,” he responds. “We have already been accepted into a number of international film festivals and there will be screenings in parliaments around the world as well as to select audiences of decision-makers.

The campaign will also embrace bringing awareness at various levels, including schools and universities. “There is sure to be opposition as the operators and their clients at the core of canned hunting will see us undermining their livelihoods and their cherished pastime. We hope to go beyond that as ultimately Blood Lions seeks to bring an end to the exploitative breeding of predators and the killing of them under canned or captive conditions.”