Canned hunting has become a highly contested and debated subject not only in South Africa but worldwide. It is defined as a trophy hunt in which an animal is kept in a confined area increasing the likelihood of the hunter obtaining the kill.

It is difficult to obtain the precise numbers but between information sourced from the South African Predator Association, The Convention for the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and the various government and provincial bodies – the statistics indicate that between 800-1000 lions are being shot annually in South Africa.

Over 50% of the hunters originate from the United States.

Isabel Wentzel, Unit Manager for the National Council of SPCA’s Wildlife Unit explains that the wild lion population in South Africa has declined dramatically through poaching and hunting, with only about 2100-2500 wild lions left.

In less than 15 years, the number of lions in captivity has increased from less than 200 to an estimated 8000 with hunters paying half the price to shoot a lion that has been bred for canned hunts. A male lion will cost you $25 000 and a female $8 000 whereas a white lion male will be around $30 000.

“In terms of the trade, to take anything out of the country you will need an export permit. So there are different laws.

More protected animals like rhino and lions fall under CITES, an international agreement between governments.”

Wentzel clarifies that an international hunter would need a permit to possess the animal in the first place, before being able to obtain an export permit to take the animal trophy out of the country.

Depending to which country they are travelling, they will then need an additional import permit.

“So there are things in place to help control and regulate but it’s the illegal poachers who will try and smuggle the animal trophies out – they are not even going to bother to go for a permit. Lions are the only animal which is used in all stages of its life; From cub petting they go on to walks with lions and then on to canned hunting and then finally the remains are taken as trophies and the trade of lion bone sales is heavily on the increase,” says Wentzel.

Lion bones are highly sought after as ‘tiger bones’ in traditional Chinese medicine. Just as rhino are senselessly butchered for their horn to be used for unproven medicinal purposes, so too is the fate of the bones from lions.

South Africa is one of the few countries in the world that breeds lions for the purposes of hunting.

Drew Abrahamson a forerunner in big cat conservation explains that there is no way that canned hunting can be classified as conservation,

“Breeders are taking the cubs away from the mother when they are about three days old. They then bring her into oestrus to mate again with a male and then another three months down the line she will have more cubs and the cycle will go on.”

Abrahamson was speaking at the Captured in Africa Foundation launch in Johannesburg. Founder of the foundation, she has set out to completely stop the lions bred in captivity industry which is a major cause of inbreeding within the South African lion population. The severe inbreeding leads more and more to big cats developing squints, deformities and bone disorders, etc.

“The first step is to educate the public and another major thing is we need to educate international volunteers who come over to South Africa to interact and work with the cubs at these breeding farms. They tell the volunteers that the cubs have been rejected by the mother which is simply not the case,” says Abrahamson.

International volunteers are enticed to come over to South Africa to look after cubs bred by these farms and in doing so help ‘domesticate’ the lions so that the beasts are habituated and human friendly.

“From cub petting as the lion grows older they are moved to walks with lions which is another bad step and obviously makes them a lot easier to hunt because they are so used to people. They get fed off from the back of a vehicle so if the lions see a vehicle drive into the enclosure their immediate reaction is to seek out that human interaction or they think its food,” says Abrahamson.

The South African Predator Breeders’ Association contests this idea, and firmly believes that the breeding of lions in captivity has a crucial role in the preservation of lions.
In 2010 the SA Predator Breeders’ Association won a Supreme Court Appeal case regarding canned hunting. This had a ripple effect on the conservation of lions today.

In the high court the organisation challenged the inclusion of lions as a listed large predator in the Threatened or Protected Species Regulations and the 24-month period in which captive-bred lions had to fend for themselves before they could be hunted.

Wentzel, of the National Council of SPCA’s Wildlife Unit, says that this means that the 24-month rewilding period as stipulated in the Threatened and Protected Species Regulations to prevent canned hunting, cannot be enforced.

“Environmental Affairs created the laws in which they wanted the lions to be free for 24months. When they lost the court case, Environmental Affairs turned around and said that welfare is not their problem – so it’s had a knock on effect on all the provinces. Now the conservation guys will get to a place where the animals are thin and have no food but they will say it’s not their problem, it’s welfare, phone the NSPCA, so it’s a difficult one,” says Wentzel.

Nature Conservation is the organisation that issues permits for the holding of animals, however they do not necessarily take animal welfare into consideration.

