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Inside the Grim Lives of Africa’s Captive Lions

A new documentary exposes the dark side of a growing South African wildlife business

Up to 7,000 lions are living behind bars in South Africa. Raised in captivity on private breeding farms and hunting “reserves,” some of these animals are petted as cubs by tourists, who can also walk alongside or even feed more mature lions.

Eventually, many are shot in “canned” hunts, in which lions are pursued and killed in confined areas that make them easy targets. Hunt fees can be as high as $50,000.

The hunters take lion skins and heads home as trophies. Lion bones and bodies are exported to Asia for traditional cures.

As new measures are put in place to clamp down on trade in the bones of endangered tigers, the lion bone trade grows. Substituting tiger with lion bone means that lionesses, as well as trophy males, now have commercial value.

The new documentary Blood Lions lays bare the dark underbelly of South Africa’s captive breeding and canned hunting industries. The film will be screened in Durban, South Africa on Wednesday at Africa’s leading film festival.

Owners of private breeding farms say that more hunting of captive-bred lions takes pressure off declining wild lion populations.

Not so, says Dr. Luke Hunter, president of Panthera, an organization dedicated to conserving endangered big cats. “This industry pumps out cats to be shot in cages or shipped to Asia to supply the demand for big cat parts. Blood Lions blows away the hollow ‘conservation’ arguments made by South Africa’s predator breeders to justify their grim trade.”