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Lions bred for the bullet

Going undercover to make a documentary has its risks, especially regarding litigation and personal safety. But sometimes it’s worth the risk, says executive producer of Blood Lions, Andrew Venter.

Blood Lions is a documentary that premiered at this year’s Durban International Film Festival. The movie blows the lid on how vague legislation in South Africa has allowed the practice of “canned lion hunting” to become a multi-million rand industry largely governed by private property holders.

“I’ll kill you. I warn you. Don’t take a photo of me,” said a Benkoe Safari operator captured on hidden camera confronting the Blood Lions’ film crew. The crew were hounded out of the safari lodge, but they had what they wanted. Soon, audiences around the world will view the altercation and all that led up to it.

At the first schools’ screening of Blood Lions to pupils in Durban this week, a child, asked: “Isn’t what you did, filming people without permission, using hidden cameras, illegal?”

The film-makers’ responded that they had needed to go undercover to expose the dark side of captive-bred lion hunting. “Nearly all these lions you have seen here in this movie, even the cute cuddly cubs, end up being shot for a price,” said Blood Lions narrator and journalist, Ian Michler.

He said more than 7 000 lions – more than double the number of wild lions in South Africa – had been bred for one purpose only, the bullet.

The film follows Michler into lion breeding territory, speaking to trophy hunters, operators, breeders, lion ecologists, conservationists, and animal welfare experts. It also documents the two-day trip of America hunter, Rick Swazey, after he selected, on the internet, a lion to kill at Benkoe Safaris. He had been sent pictures of 14 lions to choose from, ranging in cost from $5 400 (R65 000) for a female to $48 000 for a big black-maned lion.

Swazey was granted permission to video his kill, but owner of the lodge, Ben Duminy clearly became suspicious of the intentions of the cameraman, Blood Lions’ co-director, Nic Chevallier.

“Is this for a newspaper or TV?” Duminy asks on camera, confronting Chevallier and slapping down his camera.

Michler said this scene, and all the other glimpses they had got into the operations of Benkoe Safaris were indications of a typical “canned lion hunting” business, albeit marketed under guise of professional hunting. “There is no element of fair chase – the kill is guaranteed, and the packaging of this as a wildlife hunt is pure farce,” said Michler.

The chairman of the SA Predators Association, Pieter Potgieter, spoke on behalf of the owner of Benkoe Safaris. Potgieter said to describe the lion hunts taking place on Benkoe Lodge as canned hunting was a “very wrong assumption”. “These people are beating that canned lion hunting drum when we have long moved beyond that situation. Canned hunting is illegal, and my members do not engage it,” said Potgieter.

He said he deplored the use of hidden cameras to tell the Blood Lions story. “We are often victims of these techniques. Even Carte Blanche did it. We think it is a low-level form of journalism.”

The president and the chief executive of the Professional Hunters Association of South Africa, (Phasa) Herman Meyeridricks, and Adri Kitshoff flew to Durban to view the documentary on Thursday evening. Meyeridricks said he had no issue with the use of hidden cameras to tell the story, describing it as modern day investigative journalism.

“I thought it was a well-made documentary,” said Meyeridricks. “Blood Lions gives us a lot to ponder as far as lion hunting is concerned, but I do not agree with everything in the movie… There are arguments for hunting, and substantial evidence of how it contributes to conservation and community development.”

He said hunting was recognised by Cites, the World Wildlife Fund, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature as a legitimate conservation measure that raised massive revenue for game reserves.

In a letter sent to all Phasa members on Friday, Meyeridricks said: “Our position on lion hunting is no longer tenable. The matter will be on the agenda again for our next AGM and I appeal to you to give it your serious consideration, so that together we can deliver a policy that is defensible in the court of public opinion.”