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Tourists from around the world flock to South Africa to experience the beautiful scenery and abundant wildlife. But many are duped by slick advertisements into participating in activities that are harmful to animals and wildlife conservation. One example is South Africa’s infamous lion breeding industry.

Shockingly, South Africa legalised the lion bone trade in 2017. There are about 200 facilities holding about 7 000 captive lions and other predators, most of which will be exploited for some sort of revenue stream.

These lions are bred in captivity on an industrial scale. In many instances, the cubs are taken away from their mothers when they are only a few days old. They are then bottle fed and hand reared before being offered to paying tourists at cub petting facilities.

Once these cubs are too big to handle, they will be offered to paying tourists at lion walking facilities. Soon, these animals are too big and dangerous to handle and control, and many are then sold to canned trophy hunters who want an easy kill. They are perfect candidates because hand reared lions are imprinted and have no fear of humans.

The lions that don’t make it to lion walking facilities or are not the kind of lions that hunters want for trophies such as females can end up being slaughtered for the lion bone trade. South Africa legally exports the skeletons of up to 800 lions per year to Asian countries, like China, where they are used in health tonics.

Industry Exposed

This conveyer belt of cruelty was publicly exposed in the award winning feature film, Blood Lions, which shone a bright light on this unethical industry and its false claims.

The conditions in which many of the animals are kept was highlighted, most of which do not even begin to meet standards for appropriate and humane care. Lions are held in cages or small enclosures and often lack necessary veterinary care. In 2016, a lion breeder with 250 lions was found to be starving his lions after he ran out of money.

Cubs are removed from their mothers at very young ages and well before they would be weaned naturally. Those that end up in the cub petting facilities are frequently and continuously handled by tourists, often roughly when they fight against being picked up and cuddled. Mothers are repeatedly bred.

Lion scientists have stated formally that there is no conservation value to breeding lions in captivity. Yet the lion breeding industry claims it is helping conservation by providing an alternative for hunters so they don’t kill wild lions. Wild lion hunts and canned lion hunts cater to completely different types of hunters. Canned lion hunts have opened up a whole new market in addition to wild lion hunts, instead of replacing them. The lion breeding industry also claims that it helps conservation because the hand reared cubs will be released into the wild. However, there are no replicable studies of this and lions bred in captivity are not suitable for reintroduction into the wild, according to scientists.

Tourists are often told that the cubs were abandoned or orphaned and needed to be rescued. However, the truth is that they are taken away from their mothers before they are weaned. In the wild, cubs will stay with their mothers for up to 18 months; forced removal is harmful to the cubs, who are deprived of their mothers’ attention and their learning experience, as well as to the mothers who are treated as breeding machines. There are many real wildlife sanctuaries in South Africa where animals are not bred and tourists are not allowed to come into contact with them.

Public Outcry

From the public outrage at the industry based on the film Blood Lions, an international campaign to end the lion breeding industry was born. In order to put a stop to this cruel practice, we need to prevent these breeders from extracting funds from cub petting, cub walking, canned lion hunting and the export of lion bones.

Tourists have a key role to play in ending this disgraceful industry. We urge visitors to stay away from cub petting and lion walking facilities. This includes those who volunteer also known as ‘voluntourism’. Please don’t pay to take care of cubs or other captive lions; the lion breeding industry is just taking advantage of you to the detriment of the animals. Check with your tour operator that they have signed the Born to Live Wild Pledge and only support those that have.

Support Ethical Tourism

Over the past year, large travel organisations such as African Travel & Tourism Association, Thomas Cook, Intrepid, Trip Advisor and Expedia, among others, have all stopped promoting and selling lion cub petting experiences. And more than 100 of the world’s leading safari and ecotourism operators signed the Born to Live Wild Pledge that commits them to not send travellers to lion cub petting or walking facilities while promoting wild lion tourism and giving support to the legitimate conservation community.

The campaign is working to distance the trophy hunting industry from canned lion hunts. Just this year, two prominent trophy hunting clubs banned their members from entering trophies from canned lion hunts into the clubs’ record books, and also banned canned lion hunt exhibitors at their trade shows.

Finally, the Blood Lions organisation is doing all it can to stop the international lion bone trade. Tourists can help by spreading the word to businesses with which they come into contact in South Africa that slaughtering lions for their bones and trading the bones internationally for tonics is bad for the country’s image.

South Africa has so many natural wonders to share with the world. Tourists are urged to support ethical tourism by visiting wild lions in their natural habitat and avoiding being a pawn to the lion breeding industry.

To find out more about the Blood Lions initiative or to get involved, visit