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Blood Lions threatens to bring down lion breeding industry

A campaign around the new documentary film, Blood Lions, has gone global, threatening to bring down South Africa’s lucrative captive lion breeding industry.

London comedian Matt Lacey rocketed to fame when his Gap Yah sketch, which poked fun at posh young Brits volunteering in the developing world, received over five million YouTube views. But when Lacey embarked on his own volunteer experience at Ukutula lion-park in South Africa, he was rather more earnest. Writing in the UK’s Daily Telegraph, Lacey described Ukutula as “dedicated to conservation and research”. The lion cubs he cared for were “cute and playful” while the older lions “soon lose their tameness, enabling them to be released into the wild”. Four large males in a separate pen, “were due to be sent off to Congo to help replenish the stocks of lions there that had been devastated by war”.

Sadly and ironically, Matt Lacey was conned. Like thousands of other well-meaning volunteers, he bought the story that his efforts helped conserve lions. Yet according to leading conservation NGOs such as Wildlands, Endangered Wildlife Trust and Panthera, captive lion-breeding centres do nothing for conservation. Indeed, not a single captive-bred, hand-reared lion has been successfully released into the wild. Instead, every day in South Africa, two to three captive-bred, effectively tame, lions are killed in canned lion hunts. And helping to fuel this industry are thousands of eager volunteers who unwittingly pay +-US$1,000 per week to look after lion cubs that are bred for the bullet. The volunteers believe they are orphans, yet the cubs are deliberately removed soon after birth, forcing their mothers back into oestrus and ensuring that they become continuous breeding machines. The scale of the industry is huge, with some 4,000 lion cubs born in captive breeding facilities in South Africa each year.

In 1997, ITV’s The Cook Report exposed South Africa’s canned lion hunting industry, eliciting a wave of outrage that prompted government to ban the practice, determining that captive-bred lions must fend for themselves for 24 months before being hunted. However, in 2010 the SA Predator Breeding Association won a High Court Appeal to overturn this legislation and today canned lion hunting is legal, generating some US$10 million per year. This, coupled with exponential growth in the volunteerism sector, has created a highly lucrative industry, with lion breeding centres generating up to US$100,000 per month from volunteer fees alone.

More recently the massive growth in Asian demand for lion bones (used as a proxy for tiger bones in the making of tiger bone wine) has created yet another revenue stream – an estimated 1,000 lions are now killed annually for the burgeoning lion bone trade. With three major sources of revenue, the lion breeding industry has grown exponentially – today there are 6,000-7,000 lions in cages in South Africa, representing a quarter of all lions remaining in Africa.

Over the past few weeks however, there have been growing signs that the industry’s hey-dey may be over. The shocking new South African documentary film, Blood Lions, hit global television screens on MSNBC and Discovery Channel in early October, unleashing a storm of outrage. The social media tsunami that ensued not only crashed the Blood Lions website but triggered a domino effect that could prove to be unstoppable.

In the few weeks since Blood Lions went live on international screens:

– #BloodLionsSa has become one of South Africa’s top twitter trends, with hundreds of angry messages calling for a ban on captive lion breeding. The tweet storm included messages from Hollywood actors Ellen DeGeneres and Ian Somerhalder who sucked in millions of fans, while Facebook and twitter sites such as Volunteers in Africa Beware, #talktotheclaws, #WheresRicky, and #BredForTheBullet were bombarded.

– A petition was launched on advocacy site, calling on RealGap, the Association of British Tour Operators and TUI to stop sending volunteers to lion breeding programmes, garnering thousands of signatures. It warned of possible legal action against RealGap and its holding company, TUI, by misled volunteers.

–  Global hotel group Marriott found itself in the middle of a tweet storm over its Protea Ranch Resort and Lion Park, one of 116 hotels acquired when Marriott bought the Protea Hospitality Group last year.

– Johannesburg’s Lion Park, one of South Africa’s top tourist attractions, announced that it would stop tourists interacting with lion cubs from 2016.

– In the USA and Europe, several tourism companies cancelled programmes or diverted groups that were destined for lion encounter programmes, while South African Tourism board member Colin Bell warned of the captive lion industry’s damaging impact on “Brand South Africa”.

– The Australian Government implemented a ban on the import of wildlife trophies, with Federal Labor Member Melissa Parke calling predator breeding and canned hunting “a moral failure on the part of the human race”.

Fair Trade Tourism announced it would tighten its certification criteria for volunteer programmes – aiming to promote best practice, safeguard the safety of children, animals and volunteers, and eradicate false marketing.

Dr Luke Hunter, president of the global wild cat conservation organisation Panthera, this week described the captive lion breeding industry as “ethically miserable” and said: “The bottom line is the lion encounter industry does nothing to conserve wild lions.” Kelly Marnewick, head of Endangered Wildlife Trust’s carnivore conservation programme, said: “Captive breeding is not a conservation recommendation for carnivores. We are extremely concerned at the number of facilities holding predators for financial gain.” And Dr Andrew Venter, CEO of Wildlands, accused the captive lion breeding industry of doing damage on multiple fronts and added: “We will not rest until this industry has been completely transformed.”

Following the premier screening of Blood Lions at the Durban International Film Festival, Hermann Meyeridricks, president of the Professional Hunters Association of South Africa, wrote to members: “The tide of public opinion is turning strongly against this form of hunting. Even within our own ranks, respected voices are speaking out publicly against it…. I have come to believe that, as it stands, our position on lion hunting is no longer tenable.” The South African Predator Breeding Association has scrambled into action, approaching North West University to investigate the value of the captive lion industry in preparation of its defence.

The cat, so to speak, is firmly out of the bag.