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Don’t be fooled, canned hunting will never save Africa’s lion

An adolescent lion lies listlessly in a cage, staring out from behind bars at a slew of eager, naive tourists. Just moments ago, this lion — let’s call him Leo — arrived back to his cage after walking with these tourists, having been poked and prodded with a stick to “perform” for the would-be safari-goers for pictures and entertainment. Leo will soon be forced from his cage for yet another round of walking, whilst people look on with amazement, disbelief that they are walking with a real-life lion evident on their faces. It’s called lion walking, and it is only one of many tourist activities in South Africa which directly exploit lions for profit.

You may be surprised to learn that the subtropical country of South Africa is home to more than 6,000 captive-bred lions, with approximately 160 lion ranches in operation for the sole purpose of turning Leo — your friendly neighborhood lion — into profit. Those numbers pertain just to South Africa alone. The most recent survey for wild lion populations across all of Africa puts the number at less than 30,000; a pretty big hit to take, if you consider that just a century ago, as many as 200,000 wild lions roamed the planes of Africa. With more captive-bred lions than wild existing in South Africa, one has to wonder just where exactly all of the country’s lions have gone; a popular question asked by many a conservationist and lion advocate. Exploitation appears to be the answer.

For those who have fallen for the conservation con, it may come as a surprise that activities such as lion walking and cub petting contribute absolutely nothing to conservation. In fact, the lions used in these activities are bred only for profit, and eventually sold into hunts once they surpass their ability to be useful, or safe, in the tourism industry. The breeding of lions is so lucrative, that over the span of its caged life time — a lion could rear well over $100,000 for a breeding facility. Sound unethical? Well, that’s because it is, and it all culminates to one end: canned hunting.

Canned hunting is the practice of hunting an animal in a confined space from which it cannot escape. It is one of South Africa’s most lucrative industries — in 2012 alone, it generated approximately R807 million in profits — and is perfectly legal in the country, despite what the South African government may protest. In a nutshell, hunters from around the globe (but more specifically, America) travel to South Africa and pay thousands of dollars to shoot a captive-bred lion for trophy — sometimes at a rate of $30,000 a pop, or more. How do they get away with doing this? Hunting and breeding propaganda would have you believe that canned and trophy hunting contributes to conservation because, as the hunter’s mentality stipulates, for every captive lion killed, a wild one is saved. This, of course, is wildly untrue and operates under the premise that hunters would be going out to shoot wild lions were they unable to shoot captive ones.

Canned hunting is so lucrative in South Africa not only due to the tourist industry — which offers hunters the opportunity to stay in five-star hunting lodges and bring home animal trophies — but also thanks to the lion-bone trade. The market in Asia for tiger and lion bone is of such high demand, that a lion breeder in South Africa can make up to R24000 for the skeleton of just one hunted lion; that’s approximately $1,900 U.S. dollars. Add those profits to the rough R300000 (approx. $24,000 U.S. dollars) a breeder can make from just one lion hunt alone, and you’ve got pretty heavy pockets. Everyday in South Africa, at least two to three captive-bred lions are killed in canned hunts. One is being hunted as you read this.

Ian Michler, a founding partner in Invent Africa Safaris and conservationist with Conservation Action Trust & Eden to Addo, says the significant profits made from canned hunts and lion breeding are not funding conservation but, rather, are lining operator’s pockets. “Despite the significant growth in canned hunts over the last 15 years, wild lion numbers continue to decline across Africa,” says Michler. “Canned hunting has simply opened up another cheaper market for hunters. And the breeders now have a variety of other revenue streams – cub petting, walking with lions, trading and the lion bone trade for example — that add significantly to their profits. When all these commercial opportunities are added in, the predator breeding and canned hunting operators are more than likely producing greater revenues than the average ‘fair chase’ hunting outfit, but none of this is going into any meaningful conservation project.”

