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The captive lion industry: A sustainability scam?

Cape Town – The notion of ‘sustainability’ has become the most overused and consequently meaningless phrase within conservation and wildlife circles. Used in equal measure by those that manage responsibly and the abusers of wildlife, it’s hardly surprising then that the predator breeding and canned or captive lion hunting industry is also invoking the term as a way of trying to sanitize what they do.

But how sustainable will it all be when the ‘wildness’ and the thrill has gone?

Contrary to the promotional claims, much of what takes place behind the fences of South Africa’s predator farms adds up to an industry that cannot be sustainable. Those involved won’t see it, and neither will they listen to words of warning because of the lucrative returns they currently make. And government, a rather odd bed-fellow to this constituency, seem to have been seduced by flimsy short-term economic arguments.

The breeding, trading, petting, walking, viewing, filming, de-boning and killing frenzy currently underway, mostly in South Africa but also in other countries across southern African, is about making as much money out of these animals as they possibly can and doing this in the shortest possible time frame. Of course, not every operator has the same parameters, but in my experience, the vast majority have never had any other consideration.

In doing so, the only measures they use are human selected ones: pretty much every aspect of the ecological or natural world has been removed with the animals being bred and kept under intensive agricultural-type conditions. In other words, lions and other predators on these farms have already been tamed and are now well on their way to becoming domesticated.

However, such is the greed and short-sightedness, those involved seem not to care that this process provides the ultimate paradox, a situation that pulls the rug from under their very own feet – not to mention what it means for the vast majority of us opposed to these practices, or for future generations.

This entire industry is based on selling the notion that whatever it is buyers will be doing to or with the lions, the supplied creature will be a wild one. Reinforcing the ‘wildness’ of these animals and the thrill that comes with the interaction or use is the central tenet for the marketers as without this, what would the experience be? It’s cunning, and often comes with fabrications of danger to enhance the yarn. However, after a few generations of intensive breeding, they are already producing tame and docile animals, the first step to complete domestication. And we know there is no market in petting house cats and dogs or shooting domestic cattle and sheep.

So, what happens then when the ‘wildness’ and the thrill is gone? Will canned hunters or petting visitor’s part with their money without these attributes? Much like a pyramid scheme, the ‘wild’ and ‘thrill’ capital is fast running out and soon they will be left selling hype and a lie.

And while on scams, the volunteer programmes that feed revenue and free labour into many of these lion farms is something Government should also be looking into. They entice people, often young students who believe they are making a worthy conservation contribution, into paying substantial amounts of money to offer their services to these facilities. For the most part, it’s misleading marketing and it has to be putting hundreds if not thousands of locals out of work. Also cunning, but how does one justify this under ‘sustainable use’?

The domestication process is the most shocking and damning aspect to this industry, and it will be the shameful legacy of those involved, which includes the decision-makers who have failed to act. Imagine being involved in domesticating lions, Africa’s most iconic species and then trying to justify your actions as conservation? Or for that matter, claiming it as ‘sustainable use’, a principle that obligates us to responsibility and caution when managing wilderness and wildlife.

Shocking as it may seem, there is still the occasional defender, one of them being the North-West University in Pochefstroom where a tourism professor from the institution recently claimed that lion breeding programmes are needed for conservation, and to ensure ‘sustainable’ tourism and economic growth in the country, as if we have no other means of doing this. One can only wonder how approximately 800 canned or captive hunters out of the over 9million annual visitors, and making a contribution comprising a fraction of less than 1% to overall annual tourism revenues reaching close to R100billion are achieving this? And has this institution accounted for the damage that this type of unethical hunting is doing to the country’s reputation as a responsible destination?

These ludicrous claims put the university completely at odds with every other interested party who have called for an end to these practices. Most recently, at the IUCN World Conservation Congress held in Hawaii, Motion 009 calling on the South African Government to “terminate the hunting and breeding of captive lions and other predators” was unanimously approved.

Prior to this we have had the majority of South Africa’s professional hunting community vote against these practices principally because they lack any form of ethical sustainability; almost the entire responsible tourism sector has pledged not to support these industries; the Minister of Tourism in South Africa has called for “stronger measures to control if not ban the breeding of lions in captivity because we don’t need it in terms of our conservation efforts”; in addition, the Minister has stated that our true conservation record and Brand South Africa is being damaged; three governments, Australia, France and Netherlands have banned the importation of lion trophies, and the US Fish & Wildlife Dept. give every indication they do not regard captive lions as part of conservation; and most tellingly, almost every recognized conservation agency and lion scientist has come out against these industries.

Farming lions to be petted, traded or killed cannot under any reasonable definition be equated to or classified as conservation, and neither should those involved be able to justify their actions under the banner of sustainable use. And to accept either of the above would be to defraud our conservation and tourism record as well as all those who are currently doing such vital conservation work.