The NSPCA does not issue permits and comes across many animal welfare issues where an existing permit has been issued. This causes a massive clash between legislation and animal welfare.

Wentzel elaborates, “They are getting a permit to hold the animal and there are no conditions of how they must hold it, or what they must do with the animals – so in that sense we work with conservation but we clash because there is no welfare consideration in the conservation legislation.“

Botswana on the other hand is actually doing a much better job of managing its wildlife resources.

Marnus Roodol, Founder of Walking with Lions in Botswana, explains that their organisation is specifically about resolving human-wildlife conflict.

“We’re trying to assist local communities in Botswana to try and deter them from killing the lions when they attack the livestock. It’s very important to educate the younger generations. Your actions have to speak louder than words.”

In addition Botswana’s government has in a move to preserve their wildlife put a total ban in place on trophy hunting.

Tshekedi Khama, Botswana’s Environmental Minister, was interviewed in the documentary on canned hunting ‘Blood Lions: Bred for the Bullet’ and says the country sees more long-term value in its photographic safaris.

Travel and Tourism contributes an estimated 9% to South Africa’s ever struggling economy, with revenue generated from the canned hunting industry estimated to be about R2.6bn.

However, it is said to make up less than 0.1% of South Africa’s overall tourism income.

This is the same sentiment from Abrahamson who through Captured in Africa offers tourists safari packages throughout Africa. She explains how, through the public raising their voice on social media, they have been able to save wild lions who have outwitted their camps and escaped through the fences.

“Nobody really knows too much about it, but a lot of the time the lions and the leopards get out of the reserves due to pressures from other leopards or other male lions, or cases where fences washed away because of rain and flash floods.”

Recently three-year-old Sylvester the lion had Social Media in a buzz with #SaveSylvester trending as the big cat escaped the Karoo National Park for a second time.

Four days after he was found wandering the Karoo and classified a danger causing animal, SANParks’s spokesperson Wanda Mkutshulwa said there was no reason to end his life.

“Euthanasia is not an option at this stage,” Mkutshulwa said.

The lion was darted from the air in tough terrain high up in the mountains at about midday on 31 March 2016. About 200 people gathered in Cape Town to protest the possibility of putting him down.

This is a major turning point if you take into consideration that recently two wandering lions were killed as the animals strayed from Kenya’s Nairobi National Park during a road construction project.

Kenyan wildlife rangers shot dead a male lion named Mohawk after he strayed from the National Park and attacked and injured a resident.

The following day the rangers found the body of another lion outside the reserve after it had been speared to death in a township south of Nairobi.

Jurg Olsen from Ubuntu Spirit of Africa Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Sanctuary says that the biggest obstacle that comes into play when relocating and rehabilitating big cats is finding a suitable habitat. Relocating and capturing a big cat is a long process with a lot of red tape and bureaucracy.

“If you look at the Sylvester situation, that’s a perfect example of how things can go almost wrong but with public involvement they can go right. The future is public involvement. If you think of it all the animals in these parks they belong to us, they belong to you, to me and to everyone standing here. Sylvester belongs to all us, the lion that we don’t even know belongs to all of us.”
Garreth Patterson, Author and Environmentalist shares this idea, and says that people world-wide who weren’t necessarily even interested in lions became voices through the power of the internet when the horrors of trophy hunting was exposed through Cecil the lion’s trophy hunt.

For more than a decade Cecil was a tourist attraction to Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park until an American dentist shot him, and images of him standing over the carcass of Cecil went viral.

“I think people are changing, there’s fantastic awareness that’s happened. We’re aware of canned ion hunt, trophy hunting and people are making a difference, there’s the situation with Sylvester the lion in the Karoo and the authority wanted to put him down but they won’t put him down because the public is so strong and that make a huge difference.”

The public has a very important role to play in the debate of Canned hunting as Abrahamson concludes. “Last year on the 21st of March we protested at the Lion Park in Joburg – out of that they have decided to stop cub petting which is fantastic. Not because they’ve had a change of heart and think it’s immoral, but because of public pressure. The public just need to realise that their voice is extremely powerful.”

For now Canned Hunting is here to stay and alongside it the mismanagement of trophy hunting and the illegal trade in animal trophies which remain a threat to South Africa’s wildlife population.

The South African government has however imposed a year-long ban on leopard hunting in 2016 as the Department of Environmental Affairs was acting on recommendations from South Africa’s Scientific Authority.

The size of South Africa’s leopard population remains a mystery.