Skip to content

Lion farms pull wool over ecotourists’ eyes

Young ecotourists from abroad are paying up to R50,000 to raise “orphaned lion cubs” so they can be “rehabilitated into the wild” – without knowing that the lions are actually mass bred in captivity, then sold off for canned hunts.

The illegal trade in South African wildlife is also rife, with Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa revealing yesterday that the country is battling to contain rhino poaching in the Kruger National Park, “with 12 active poacher groups at any given time”.

Environmentalist Pippa Hankinson, who recently produced Blood Lions, an investigative documentary on the farming of lions in South Africa, said: “The volunteers arrive at OR Tambo Airport and are taken off to the lion farms. Some become suspicious when they see so many ‘orphans’ on the farm, or that nearly 30 cubs are in one enclosure. But their questions are met with aggression”.

Keeton Hill, a volunteer from Britain, said he booked through an agency and was placed at Ukutula, a lion park in North West province where he spent two weeks looking after cubs.

“We were told that the lions were orphaned,” he says, “and that some were selected for research purposes while the older lions were released into the wild”.

He was alarmed by the number of new-born cubs at the facility, and the lack of guidance the volunteers received.

His attempts to find out what really happened to the lions were met with “rude replies”, and when he wrote and asked what had happened to one particular lion called Kevin, an Ukutula employee replied, “none of you(r) damn business”.

Hankinson first became suspicious a few years ago by the “obvious in-breeding” at a lion breeding facility she visited. She conducted research for a year and then brought a group of investigative filmmakers on board. They found that:

Cubs are taken away from mothers just days after birth to force the lionesses into another reproductive cycle.
Tourists are charged to “pet the cubs” or “walk with lions” (up to R600 for half an hour) while the volunteers pay to help raise them.
Once they reach adulthood, they are used for hunting and while the hunter gets the head and skin, the bones (up to R26,000 per carcass) are shipped to Asia as ingredients for traditional Chinese medicine.
Environmental lawyer Cormac Cullinan said legislation to curb this practice is lacking because “nobody envisaged that lion would be farmed in an industrial production process to produce skins and bones and trophies”.

He says that “lions fall under legislation aimed at protecting biodiversity and certain species”, but now that they are being bred on farms, they fall between legislative cracks.

Ian Michler, a principal researcher for the documentary, said that by the late 1990s, there were fewer than 1,000 large predators (mainly lions) in captivity but today, “we know there are between 6,000 and 8,000”.

Molewa said in a statement that although hunting in South Africa “does not directly contribute to conservation projects, trophy hunting, as does local hunting, is very important for conservation because hunting contributes a considerable amount to the economy of South Africa”.

The department said that in 2013, the total income generated by species fees through trophy hunting was about R122 million. Hankinson says this should be viewed against a backdrop of more than R90 billion generated by inbound tourism into the country.

Ukutula owner Willie Jacobs refused an interview by the filmmakers but told The Times: “We are a purely research and educational facility and yes we do have a programme where guests interact with the animals. We do this to pay our bills”.

Piet Potgieter, head of the Predators Association of South Africa, said the film’s allegations and footage “were total bull” and did not respond to further questions.

– In Pretoria yesterday, Molewa said there has been a 27 percent increase in poachers entering the Kruger park to poach rhino.

As of August 27, she said, 749 rhino had been poached in South Africa so far this year with 544 poached within the Kruger Park. In contrast, 716 rhino were poached by the same period last year.

About 138 arrests have been made this year, compared to 81 last year.