Those other revenue streams Michler mentions dominate South African tourism as a few of the country’s most popular tourist activities, and it’s biggest scams. “The cub-petting, ‘walking with lions’ and volunteer market have become significant contributors to the scam,” Michler says, adding that these activities are “promoted by making fraudulent or incorrect conservation claims as almost all of these operators make little to no conservation contribution.” That you can travel to South Africa to help save a lion cub is undoubtedly an attractive idea — of which inspires thousands of volunteers and tourists to flock to SA each year to help “save lions.” But what happens behind the scenes of these activities exposes the cruel underbelly of lion exploitation. What you may think is a life-changing adventure overseas to help save a legendary species is quite literally the opposite. “Volunteers pay thousands of dollars to the [lion breeding] operators and in most cases all they end up doing is raising cubs that will be shot in a canned hunt or slaughtered for the lion bone trade,” says Michler. He states that, though these operators and facilities are not directly responsible for the decline in wild lion populations, they are confusing the conservation message, something of which many volunteers and tourists are victims.

When it comes to those cute, cuddly cubs and awe-inspiring lions you can pet and walk with in South Africa, few recognize the lack of ethics behind the industries. Cub petting, for example, entails the removal of cubs from their mother right after birth, at which point they are then thrust into the arms of starry-eyed volunteers or tourists who pay a few dollars to cuddle the frightened cub or get their picture taken with it as it cries for its mother. A female lion is forced to breed and deliver cubs at an alarming rate quite unnatural and unhealthy in comparison with her natural breeding cycle, were she living in the wild; but she is a captive lion, and therefore used solely for the purpose of factory breeding. Once these cubs are no longer safe for cuddling or handling by tourists, they will be used for lion walking, whereby one can pay to walk with a few adolescent lions as a guide goads them with treats and a stick. This type of cruel, highly unethical treatment of animals is quick to anger and move lion advocates to emotion, with cries of “Ban canned hunting!” being cheered around the globe. Few of us have yet to realize, however, that the banning of canned lion hunting in South Africa will not save the species.

Pieter Kat, a Doctor of Ecology and Founder of the registered charity LionAid, believes there must be a more effective public platform in South Africa through which the other, more lucrative aspects of lion breeding can be dealt. As he surmises, “There should be a challenge based on the contention that captive breeding of predators must be based on conservation grounds. Such breeding should only be conducted by registered zoos, for example, and not by private individuals. Private individuals should be perhaps able to own lions, but breeding should be under very strict scrutiny. There should [also] be a court challenge to re-instate lions as a Threatened or Protected Species in line with South Africa’s continental obligation to ensure the future conservation of a species in free-fall decline. South Africa should take an international view rather than a narrow national and non-constructive view.” Considering the substantial profits and revenue brought into the country by tourist activities like cub petting and canned hunting, could SA ever truly move away from the current model it encapsulates in order to help save its lions? Kat believes it is necessary. “South Africa should be made aware that international tourism will be diminished by their stance to promote trophy hunting and captive breeding of lions,” he says. “The profits to be made are minuscule in terms of what they stand to lose.”

With its hands dirtied by such cruel industries, why hasn’t South Africa stepped in to save its lions? In April 2015, the South African government released a draft of a Biodiversity Management Plan for Lions with the supposed aim of conserving its national lion population. The BMP — which contains a plethora of information and proposals for the conservation of lions based on collected data — has several shortcomings, most notably of which is its recommendation to downgrade the status of its lions on the IUCN Red List from “vulnerable” to “least concern.” According to LionAid’s thorough overview of the BMP, the management plan falls well short of any viable methods to actually help conserve lions. For instance, in regards to the government’s lack of involvement, “The proposal does not address the significant need of government oversight of the captive lion breeding industry;” there are also several issues relating to the data used throughout the management plan. The evidence for wild lion population numbers, for example, are long out of date — though the proposal mentions a new population survey will occur in 2015, LionAid’s overview surmises that such a survey will occur after the delisting of the lions’ IUCN status takes place.

What is of particular interest from the BMP is its lack of objectives for dealing with canned hunting and lion farms in South Africa, indicating that some of the more significant issues surrounding the country’s lions have effectively been ignored. In July 2015, Edna Molewa (South Africa’s Minister of Environmental Affairs) held a stakeholder engagement in which issues of captive lion breeding and canned hunting were discussed. South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) released a statement regarding the engagement; according to Molewa, the meeting was a reflection of the seriousness with which the SA government regards allegations of criminality “operating at the fringe of the legal, well-regulated breeding and hunting industries.” Molewa attempted to sweep the issue of canned hunting under the rug, stating that “South Africa is recognized worldwide for its conservation successes with regards to African lion, so much so that the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) just recently hailed our advances in protecting the species.” But captive-lion breeding cannot be considered a conservational success when the lions bred in captivity are used for profits generated from hunting and killing them. Molewa is known for consistently denying the existence of canned hunting in South Africa, stating on many occasions that it is “illegal” in SA, despite the plethora of evidence for the factual existence of canned hunting in her country.

Whilst the South African government sits atop its throne — denying canned hunting and protecting the interests of the pro-hunting and breeding associations — other countries are stepping in to ensure that Africa’s lions have a future. Greg Hunt, Minister of Environmental Affairs for Australia, made a groundbreaking move earlier this year by banning the import and export of lion trophies from Africa in Australia. Donalea Patman, Founder of the Australian non-profit For the Love of Wildlife, works alongside individuals like Hunt who aim to save iconic species by enforcing regulations which protect these creatures. “Australia’s ban, as a direct response to [the trophy] industry, is a statement about moral code and ethics,” says Patman. “It’s a global first and is visionary and courageous. What it says to the world is that farming wild animals that are humanized for someone to pay to kill is abhorrent.” Like many, Patman believes Africa’s wildlife is under siege, with countries like South Africa doing little — if nothing — to help. “South Africa has had ample opportunity to address the issue and yet, despite continued effort from conservation and animal advocate groups, it still goes on.”

The number of pro-hunting and breeding associations present in South Africa fighting for their “right” to kill wildlife only further indicates the work which needs to be done by the country in order to save their native species. While lion conservation groups work tirelessly to save lions and their habitat (human infringement is a serious issue for lion habitat in Africa), the same cannot be said for such pro-hunting lobbies, and the false messages they spread that hunting and other lion interactions aid conservation. “Very few, if any, of the breeders and canned hunters in South Africa are making a contribution on this level,” says Michler. “The breeders and canned hunters in South Africa need to be stopped because they are confusing these messages and priorities with their false claims [on conservation].”

Australia may be leading the world in efforts to ban lion trophies, but they are by no means the only group to make waves. “Blood Lions,” a feature film created by Michler and his team of wildlife professionals, is a hard-hitting documentary which will quite literally blow the lid off of the canned hunting industry. I spoke to Michler about the documentary, and what inspired its creation: “I have been one of many people and organizations calling for an end to these practices for decades, but with little success as the numbers of predators in captivity have continued to grow. I had long believed that the only way these industries would be truly exposed was through a hard-hitting documentary – not a soft touch film, but one that was bold in its aims. That only came about when Pippa Hankinson, one of the film’s Producers, decided she wanted to make such a film. Two years later, a team of dedicated and professional participants have produced what we believe can be a tool for real change.” “Blood Lions” had its very successful premier in Durban on July 22nd, 2015.

There are, of course, many solutions for saving Africa’s lion which conservationists and advocates alike work daily to achieve. But saving Africa’s lions isn’t as simple as a Biodiversity Management Plan — especially when countries like South Africa have pro-hunting and breeding interests to protect. Though we would all rejoice in seeing the canned lion hunting industry abolished, this move would not automatically save South Africa’s lions, causing many of us to recognize that the more lucrative industries that exploit this species are the root of the problem. Until the South African government is willing to cooperate and understand that hunting and breeding of captive lions has no place in lion conservation, it will continue to bleed every dollar possible from its wildlife, perhaps until nothing is left for future generations to come.